A Police Beating Creates Anger In Motor City
Detroit leaders try to avoid replay of L.A. riots
THE blood stains have been washed away by weeks of rain, but the mourners still pass by, staring, trying to imagine what happened, and occasionally placing flowers on the spot where Malice Green was beaten to death.
Crime and violence have become an unwelcome way of life in the inner city. But all too often, Detroit residents complain, they are falling victim to the very people sworn to protect them.
The specter of police brutality was driven home on Nov. 5 when Mr. Green was pulled over in what appeared to begin as a routine traffic stop. Exactly what happened next will have to be determined in court, but according to witnesses, Green was dragged from his car, then kicked, punched, and pummeled by officers using their heavy police flashlights. He was dead by the time he reached Detroit Receiving Hospital.
Mayor Coleman Young roared in anger, declaring the beating "an outrage." In appearances on several national TV talk shows, he added that "I think it's murder." Witnesses to the beating
The beating could not be ignored. There were a number of witnesses, including crew members from two different ambulances, one that just happened to be passing by when the beating began. Ambulance driver Mithyim Lewis told investigators "I was shocked. I went back to the truck to try to remove myself from what was happening."
The beating was also witnessed by Sgt. Freddie Douglas, the only black among seven officers on the scene. Sergeant Douglas, who was the supervising officer, has been charged with involuntary manslaughter for failing to stop the beating.
The two plainclothes officers who initially pulled Green over, Walter Budzyn and Larry Nevers, have been charged with second-degree murder. Residents of the westside neighborhood where Green was beaten say they had learned to fear the two officers. Dubbed "Starsky and Hutch," after two maverick cops from the 1970s television show, they had a reputation for violently taking the law into their own hands.
Uniformed Officer Robert Lessnau, who arrived in a backup squad car, was charged with assault with intent to commit great bodily harm less than murder. Three other officers on the scene have been suspended without pay. While they don't face criminal charges, they could be drummed off the force.
"It's time for the healing process to start by putting this into the justice system," said Wayne County Prosecutor John O'Hair, as he announced the indictments.
The charges came 11 tense days after the beating. It was a time of tears and prayer - prayers not only for Green and his family, but also for the city. Hundreds gathered for a memorial service held on the wet pavement of West Warren Avenue near where Green had died. The beating, the police, racism all became topics ringing out from the pulpits of the city's churches, both black and white.
"Racism killed Malice Green," shouted the Rev. Charles Adams, pastor of Hartford Memorial Baptist Church, as he delivered the eulogy for Green in a church packed with 1,500 mourners. Mr. Adams criticized the nation for its willingness to spend billions to liberate Kuwait, but little to solve the problems of its own inner cities.
In Detroit, racism remains a simmering problem that defies solution. In 1967, the streets of Detroit were set ablaze in one of the worst urban riots in American history. With the memories of this year's Los Angeles riots still vivid in people's minds, everyone wondered whether violence would flare up here again. Trying to prevent a riot
From the moment word of Green's death crackled over the police radio network, Detroit's civic, religious, and community leaders raced to keep smoldering hostility from bursting into flames.
"We learned our lessons after [the riots of] 1967," said the Rev. James Holley, pastor of the Little Rock Baptist Church. "We worked so hard since then to rebuild our city and we're still working. We've got a long way to go, but to tear it down and respond in anger or violence is not the way to do it."
The speed with which the charges came down satisfied almost everyone - everyone but the attorneys for the accused.
"When you have the mayor of the city calling them murderers before they've been tried, how can they get a fair trial?," complained John Goldpaugh, attorney for three of the accused officers.
Mayor Young, backing away from his earlier declarations, has castigated the press in recent days, charging: "It's not your job to bring out the facts. That should be ascertained in court."
The courts will be kept busy by the Green case. His family has filed a $61 million lawsuit against the Detroit Police Department. And there is some fear by community leaders about what would happen if the courts vindicate the accused officers.
Testimony is likely to bring out the fact that Green was repeatedly seen driving up to a neighborhood crack house. When he was stopped by Officers Nevers and Budzyn, they reportedly observed him trying to conceal something in his hands. According to the police report, the officers began hitting Green when he refused an order to open his clenched fist.
But the evidence will also show that over the years, the two officers - along with many others - have been involved in a number of other cases of alleged abuse.
According to a report in the Detroit Free Press, the killing of Green is just one of the more tragic cases of police abuse plaguing the city. About 800 complaints a year, on average, are filed by Detroit citizens. About half of them are actually investigated by the board of civilian commissioners appointed to monitor and regulate police-department policies. Of those, only about 4 percent are actually substantiated by the commission. Police chief acts
But observers hold out some hope. Since his appointment a year ago, Detroit Police Chief Stanley Knox has made it clear that he will no longer look the other way. There has been a marked increase in the number of officers suspended and even kicked off the force for abusing their powers. Since the Green beating, the chief has barred the use of police flashlights as a weapon. "This type of thing will not be tolerated," Chief Knox insisted.