Thomas Robinson, July 19th, 2016

Title

Thomas Robinson, July 19th, 2016

Description

In this interview, Robinson discusses growing up near 8 Mile Road, experiencing the ’43 riot, and his experiences as an African American police officer during the 1967 disturbance, including the department’s riot training and his interactions with the National Guard. He also discusses changes in the police force following the Omnibus Crime Bill of 1968.

Publisher

Detroit Historical Society

Date

08/05/2016

Rights

Detroit Historical Society, Detroit, MI

Format

audio/WAV

Language

en-US

Type

Oral History

Video

Narrator/Interviewee's Name

Thomas Robinson

Brief Biography

Thomas Robinson was born in Detroit, MI in 1938 where he served as a police officer during the 1967 disturbance. Robinson worked for the Detroit Police Department for twenty-eight years. Robinson identifies as African American. He currently lives in Dearborn, MI.

Interviewer's Name

Giancarlo Stefanutti
Julia Westblade

Interview Place

Detroit, MI

Date

07/19/2016

Interview Length

00:53:03

Transcriptionist

Jason Young

Transcription Date

07/29/2016

Transcription

TR: My mother was introduced to my father by my grandmother. My mother was 16 years and my grandmother saw my father one day and she says, “Daughter, that’s the man I want you to marry.” My mother said, “Mama, I don’t know him. I don’t love him.” She said, “I want you to marry him.” And so after a while my mother married him. They stayed together for eight years. My mother never loved my father, because she was forced to marry my father, but my father always loved my mother. Well anyway, we lived on the east side of Frederick off of Alexandrine and Chene Street. First time I saw a riot in 1943, I must have been about 5 years old and then my father, he was out there on Belle Isle out there fighting during the riot, when we was supposed to have been working. My mother packed him a lunch, and he decided he wanted to fight so he went out there to fight, but anyway my sister and myself were looking out the window, and we saw this streetcar—they used to have streetcars go up and down Chene Street. We saw the National Guard stop the streetcar, pulled all the Caucasian people out the streetcar, and then they turned the streetcar over, and all the black folks that crawled out beneath the streetcar, they beat them with these clubs. We were looking and it was strange to me, you know? Well we had basically run down the alley to my grandmother’s house, because we were like being chased. See we lived in a mixed neighborhood. Italians, Polish, German, Irish so we had no problem towards the riots in ‘43.

GS: What neighborhood was this?

TR: Pardon?

GS: What neighborhood was this?

TR: Alexandrine and Chene Street.

GS: Okay.

TR: So we had to run down the alley for safety like refugees running down the alleys in World War II. Well, eventually we drove down Houston Street, which is no longer here. We saw the National Guard come down Houston Street with machine guns on the back of their jeeps. Even though I was five years old, I used to read about the war, World War II, so I know that it was sort of a dangerous situation. Well eventually my mother and father, they divorced and we moved to Royal Oak Township, which we call 8 Mile Road. Oh, I know Eminem had a movie about 8 Mile, but he meant the east side of 8 Mile Road—by the way his mother wasn’t even born when I was living on 8 Mile Road. But 8 Mile was Royal Oak Township. It used to belong to part of Ferndale, Michigan at the time. It was an all black township so it was a very interesting place to grow up too because—do you read history a lot?

GS: Yeah, not too much on Detroit though.

TR: Do you read history about Europe history or African history?

GS: A little bit.

TR: Okay, you know about the Moors, the Berbers, the Fellahin, and the Bedouins. Well, 8 Mile Road was like that. It was like a tribal township, and although it was officially a township, everybody knew everybody, but it was run by certain people. So certain people from Detroit were not allowed over there, unless they knew someone over there that could sponsor them. Especially if wanted to see a young lady over there. You were not allowed there, but anyway, we stayed there. We moved there in ’47 and I left in ’52, on my sister’s birthday. We moved to a place on Lumley Avenue, between Michigan Avenue and John Crump. Well we stayed there for about two or three years. It was a very ironic street, because everybody on that street was related, and they had been since 1929. Whole black street. Well I got to knowing a lot of people over there and I went to Chadsey High School in ’52. Consequently, going to school over there, I met a lot of people. I met Evan Hall in high school, but he was very studious, he wasn’t like us. Not that we were troublemakers because in those days very, very few people were troublemakers.

GS: Was it a racially integrated high school?

TR: Oh yeah. The student body was only 25% black at that time. So anyway, going to high school was an interesting experience for me, because I had left 8 Mile Road, which was an all-black school. And we had to know a lot of things in elementary school, because the teachers insisted we learn a lot of things: math, fractions, history, spelling, academics and all. Anyway, well in high school, I think in 1954, I was supposed to learn to swim. My first couple sessions in the swimming pool, I felt so good. I was swimming like a fish! So I was very cocky and very arrogant. I say arrogant, until one day I dove in the pool, went right to the bottom, and I never came back up. So when I did come back up, I was yelling for help. On my third yell for help, the instructor dove down into the pool and he rescued me. That was the ending of my swimming career. I went from there to ROTC. In ROTC, which is the Reserve Officers Training Core, I started off in ROTC being a private. It just so happened, the instructor for the ROTC was army master sergeant named Ben Sheets. It just so happened that the majority of the classmates in ROTC graduated, so he had to find some way to replenish some supervision for the rest of the people that left. He picked myself and another guy, Ray Williams to be temporary sergeants. We became temporary sergeants, and that came as a shock to me, because I never realized that I was going to be a sergeant. So I became a sergeant, and I began to read and I began to study. Next thing I know, I’m second lieutenant, and then I had to lead the military group, [Queen Anne Drill?]. Led the drill for a city-wide competition, and we came in second place because I forgot to put my platoon leaders on my right rather than my left. And then I became company commander and I got promoted to captain. And I became company commander for two years and then I led my Chadsey and the military city-wide activities. Well, after leaving high school, I wanted to go to college, but we couldn’t afford it, and I didn’t know what college was all about and I was real curious about college so consequently my wife now—I been married 58 years and let me say, every day, every day, is an adventure. There has never been a dull moment in my life. She’s this big and she’s very tough. But anyway, I met her around the corner, we dated for three years, and we eventually got married. By the late ‘50s and early ‘60s the job situation then was much worse than in 2008. Much worse because Eisenhower was the president and the Korean War had just finished and there were no jobs anywhere. I mean, Chrysler’s been closed down for about 8 years, I think it was. I mean it was pitiful out here. There were no jobs anywhere. Anyway, I got a job at the Stanton Hilton Hotel down here—I forgot the street downtown—but anyway I worked there for three years, making 95 cents an hour. Out of that 95 cents an hour I bought a car, paying $70 a month for rent, taking care of my wife and child, and drinking some stuff called Orange Driver and this stuff called Richard Boone, this stuff is called Orange Driver and Purple Cow. My father referred to it as being dope—dope in a bottle. Anyway, so after a couple years of working, another job opportunity came up at the Schrater Brothers out in Western Michigan. They paid $3.25 an hour. I said, “Man, 3.25 an hour from 95 cents an hour?” So I took the job of course and during the course of me taking the job, my mother died so that left with a lot of pain; a lot of grief. But anyway, I worked for Schrater Brothers from ’60 to ’62 I think it was and during this time, I was receiving unemployment benefits. In these days, MESC, the Michigan Employment Security Commission you were assigned to a worker—a counselor I guess. And in turn when you would go and pick up your check you would have to bring three pieces of evidence that you’ve gone and looked for a job and those women were very mean behind those desks. They were mean! They were mean like hungry tigers. So this one man that was my counselor, named Jim Norris, he would sit there and counsel me about not surrendering to bad deeds—because crime wasn’t like it is now. It was very little crime, hold ups, assault, very rarely hear about it. And narcotics? Unheard of, except a little marijuana. He gave me the aptitude test and said, “We are going to test you on your aptitude tests and see what you’re a fit for.” I said, “Well Ford’s hiring 145 a week, and A&P is too.” He said, “Yeah, but we don’t want to put you there, because you can stay on and stagnate.” But I said, “I need a job!” But my benefits were running out pretty soon so I tried to join the army, when the Vietnam war was just beginning to escalate and I made my application out, because when I was in the ROTC at commanding officer, as the captain I received a slip from them saying, “When you go out to the military and you finish boot camp, present this slip and you can be invited to officer training school,” so I was happy. Filled my application out and give it to the recruiter and he said, “Oh by the way. Are you married?” I said, “Yes, sir.” He reached across the counter and said, “Do you have any children?” I said, “Yes, sir.” He took that document and threw it in the trashcan. Now I’m really depressed now. Later on, maybe that month, I took an exam for what we call DSR [Department of Street Railways], DDOT, department of transportation. DSR was the buses, and I failed; flunked the exam. I took an exam for the post office, and I flunked. I took an exam for the garbage man, no written exam, I’m just carrying one bag of sand over to over here, and I flunked. So I’m reeling like, man, I can’t believe this here, what will I do next? ‘Cause in those days you didn’t think about holding people up or robbing people; that never encountered your mind. So I told my counselor about that he said, “Why don’t you think about the police department?” I said, “I don’t want to be no policemen.” ‘Cause I had bad experiences with policemen on 8 Mile Road and other places in Detroit. He says, “Go ahead.” I said, “I don’t want to be a policemen.” He said, “Do you want your next check?” I said, “Yes, sir.” [He said,] “Take the exam for the police department.” At the time I was living in Herman Gardens out here on Joy Road and Greenfield.

GS: What year is this?

TR: This is in ’62.

GS: Okay.

TR: And so the test was due to be on a Saturday morning at 8:30 in the morning down at—I think it was down 1300 Boulevard, but I’m not sure. But anyway at 8:15 I’m still in the bed sleep. My wife says, “Thomas, you’re going to be late for the exam.” I said, “Oh my gosh.” So, excuse me, I jumped in my car—raggedy car—and I drove half way downtown. It was raining that day. I said, “I don’t want to be no police officer,” turned my car around, came back home, and got right back in the bed. My next appointment day my counselor says, “How did you make out on the exam for the police department?” I said, “I failed.” He said, “Take it again.” [Laughter] I said, “Okay.” I took the exam again, and I passed! I could not believe it. Of all the jobs I applied for I didn’t make but this one I passed. It wasn’t a difficult exam. Before I went down for my interview, something told me, “You don’t have to like them. You don’t have to like the policemen. But join them to see why they behave the way they behave.” And I did, and let me tell you, it’s not a easy job at all. All those critics out there about the police department, they should work there for one year. It’ll change your opinion.

GS: What were your duties as a police officer then when you joined?

TR: Well my first duty was patrol. We had different ranks then. I was a patrol officer. I walked the beat for three years at 6840 McGraw, 6th precinct. That’s the first precinct I went to. I walked a beat for three years. Had to check the alleys, backdoors, front doors, and let me tell you when it’s an easy job, it’s the easiest job in the world, but when it’s hard it is difficult. I was checking the doors on Grand River and Joy Road one day, about nine o’clock in the evening and the door came open to a doctor’s office. I was scared. Before I say that let me say this here, all police officers whether they say so or not, are scared, and that’s the best protection they’ll ever have. Now I’m not a coward, understand me, there’s a difference between being a coward and scared. If you’re scared, you wouldn’t do foolish things. Anyway, I checked his door and it came open, I pulled my gun out, I was so nervous I wanted to shoot myself in the foot. Went inside and checked the place out—in those days it was all together different. Police work was all together different than it is now. I checked the place out thoroughly to make sure that a crime had not occurred and what you’re supposed to do was call the station, because we didn’t have radios then. We only had callbox keys, 10 cents for the phone booth, and know where your fireboxes were for communication purposes. I called the station and told them what I did and where I was, then you got to make a note for the owner, and then secure the premises the best way you could, and then when you get to the station make a police report. Well after walking a beat for three years, you would be upon to work a patrol car, because the man working a patrol car would go home, for what they would call compensatory time, so you in turn would fill in. One night I would book this guy, and we were driving on Grand River and West Grand Boulevard, and for some reason I’m so happy to be in the patrol car, I said, “I wish my family could see me now.” Out the corner of my eye I saw something being drug down the street, and I looked, and here is this young man dragging this old lady down the street. He had snatcher her purse and she was holding on to her purse, and he was just dragging her. I jumped out of the car and I chased him across the street, up the street, down the street. He jumped the fence, I jumped the fence. I finally caught him and took him home to his house, and told his mother and father what he had did and said he was going to jail. I said, but I do intend to come back to check on him every now and then to make sure he’s on a straight path. Any time you want me to fast forward ahead, let me know.

GS: It’s fine, it’s fine.

TR: I mean, I’ve got some stuff I—I mean I know I did it, but it’s like wow. Anyway, he was alright. For the next couple months I checked on him, he was alright. He got probation but anyway I’m at the 6th precinct and I’m walking a beat, every now and then I’m riding a squad car. I wanted more action. I went to the academy and we learned how to do physical fitness, hand-to-hand combat, and stuff like that. On the range shooting guns, I was ready now. So I wanted to go to the 10th precinct, because I heard it was the busiest precinct in the city. And at that time it was 13 precincts, and it was the smallest precinct in the city. It was also said that per size, geographical size, this was the busiest precinct real estate in the world, other than Hong Kong, China. It was busy hot at number 10, which was at 12000 Livernois. So a couple of my partners at the 6th precinct said, “Tom, don’t go.” I felt I gotta go, because I’m tired of walking a beat. So I move to the 10th precinct, and what’s my first week assignment over there? Walking the beat. I couldn’t’ believe it, but anyway I basically get into a scout car—we called patrol cars scout cars—and we had 18 territories that scout cars patrolled. And you weren’t around here during 12th Street, but people around here during 12th Street, it was like—I don’t know how to describe 12th Street, but it was where the riot eventually took place. It was a place like—man—exciting all the time. Every day is a new adventure! So, I eventually arrived in a patrol car, we were having good time, doing police work and catching criminals and had some good partners—some of them, my partners went to high school with me. Well, May of ’66—I transferred that May of ’66—May of ’66 for some reason—no May of ’67—for some reason the department sent us out to Fort Wayne out here on Fort Street, way out here by the bridge, to do riot training. You know, we had accrued riot training, but we had some disturbances on the east side in ‘66, but you know, none of that materialized to the point that you had to get ready, but you never could tell. So I’m working a one-man patrol car, I enjoyed being a one man patrol car, because my partners once told me once you get into a situation—a very serious situation—and your partner abandons you and deserts you, you’ve got to go for yourself. You see? So I learned to work by myself, even though I may have had a partner, and I worked well with my partners, they never abandoned me, but in case they did, I know how to take care of myself. I’m riding down 12th Street about 9:30 at night, because we get off at 10 o’clock, and I see this guy down on 12th Street, I mean it was like something you see in movies. It had bars, they had after hour houses, gambling houses, selling liquor after hours, prostitutes, pimps, everything. The pimps were not the kind of pimps that we see on TV that beat the prostitutes for not bringing them money. The prostitutes were individual businesswomen, and they did not take brutality. If you slapped one of them, you better not go to sleep. It’d be your last sleep. Anyway, this guy was walking down 12th Street with a megaphone. And he had a green hat and a green shirt and he said, “Tonight’s the night! We gonna burn down 12th Street tonight!” I’m saying, “That’s another lunatic.” To us, that’s a lunatic.

GS: Can I just interrupt really quickly? I just want to ask you about other police officers. Did you encounter any opposition or discrimination?

TR: I’m coming to that. I’m coming to that.

GS: Okay.

TR: First of all, the two officers that made the raid on 12th Street, on 12th and Clairmount, we broke them in at the 10th precinct, and when they were assigned to us for patrol duty this one guy told me, “You know, you need to go to school and get yourself a degree in policing.” I said, “I don’t need to do all that, I’m already a policemen.” So we’re busy arguing for like 5 or 10 minutes about going to school. So being that I’m the senior man, and I’ve got to show him off because I kind of resent his status of being educated, the first one I took him to was on Glen Court and Dexter, a barricaded gunman. And in those days we didn’t have procedures for barricaded gunmen like they do now so my other two partners responded too. So we had the house surrounded and we heard a gunshot. After we kicked the door down, we went in. The guy had killed himself, but his wife—I guess it was his wife—she was trying to get away downstairs and he killed her and by shooting her, he left the thin skin of her arm hanging attached. I told my partner, “Come here. Take a look at that. Did you see that in college?” He threw up, so I was full of revenge, okay? Anyway, eventually they were the officers that made the arrest, made the raid, on 12th and Clairmount. At the time, we didn’t think too much about police work. We were all police officers. There was no difference in us. We didn’t get treated like other—we thought other officers got treated, you understand me? Out of 5500, only 106 were black, 106. So we had a better chance of being fired or killed, than we could at retirement, because after you got 18 to 20 years on the job, they would find some reason to fire you to save that pension money, do you understand me? Well, we were on patrol in the convoy after the riots, there are four officers to a car, 3 cars to a convoy. We got run to Hazelwood and Lawton, man up on the third floor with a gun. Well we all ran to the scene, jumped out of the car, rifles in arm, went upstairs on the third floor, and all the officers—I think it was only one or two black officers in this convoy—they were on this side of the hallway banging on some man’s door end. Another boy says, “Sir, he’s not in. He’s over there.” I took my rifle butt, hit the door, the door popped open. Just as I went through the threshold, and another officer saw what I was doing, he ran in behind me, and the guy shot him right in the stomach with .44. Pow! Now, police work as seen by us in those days was not like it is nowadays. It’s very dramatic, very colorful, very glorified—in those days we had Boston Blackie, Dick Tracey, stuff like that. I could not believe this man got shot. Now the crook is right here, the police in the hallway shooting back and forth. To this day, I do not know why I didn’t get shot. I don’t know why I wasn’t shot, because I couldn’t do anything but sit there and push the wall back, because bullets was flying. The other officer’s down on the ground, rolling around with pain in his stomach, and I didn’t know what to do. Finally some officer says, “Hold your fire.” He jumped down and got the officer that was wounded and got him out of there. I went down and got a stretcher for him. In old days, there was no EMS. We had stretchers in station wagons. Alright, so the next day, my other partner, we were on patrol and as we pulled into the 10th precinct, you see the garage full of people, all black people. It was hot out there. It must have been July the 25th. Maybe July the 20th, but it was hot! We saw all these people with the children and women and people, crowded in like—I said, “Hey Mack, you see that?” He said, “Yeah.” We weren’t aware what was going on behind our backs so we were doing police work, so we thought. We began to kind of resent that. You know what I mean, they may have been guilty of doing something, but we didn’t think they should be treated that way. So a week later, at roll call—they would have roll call—and a bunch of Caucasian officers challenged us for our opinion. So we didn’t like what they had talked about, because we didn’t like people were being treated out there. So they challenged us to a gunfight. We said, “This what you want?” They said, “Yeah.” There were about 5 or 6 of us as opposed to them. So we go out behind the station like O.K. Corral, you know O.K. Corral? You say, “At the count of three, draw.” The lieutenant was in the station, he saw us rush out, and he knew something was up. He stopped us, because we were going to shoot each other, because we just fed with how these people were being treated. Later on, maybe another day, a day after that, we told them, saying, “Leave those people alone. If you got to investigate those people, you’ve got to have one of us with you or a sergeant, but don’t go on your own investigating those people, because you don’t know how to treat them. Eventually, they kept us on station security. In other words, only black officers were on station security during the riots. We couldn’t go outside, but every once in a while, because they didn’t want us to see what was going on out there.

GS: So you first heard about the riot happening, in the police station?

TR: Pardon?

GS: You first heard about the riot starting when you were in the police station?

TR: No, no I heard about it the night before it started. The next day my father called me up and told me. I didn’t believe it, because I was just out there on the street, on those busy streets so when we heard about it, we had to mobilize and go to work. I almost got shot, and then we had the confrontation with the Caucasian officers. And then we challenged them to stay, to leave those people alone unless they had one of us with them or a sergeant, but they became so bitter between us. I mean it was bitter. And all of those, that are generally not known. Things begin to happen, so when they begin to arrest people, this one incident they arrested a black woman. And I guess this one officer he figured that he could take advantage of her if he wanted to. So they had these Polaroid cameras, taking pictures of all the prisoners. It was said that with a Polaroid camera, with the film in the Polaroid, you couldn’t produce a film there and then. Well fortunately we had a friend whose father worked for the Wayne County government and he was a photographer. They had a grand jury going on at the time, and Cavanagh was the mayor. Well, when they took this picture of this female and the guy was feeling her breast, he thought it would never be discovered. They threw the thing in the trashcan, my friend, my partner went down there and got that thing out and gave it to my photographer, he developed it then, and the photographer told Jerry Cavanagh because they were good friends, said, “Look what your policemen are doing.” That officer was fired. So we had a lot of situations like that where we were exposed on officers for their bad behavior. Well, it got so bad out there that the superintendent of police was Gentry, John Nichols was the assistant superintendent, and Carl Barcell was the DPU president. They had to come to the 10th precinct to make the officers go to work, because they thought we were going to shoot them in the back. And we were quite angry really. Eventually they put me out of the precinct. Well, they didn’t put me out. They called in a black sergeant and a black lieutenant to try to calm us down. And eventually they put me out of the precinct and sent me to Harbormass, which is Belle Isle, and another lieutenant came out to save my job, because they were going to fire me. It was just pitiful out here. It was close to war as you’ll ever get, a riot. It’s as close to war as you’ll ever get.

GS: Did you expect the riot to occur, just thinking about the social tension at the time?

TR: Well we did sure talk about it, but you didn’t see anything developing. In fact, it developed more on the east side than it did anywhere else. You heard things happening on the east side, but we were still doing police work. I mean doing good police work too, you know? But no we didn’t have an inkling until after the riots started that happened.

GS: Okay. We’ve interviewed other people and you’ve seen this yourself that there was some tension between police and black Detroiters. So do you think that the police actions had anything to do with causing the riot?

TR: Yes, yes, yes, because there were some policemen over at the 10th precinct that would go out on 12th Street and mess with the prostitutes and take their money. And there was taking gram [unintelligible?? 30:23]. When I found out about it, I went downtown and told the superintendent about it and while I’m telling him about what’s going on on 12th Street about who’s brutalizing who, he was taking, he had his hand on his desk, in his desk drawer I imagine on is gun, thinking I’m going to flip any minute, because police officers can be very irrational at times. You need to be very careful around police officers, especially when they been around incidents that could take their life. So I guess they figure I’m ready to flip so he had his hand on his gun, and people in the hallway getting ready to jump me. They didn’t know what my rationale was, you know? So eventually those two officers were fired about three or four years later during the grand jury proceedings, but they were brutal, but never brutal around us. You understand? They would beat people, but never around us. Because we had got to the point that we decided that this ain’t the way we were taught in the academy. This is not the code of ethics. This is not what we were taught to believe in. It was hard, believe me. It was so many policemen getting killed from ’66 to ’72, I got tired of going to funerals. I mean in Detroit, I don’t mean across the country. In Detroit. My own partner was killed October the 24th, 1970 at the Black Panther’s headquarters over on 15th and Myrtle. Some of my friends were killed, people I knew were killed. After a while, you put on a sheet of clothes where you say, “I don’t care.” If death is my forte, so be it. So some officers could be very heavy handed, and they would never do it around us, because we were preventive, but by and large we had a good police department. People don’t know that. Our police department was so effective and so efficient that it was rumored that Scotland Yard used to come to Detroit to learn how to do police work, because we were so good at it. We had a superintendent who was excellent. We called him Black Bart. Have you ever seen Bela Lugosi? You ever seen Bela Lugosi the Vampire? One of the vampire movies in the late 20s? His hair was combed straight back and he had this long cape.

GS: Oh, yeah.

JW: Yeah, I have the general idea.

TR: Well we had a superintendent named Eugene Rooter, they called him Black Bart. He was tall like Bela Lugosi, had his hair combed straight back, and he didn’t walk down the street, he floated down the street. And this man would fire anybody. He didn’t care if you were high ranking or low ranking. If you did wrong he would fire anybody. They called him the highest paid sergeant on the job. But anyway, we were so effective that we did our job the right way, by the book, so to speak. Consequently, you were afraid of messing up, because if you messed up you would have been written up and you could be fired. They would fire you like that [snaps fingers] for not paying your bills, assaulting your wife, or anything like that, a blemish to the department’s image you could be fired just like that [snaps fingers].

GS: So how’d you define what happened in July, 1967? A lot of people call it a riot, rebellion, or an uprising. What would you call it?

TR: Well, I don’t know. Physical disorder, with a physical reaction. You see on 12th Street, you had a lot of pimps out there. A lot of pimps. You had people out there that had these after hour joints they’d call them

GS: Bling pigs.

TR: The blind pigs, you had gambling houses, and you had these bars. They didn’t have too much drug dealing, but you had a lot of prostitutes and pimps out there. And so it was a street full of characters—full of personality and full of characters. And not the kind of characters that you would want to be associated with, because these people here, you couldn’t trust them, the pimps, the prostitutes, and the drug dealers, you couldn’t trust them. But it was a strange riot, that’s all I’m going to say. It was a strange riot, because on 12th Street—it started on 12th Street—but there was a lot dissension among people anyway. Not necessarily in the 10th precinct, but overall in the city. There’s nothing you could really put your finger on and say, it’s going to blow up any minute now, you understand? It was just, I don’t know, certain things fell into place, and they just happened.

GS: You just said there were some other plans outside of the 10th precinct. Did you hear about any of these specific kind of

TR: I’m sorry?

GS: Did you hear about any of these tense situations that were outside of the 10th precinct?

TR: Oh yeah. At that time I was unaware of situations like I am now. For instance, I came on a job in ’63 and I was walking a beat down Grand River when Kennedy was assassinated. Boy, that was a surprise, but anyway I had heard about Malcolm X. I didn’t know who Malcolm X was, and I couldn’t care less. Well, his last week he was in Detroit down at the Ford Auditorium, I was assigned to his security detail and the lieutenant told me, he says, “When you finish the security detail, you can go home.” I was glad of that, because I was only down to about four or five hours and I could go down and get me some food, drink some hooch, better known as whiskey, and have a good time. And I didn’t consider this threat he told us about seriously. I’m sitting in the back behind the pull turners, waiting my time so I can go home. Then next week he was killed in New York City. That shocked me, because I didn’t know the threat was that real. If someone had come through the back to get him, they could have got me too, because I was not prepared. A lot of dissension followed that incident. As a policeman, you got to be neutral, but you hear people talking on the east side, on the west side, on the north end, and so you didn’t give too much value to this talk, other than just talk. Well, it got to the point that after the riots, people were angry at police, at us too, because they figured that we were part of the system. Well, I don’t know. I’m trying to put some words together here, to convey to you. It was hot out here, and there were people, there were black nationalist groups out here, in fact one of my partners, he had to stop one of these black nationalist groups from shooting a policemen. They would’ve shot a lot of policemen. You heard of Aretha Franklin right?

JW: Mhmm.

TR: When this policeman was shot at her father’s church, they had a group called the RNA, the Republic of New Africa. They had a big meeting there and we were told at roll call to stay away from that area, because it was a delta area. Well these two police officers felt like, “We don’t have to stay away, we’re police officers.” They drove by the area and saw a guy on his roof, with a rifle on patrol. He stopped to investigate and was killed immediately, and the other officer was shot as he jumped back in the patrol car and drove down Linwood. When they found that this policeman had been killed, cars were all over the city, just about. Drove to that church—Aretha Franklin’s father’s church—and they had the machine guns and they were just shooting. I had the two partners, but I was off duty again. The police said, “If you shoot again, We’re going to have to shoot you.” This is the only reason why none of them were massacred in that church, because they would have had gun fight between two citizens and officers in that church. It was so hot out here you know? A lot of us had become alienated from the main police department, because now I had began to see the reality of how they treated those people as opposed to us. And we were victim to the same police action if we were not police officers. But let me say this, I don’t condemn a whole lot of Caucasian police officers, because they were very good officers. I mean they did some good work, very good work. And there are some, not most, some that go astray like anybody else, like how some criminals go astray. I can’t condemn the whole department of Caucasian officers at that time because they did some excellent police work. I learned a lot of things from them. But there was some whose ability could be questioned. Whose judgment was questioned, because they would shoot people for stealing cars, you know? Then they would manufacture a lie and say, “I saw something shiny in his hand.” They didn’t see anything shiny in his hand, they just shot him and lied about it, see? Now, you know those shows on TV called NCIS shows? Guess where they started from? In Detroit. They had a female scientist, Mary Jarrett, she was working in the scientific department. See, Detroit was first on a whole lot of things. When they had an off duty officer kill a black man on the expressway, he claimed that the black man pulled a knife on him. Well the knife was confiscated at the scene and taken down to the scientific lab, and Mary Jarrett did a thorough investigation and found that the knife hairs contained the cat hairs of the policeman at home. So he knew that the policeman had thrown the knife at the feet of the man that he shot. She was very good in the scientific lab. Now, it’s really just now, but the prototype of those shows started right here in Detroit. We had another situation, we had black police officers that were they did have fights, but you never would hear about these fights, because they kept it under wrap. So, I don’t know, it’s so many things that happened.

JW: I have a question, so you mentioned that back in May of 1967, that there was the riot training.

TR: Right, mhmm.

JW: Do you think that training was because the force knew that something was coming?

TR: Looking back on it now, I do, because up until that time, we didn’t have any. There was talk in ’66 of the Feds, the FBI, infiltrating the police department. I’m saying, “Why would the FBI want to be a police officer?” To me it just doesn’t make sense, understand? This one officer they looked at real thoroughly. They looked at him as if he was a Fed. I don’t know if he was or not, but little by little these things began to add up. For instance, I got a call to a hotel and a friend at the hotel was a high school friend of mine. We went to high school; I went to high school with Kwame Kilpatrick’s uncle too. What was it? Edward Hall. There was Gary Ballard. Gary Ballard at the water department, who got fired by Kilpatrick? Went to high school with his brother. Well anyway, this friend of mine was in this hotel. I could never figure out why he was in this hotel. He lived in a nice area, but he was in this hotel. After he reported his car stolen he said, “Detroit needs a riot.” And I’m saying to myself, what is he talking about? “Detroit needs a riot.” Later on that month some people came in from out of town, Youngstown, I think it was, Ohio. They lived at times here, but I could never figure it out, but you never put two and two together then. Understand, you didn’t associate the riot with that. You dealing with if these are good guys or bad guys, that’s all you were concerned with. Well one of the guys that made the raid, he went to Washington, DC and had a subcommittee hearing, he and a police commissioner. And I’m watching on TV—I normally don’t even watch this channel—and when he came home he was walking a beat down Livernois, and I pulled up and said, “Hey Charles, I saw you on TV.” He said, “Yeah.” He says, “I’m going to go real high in this department, and I’m not going to wear a uniform anymore.” It really happened, he went to the rank of commander, never wore a uniform again. I don’t know why. You know, we don’t know why, but things happen out here, and you trying to put two and two together and sometimes it doesn’t fit until you start thinking about it saying, “Wow, did that really happen?”

JW: What kind of training did they give you in the riot training, and do you think that was helpful during the events?

TR: [Laughter] Oh they gave us training you see, you have your rifle at port arm, and you moving real slow and try to break the crowd up. It does not work. It does not work. Those crowds did not behave the way you assume they would behave. They are, what do you call it? An uncontrollable mob with a new intelligence, and so if you break rank to chase somebody, you may not come back again. And that definitely had to happen over on Rochester off of Dexter. A patrol car got a run somewhere to pickup a man, and the mob just mobbed him and just kidnapped the policeman. The policeman had to call for help, and the crook got away. So they don’t always act the way you think they’re going to act. Anything else?

GS: How did the police department react to when the National Guard came into Detroit?

TR: When the National Guard and the 82nd Airborne came to Detroit, putting certain parts of the city under Martial Law, we are just meant to call it the coordinating force, because they are in complete control. And I saw one night over here on LaSalle off of Virginia Park, there were some gay people living in this house. And the National Guard found out about it, and they leapt into that house with their machine guns. I mean, I’m sitting there saying, “Wow, I can’t believe that.” I mean, they had no cause, other than a person saying there were some gay guys up in that house. They just leapt in the house with them machine guns. I said, “Wow!” But they are in complete control, complete control. There’s nothing you can do but sit there and be a mop up division, and incidentally I only shot my gun one time to kill a dog, one time. Most of my partners, I don’t think they ever shot their guns either. I don’t think so, who would know about the [unintelligible 46:21]. The National Guard’s out here, you are under their control and there’s nothing you can do about it. I don’t want to see that again, never.

GS: Alright, well is there anything else you would like to add?

TR: No, I retired 26 years ago, July 4, 26 years ago. So I’m glad I retired, because it was rough out here. The reason why it was bad out here now is because the policemen now are improperly trained. I see things what they are doing and wondering, well how did they get away with that? Because they are very improperly trained. If they were trained properly, they could go out and stop all of this crime in the city of Detroit. You only got 600,000 people or more, well we had one point four million people so I’m glad I retired. I was fortunate enough to go to an airline when I left the department. I became a flight attendant for six years, and flew all over the world.

GS: Oh wow.

TR: So then I flew to join Northwest [Airlines], and I continue to fly, so I’m quite happy. Well now it was rough out here, very rough. I hope I’d answered your questions.

GS: Yeah, no you definitely did.

TR: And there are more policemen who could probably add more to my story than I did, because it was rough out here with us. You had to fight criminals, you had to fight cops, you had to fight this civil rights group, the Vietnam War. We had to fight everything, including ourselves, because a lot of us became alcoholics. A lot of them divorced their wives; a lot of them committed suicide. I had a partner who committed suicide, just before he came to work. So it was tough out here, but, like I said, people who criticize the police department, you should come out for one year. Don’t get on the police and then go inside a nice building and nice section and hide, come out on the streets for one year. It’s not pretty out here. These people need help.

JW: When do you think that change in the police department happened? You said that Detroit used to have the best police force so when do you think that change happened? Do you think that’s because of 1967 or something else?

TR: In 1968, the Omnibus Crime Bill was introduced in Washington, DC just before Nixon became the president. He was elected in ’68, he served in ’69. The Omnibus Crime Bill had a study done, conducted by Touche Ross, and in this study it says that the reason we become alcoholics is because of the stress. I used to look at my partner like are you under stress? I thought we drink this stuff because we like it. And they say they committed suicide, and they did. It said they divorced wives, and they did. But you know, at the time, we were at the rank of patrolman, detective, sergeant, lieutenants, inspectors, and district inspector. After the Touche Ross study, they told us certain things should be done, and that more officers needed to have time off. Then they cut the pontrol, scout cars, in precincts in half. We had eighteen in the 10th precinct and now we only had nine. It was the busiest precinct in the city. Now you only got nine people, nine cars working where it used to be eighteen. Before Touche Ross, they said you have to be on the department for five years before you can take the exam for detective, and seven years before you can take the exam for sergeant, because that way you get yourself ready and in a frame of mind to do police work, because you’ve got all this experience behind you so when you go to supervision you know how to make a decision, but after Touche Ross everything changed. And then we started hiring police females on the job, so our rank changed from patrolman to police officer, then they moved to the rank of IOS, which is Investigation Operation Section, then went from the rank of inspector, and then they included commander. I could never figure out why they had commanders of the precinct, when you had the inspector there. It was a way to spend their tax dollars, I don’t know. But everything began to change; even the training in the academy began to change. See, because we were taught to make our own decisions. We were taught, if you didn’t know what you were doing, pretend you know what you’re doing and you didn’t call a sergeant about what you should do in this situation, because if you didn’t know, they said you didn’t need the job. So everything began to change to the point where they began to rely on supervision for the decisions. And these automobile accidents, we didn’t have all of these automobile accidents, chasing people. We didn’t have all this stuff out in the old days. In fact, we hated chases. I know I hated chases; I hated them. We had ways of doing things that only are different to ways that they do them, they always have had corruption, don’t get me wrong, they’ve had corruption, and they always had brutality, but this stuff I see nowadays is inexcusable like these are not professional people. When I retired July the 4th, 1990 I was making $43,000 a year as a detective sergeant. Now they come on making $43,000 or $50,000, you know? And they don’t know what they’re doing half the time. Out of shape, don’t have good decision making process. It’s like man, what’s wrong here? So I think it changed when this Omnibus Crime Bill came out of Washington, DC. I can’t prove it. When that Touche Ross study was done on us [unintelligible 52:21]. It’s too bad.

GS: Yeah, well thank you for sitting down with us today.

JW: You can do the intro now.

GS: Oh yeah, we should do the intro now.

TR: What now?

GS: Just the intro. Today is July 19th, 2016. We’re in Detroit, Michigan. My name is Giancarlo Stefanutti and I am with Julia Westblade, and we’re sitting down with Thomas Robinson. So yeah, thank you so much for speaking with us. We appreciate it.

TR: My pleasure. You may want to include too, my rank was special agent. I set my own rank when I was a sergeant.

GS: Special agent, well thank you so much.

[TIME STAMP END OF INTERVIEW 53:03]

[End of Track 1]

 

Original Format

audio

Duration

53min 3sec

Interviewer

Giancarlo Stefanutti
Julia Westblade

Interviewee

Thomas Robinson

Location

Detroit, MI

Files

TomRobinsonPic.JPG

Citation

“Thomas Robinson, July 19th, 2016,” Detroit 1967 Online Archive, accessed September 22, 2019, http://detroit1967.detroithistorical.org/items/show/342.

Output Formats