Detroit police officers urged one another to turn off their body-worn cameras as they moved in on a crowd of demonstrators last summer and pepper sprayed and shoved protesters even as they appeared to follow orders, newly released footage from a handful of summer clashes between the department and activist group Detroit Will Breathe shows.
The 22-minute video released Tuesday by the group, which protested almost nightly following the killing of George Floyd, often without incident, includes footage from about ten officers' body-worn cameras interspersed with bystander footage and official statements from Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and then-Chief James Craig.
"The city has maintained a public narrative of openness to free speech that has not matched the actions of its police force as witnessed by protest participants," said attorney Jack Schulz, who represents the group in a federal lawsuit against the city and police department over the tactics used last summer. "The footage represents a more accurate look at DPD’s treatment of those who exercised their First Amendment rights against police abuse last summer.
"The footage of the actual events shows that officers sought to maximize punishment and, in some cases, officers experienced a sick joy out of inflicting both physical and mental damage on citizens."
The department did not immediately reply to a request for comment. It's now under the leadership of interim Chief James White, who was Craig's number two for much of last summer. Craig retired in June and is expected to run for governor as a Republican.
There's limited context around the incidents shown in the video, and the department has previously defended arresting and using less-than-lethal munitions against demonstrators as a form of crowd control, even when many behave peacefully. Problems arise, officials have said, when demonstrators refuse to clear streets, abide by an unevenly enforced curfew, or throw projectiles at police, as was said to be the case on several nights last year.
But the video shows a number of incidents that are hard to make sense of even when following that logic. Two officers are heard telling others to shut down their body cameras on the first night of demonstrations, May 29, in what is typically a violation of department policy. At least twice, demonstrators are seen being shoved by police as they appear to comply with commands to disperse.
Separately, Captain James Demps is seen pepper spraying demonstrators at close range as they're apprehended for curfew violations on June 2. In two of the cases, the demonstrators lay face down with an officer on top of them as Demps yells "stop resisting" and sprays. In those cases, however, the demonstrators' hands were not yet behind their backs.
"This bitch is empty. I used it all,” Demps says afterward, shaking his spray can.
Another officer says, "I came over with 12 cans of pepper spray and just fucked everybody up."
Demps replies, “I fucked up a lot of people too."
"I thought it’d be worse; I wanted more," another officer says after the crowd is subdued.
Following a July 10 demonstration over the police killing of Hakim Littleton, later deemed justifiable by the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office, an officer smiles as she recounts a story to colleagues about hitting a woman who said she was pregnant.
"She started swinging so I hit her with a baton in the stomach and she said 'bitch, I’m pregnant you just killed my baby.' Then she came back and took my badge number.
"Then why are you here?" the officer asked.
Officers are also repeatedly heard swearing at and mocking demonstrators, when policy requires they maintain professionalism.
The department had, at last check, opened 33 internal investigations into potential officer misconduct across the summer events. Of 16 cases closed as of early December, three were sustained for misconduct, including a case that resulted in charges from the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office, in which an officer shot rubber bullets at reporters. We've requested an update on the status of the remaining cases.