It was 12:05 a.m., and I was lying alone in bed, heartbroken after a recent divorce. She and I were both cops, she with Detroit Police and I with the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department. I had worked the scout car all day and then gone out on a date that evening, but I knew she wasn’t the one for me. I had finally dropped off to sleep when the telephone by my bed jangled me awake.
“Hello?” I said, grabbing the phone.
“Bobby! Please help!” It was my mother’s frantic voice.
“What’s wrong, Mom?”
“There’s people breaking in our house!”
“I’ll be right there, Mom! Don’t worry!” I replied as I slammed the phone down on the receiver.
It was Monday night, June 14, 1976, and I lived in an upstairs flat on Woodmere, two short blocks from my parents’ house on the same Detroit street. I jumped into jeans and shoes, grabbed my police handgun, a .357 Magnum Smith & Wesson Model 66 revolver, from the nightstand next to my bed, and ran down the sidewalk.
Racing up to my parents’ house, I could see twelve to fifteen young men. Some were fighting on the front porch and at the side of the house; the rest were standing around jeering and calling names. My dad was standing alone outside his front door, trying to force people back with my sporterized 7.5mm Swiss Schmidt Rubin bolt-action rifle, one of several weapons I left at his house for defense. At the side of the house, I saw my brother, Richard, an off-duty rookie Dearborn Police officer who was living at home. Armed with his service revolver, he was wrestling two men. One of them had a tire iron, the other a four-foot two-by-four.
People were yelling and screaming, and I didn’t have a clue what was happening—only that my family was in trouble and I needed to help. One of the men wrestling with my brother was yelling, “Shoot me, you fuckin’ pig!” So I grabbed him by the back of his long hair and started forcing him to the ground. But he started biting my arm. The brawl quickly turned into an all-out trench fight as someone else grabbed me around the neck and kicked me. I slammed my revolver into the face of the guy who had bitten my arm, and blood poured from his mouth. I told him I was a cop, too, and that if he didn’t quit fighting I was going to shoot him. But he just kept struggling, so I hit him in the face again with the revolver, and he stopped.
My brother cuffed him to our side fence as the wild fight raged on, with my father steadily knocking people off the front porch with the rifle butt. Sirens blared, and Detroit Police finally responded. Everyone scattered, and the one who had kicked me and given my brother and me a lot of mouth ran toward Patton Park. Since the police were already at the house, I chased him through an alley to the parking lot at Patton Park behind my flat, where he ran out of steam.
“You’re not gonna put me under arrest!” he snarled, gasping for breath. “You’re gonna have to shoot me!”
He was stoned and clearly not in a state to be reasoned with, but I was alone and he had to be subdued. I grabbed him by the arm, but he started fighting, so I slammed my revolver into his head to knock some sense into him, then grabbed a fistful of hair, and marched him back to my parents’ house. Not a textbook arrest, but sometimes you have to improvise.
My brother and I handed over the two collars, David Reinke, 18, and Keith Simmons, 17, to Detroit Police. The 17-year-old was the one I had chased down in Patton Park. DPD put them in the backseat of one of their scout cars parked in front of my parents’ place, and my brother and I handed the weapons left behind by the thugs to a sergeant sitting in one of the scout cars. He looked up at us and smirked, then dropped the weapons on the grass by the curb and said, “We won’t be needing this.”
“You won’t need that for evidence?” I asked.
“Save yourself the trouble!” he sneered.
The prisoners were in the other car and out of earshot, so I said to the sergeant, “You need to know, both of those guys said, ‘We know where you live and we’re gonna even the score!’”
“Ah, forget it,” he said, waving his hand, gesturing to his driver to take off. “This is Detroit, or did you forget?”
How could we forget? DPD’s morale was tanking for a number of reasons. In the ten years from 1966 to 1976, violent crime, including homicides, had shot up fivefold, and the Motor City had taken on a new moniker: “Murder City,” the most dangerous place in America to live. And in 1976, Detroit distinguished itself yet again by becoming the nation’s arson capital as well. By this point, the wave of “white flight”—and this included black professionals with any kind of socioeconomic prospects—was well under way. Residency rules were being enforced, compelling DPD officers to live in the city, meaning they had to wake up every morning in the same hellhole where they worked. Mayor Coleman Young, who was viewed as anti police and anti anybody who wasn’t black, had been in power for two years. Affirmative action governed all DPD promotions. Police officers were being laid off, and the standards for hiring were lowered. In many neighborhoods, hostility against police was so thick you could cut it with a knife (or a broken bottle or a straight razor). All this created a bitter, hopeless attitude—certainly among white officers, but also among officers of color—and an extraordinary sense of alienation from the residents. DPD was in a tailspin, and even then the courts were bogged down with countless drug cases and more violent crimes than they could process. The bureaucracy itself was collapsing, and apathy and bitterness from cops like this sergeant were par for the course, provided they even responded to a crime. DPD was burnt out from dealing with so many idiots, and as a way of playing it safe, they often did nothing or just brushed problems off. In just a few years, DPD had gone from being the most respected department in the region, to this. When I went to the police academy in 1971, all the heavy-hitter instructors—vice, narcotics, homicide—were from DPD. And when I worked narcotics in the early 1970s, all our crew chiefs were from DPD narcotics. DPD cops could walk with a well-deserved swagger, but it all suddenly collapsed. And those men in the scout cars at that time, unlike later DPD hires, knew what they had lost. My brother and I didn’t like seeing the cops toss the evidence, but we had no choice but to accept it. It would take three more years for us to come to our senses and move out of the city, as hundreds of thousands of others had done.
That night, I was treated at Wayne County General Hospital for bites to my neck and arm.
That morning, I spoke with DPD Fourth Precinct Detective Sergeant Barnett, who said the two men would be charged with felonious assault, and assault and battery on police officers. He also explained what had happened. As we already knew, the park had become a major hangout at night for people using drugs and drinking. Two groups of men, all from Detroit, were getting blitzed on the far side of Patton Park, by Dix Road. One group was white, the other black, and at some point, harsh words were exchanged. So once the black crowd thinned to a more manageable number, the whites chased them with boards, pipes, and tire irons. The blacks ran and escaped in different directions, but one, Thomas Cancel, 25, couldn’t outrun the mob and tried to force his way into a house at 2457 Woodmere—my parents’ home. Because the crowd couldn’t get at the black male seeking refuge behind my rifle-wielding dad, some of them started fighting with my brother while the rest just stood around instigating or waiting for an opening.
My brother and I stayed in contact with the detective, but charges were never pursued. Detroit Police were overwhelmed with bigger issues, including a horrific loss of morale, and were losing control of the streets. Two injured officers and one more terrorized family in the city didn’t matter.
Two years later, I married Cathy, and after more fights and shootings in our neighborhood, she said, “Bob, it’s this city or me.” So in 1979, we bought a house in one of the safest communities in Michigan: Grosse Ile, a lovely island town south of Detroit.
In 1985, my mom and dad bought a place just blocks from us. On that bright summer afternoon, my mother looked at her wide backyard and the thick green woods behind it, smiled, and said, “Bobby, this is the closest to heaven I’ll ever get.”