David Van Wie was en route to the shooting range with his father when he noticed the notch marks at the base of his dad’s gun.
“I asked him what they were doing there, and he said, ‘What the hell do you think they’re doing there?’ ” Van Wie said. “He told me he had shot a couple of people as a police officer, but he didn’t really elaborate.”
Two decades passed before Van Wie learned the rest of the story: In the early ’70s, his father had served on the Detroit Police Department’s infamous “Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets” unit, known as S.T.R.E.S.S.
Charged with reducing Detroit’s skyrocketing robbery rates, the unit’s mostly white officers traveled to predominantly black neighborhoods and pretended they were stranded drivers, drunks or elderly women, acting as bait for robberies and assaults.
The unit succeeded in slashing robbery rates but killed 22 people — 21 of them black — over 2½ years. Several STRESS officers were also wounded or killed before the unit dissolved in 1974.
“I about fell over in my chair when I heard all the details, especially because of what was happening at the time with cases like Michael Brown’s,” Van Wie said, referring to the unarmed 18-year-old black man shot in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. The killing sparked nationwide protests against police violence.
“I thought, ‘Wow, nothing’s changed. The problems that existed between the police and the community back then are repeating themselves today,’ ” he said.
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A look at both sides
The Phoenix producer decided to take a closer looking at policing in the years since S.T.R.E.S.S., to “see what’s worked and what hasn’t worked and try to figure it out.”
He spent three years conducting research, filing Freedom of Information Act requests and convincing those who lived through STRESS to speak on camera about the tensions that made Detroit a “tinderbox” at the time.
Van Wie debuted the final product, a documentary called “Detroit Under S.T.R.E.S.S.,” at the Picture Show in Phoenix on Thursday.
The film was difficult to watch by design. It included graphic photos, detailed descriptions of murders, and racial slurs nonchalantly delivered by an unrepentant STRESS officer who killed at least six men.
But it painted a nuanced picture of the underlying causes of Detroit violence at the time, including economic instability, racial inequality and the drug trade.
Combining historical footage with photos with interviews, it traced the backstories of S.T.R.E.S.S. officers and those they killed, letting the audience decide who the heroes and “bad guys” were in each situation. Viewers heard from officers, civil-rights activists and surviving relatives, and got a glimpse of how newspapers covered key players at the time.
“This is really a brutal story that looks at the struggle from both the community side and the police side and raises a lot of questions,” Van Wie said.
“As a police officer, how do you go out on the street and do your job if you think no one will have your back?” he said. “And on the flip side, how do make sure you hire people who have the mental tools to make good policing decisions that don’t victimize a community?”
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‘History really does repeat itself’
Descriptions of a courtroom shootout, a manhunt that killed the wrong person and the planting of a knife on an unarmed victim provoked gasps and sighs throughout the packed theater Thursday evening. By the time the credits rolled, the audience was quiet.
Phoenix resident Anita Walker, 40, said it would take a while to process what she had seen, describing the film as “very heavy” and “a sad story on both sides.”
“Honestly, I think that footage could have been from today,” Walker said. “We’re still seeing police brutality in underserved communities, and we’re still seeing core problems like the economy and drugs not being addressed.
“I think the film really showed that neither side was innocent,” she said.
Eric Jensen, 38, said he’d arrived at the showing familiar with the documentary’s general premise “but not the details.”
“It was interesting to see footage from both back then and from recent times, and see the same themes throughout,” the Phoenix resident said. “History really does repeat itself.”
“Detroit Under S.T.R.E.S.S.” will next appear as part of a Detroit film series in October, Van Wie said. For more information, go to detroitunderstress.com, and see the trailer below.
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