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Police and the License to Kill

Detroit police killed hundreds of unarmed Blacks during the civil rights movement. Their ability to get away with it shows why most proposals for police reform are bound to fail.

Clifford “Chucky” Howell, a thirteen-year-old Black male, was walking home from playing at a friend’s house when a white Detroit police officer shot him near his own backyard on the evening of Sept. 13, 1969. The patrol team did not summon medical assistance for at least forty minutes, and Chucky died later at the hospital. Officers on the scene claimed that he had been fleeing the burglary of a white family’s home, a felony, and that it was therefore appropriate to shoot him. Numerous eyewitness accounts, however, insisted Chucky had been an oblivious bystander. His parents and local Black organizations protested, but law enforcement agencies refused their requests to examine the evidence. Through a secretive internal investigative process, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office found that “all facts and circumstances indicate justifiable action” in the officer’s use of fatal force.

Chucky was one of more than a hundred unarmed people killed by Detroit law enforcement officers between 1967 and 1973, the majority of whom were young Black males allegedly fleeing property crimes or robberies, all declared justifiable homicides by Wayne County prosecutor William Cahalan. At the time, the Detroit Police Department’s (DPD) use of firearms policy empowered officers to prevent the escape of “fleeing felons” with deadly force and located this power in officers’ own “sound discretion,” which effectively provided a license to kill insulated from legal consequences. This policy facilitated an extraordinary degree of police impunity, which the DPD used to commit violence against Black youth alleged to have committed low-level property crimes. It also provided an advance script for law enforcement officers to self-exonerate any murders or otherwise wrongful shootings they committed by framing the victims: all they had to do was say that they knew that the person had committed a burglary and that—in their split-second judgment—opening fire was necessary to apprehend the suspect.

Still, the degree to which the DPD availed themselves of this license to kill is astounding. Fatal force against unarmed and fleeing Black teenagers and young adults represented the largest category of law enforcement homicides in Detroit in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the DPD was the deadliest police department per capita in the nation. Civil rights and Black Power groups in the city organized sustained protests against this policy, and many other urban police departments nationwide began banning use of firearms in the unarmed “fleeing felon” scenario during the 1970s, especially against juveniles. In 1984 the U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled in Tennessee v. Garner that state laws authorizing law enforcement to use deadly force against unarmed and fleeing suspects who posed no direct threat were unconstitutional.