Conversations: EPISODE 11
Dr. Isaiah “Ike” McKinnon–A Black Police Chief and the History of Police Brutality
“When I saw that officer with his knee on George Floyd’s neck, it bothered me because 50 years ago that could’ve been me. It could’ve been me 20 years ago, and it could’ve been me today.”
Today we’re having a conversation with someone who can shed incredible insight, history, and experience with a topic that nearly everyone around the world is focused upon: policing.
Dr. Isaiah McKinnon, known by his friends as “Ike,” is the former Police Chief of Detroit, Michigan.
He began as a patrolman in 1965. He was one of the first African Americans hired by the Detroit Police Department, where many precincts were still segregated. He was in his 20s and had just returned from Vietnam where he served as a machinist in the United States Air Force.
He patrolled the city of Detroit during the rebellion of 1967, where he feared for his life—not from the people on the streets, but from some of his brothers in blue.
He rose through the ranks, from Sergeant to Lieutenant to Inspector, fighting crime in a majority Black city, while enduring the sting of racism and discrimination within his own department.
As a Sergeant and Lieutenant, he worked to expose and rein in the violent behavior of some of the law officers he supervised, only to be told by his supervisors to let it go.
In 1994, he became Chief of Police for the city of Detroit. This was an incredible moment.
Here was a man whose family fled the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama in the 1950s and came to Detroit for a better life, where as a teenager, he was mercilessly beaten by brutal white police officers in a department he was now in charge of.
Chief McKinnon had his work cut out for him.
Not only did he have to contend with a city known as the “murder capital of the world,” he had to dramatically reform the Detroit Police Department by dealing with a legacy of systemic racism and discrimination inside the DPD, and moving toward community policing and ending excessive use of force. He had to rebuild trust between the police and the community they were sworn to protect.
What’s just as amazing is along the way, he earned his college degree, a master’s degree in criminal justice, and a PhD in Administration and Higher Education. It was all part of his belief that the more you know about people and the world they live in, the better you can understand and serve them.
After retiring as Chief of Police, Dr. McKinnon went on to become the Deputy Mayor of Detroit from 2014 to 2016 and became a tenured professor at the University of Detroit, Mercy, where, after more than two decades of teaching, he retired in 2018.
This conversation was recorded one week after a video showed Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of George Floyd until he died and people erupted in protest against police violence around the country and the world.
What Chief McKinnon says about this event is chilling—even as a police officer, he said, even if he was in his uniform, as a Black man in America—he said, “It could have been me.”
In this conversation, Ike shares his experience of being a Black cop in an organization and a system that for decades has engaged in brutal, violent, and too often deadly treatment of Black people—including himself.
He offers insight from inside the police department and takes us on a journey from segregated Alabama to the streets of Detroit, where, as a teenager, he was beaten by a group of white police officers known as the Big Four, to what it was like to patrol a city during a major uprising, to what he did to reform the police department as Chief and what he would do now to make change possible.
This conversation was such an incredible privilege. And one that was much needed to have.
So without further ado, here is Professor Danielle McGuire and Dr. Isaiah “Ike” McKinnon in an incredibly emotional, powerful, and inspirational conversation.
Dr. McKinnon has also authored three books
Danielle McGuire: Well, it’s so good to be with you this morning Dr. Isaiah McKinnon.
Dr. Isaiah “Ike” McKinnon: Thank you. It’s good to be here.
Danielle: Thanks for joining me in this conversation. I really honestly can’t imagine talking to anyone else this morning who has, gosh, more experience, more insight, more knowledge, and knowhow about the crisis our country is facing right now than you.
Dr. McKinnon: Well, thank you. Thank you. It’s really interesting for me to have lived through a great number of things in my life and so have seen other things with people and to be able to talk about it in this time. As we know, this is a very turbulent time. I’ve always said that about other things that have occurred throughout my life too and wonder if in fact things will get better or they get worse. As always that there’s—what’s the song from Monty Python—Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.
Danielle: Yeah. You seem to have done that your whole life. I’m so excited to talk about it today because it really is—I mean I’ve studied a lot of people in history, and you’re definitely one of the most fascinating and most interesting. I’m so glad that we were able to meet in the last few years and that we’ve been able to work together.
Dr. McKinnon: Thank you so much.
Danielle: I’ll just say for the people who are listening. Dr. McKinnon and I met in our related work related to the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Detroit uprising. We were on a number of panels together and we just maintained our conversation over these past years sharing a lot of similar interest in race and interracial history and policing. He’s been a great help to me in writing my current book on the Algiers Motel incident which we’ll maybe touch on in this conversation. So yeah. It’s been incredible. I wanted to start by asking you about your parents. Like I said, I just reread your autobiography. It’s called Stand Tall, which I urge everyone to try to get a copy of. There’s a story in there about your father being a catcher. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about your father and a little bit about that story.
Dr. McKinnon: Oh well certainly. My father was born in 1900 in Union Springs, Alabama. My dad would always talk about not necessarily growing up, but also about his life and some of the things that happened with him. One of those stories that he would tell me is that he played baseball in the old negro league. Of course as this young boy growing up, you want to believe some of the things that your dad tells you, but not all of the things because I had never seen him play ball. My dad played in Montgomery and in Birmingham, and he’d talk about being a catcher. What really tipped this off for me was talked about being a catcher for Satchel Paige. The great legendary Leroy “Satchel” Paige who was known to be the greatest baseball pitcher ever. So my dad—I’m going to do my impression of my dad. He would say, “Boy, I’m going to tell you something. That boy Satchel Paige .” He said that, “It was hard catching him because the gloves that we had weren’t really tough like the gloves now. My hands would hurt.” My dad had these big tough hands. There was callous all over them. So he said, “Satchel, he could throw that ball. He could move it anywhere he wanted to.” So I’m believing this. I’m loving this. Not only him, but he said there was this other boy Booker T. Brunion who could throw harder than Satchel and he was a better pitcher than Satchel Paige. Well, I’d never heard of Booker T. Brunion.
So anyways, in 1967 I’m a young police officer. The Harlem Globetrotters came to Detroit and they played at a place called the Olympia Stadium. Their guest at intermission half time was none other than Leroy “Satchel” Paige. So I was a police officer. I’m in uniform. I was assigned to that detail, and I said I’m going to go and ask him. So I went over to Mr. Paige and I said, “Excuse me Mr. Paige. Can I ask you a question?” He said, “Son you can ask me anything, but don’t ask me about my mama.” Of course, I wanted to start laughing. I said, “Sir, did you ever play ball with a guy in Alabama by the name of McKinnon?” Satchel Paige kind of wiped his head and he thought about it. He said, “I don’t know. I don’t think so. I don’t think so. The name doesn’t ring a bell to me.” I said, “Oh okay Mr. Paige. Thank you so much.” I turned to walk away. On my mind at that time was I was going to go back and tell my dad that you’d been lying to me all this time.
As I started walking away, Satchel Paige he says, “Son, son, son. Just a minute. Just a minute.” So I stopped. He said, “McKinnon, McKinnon, McKinnon. Koda McKinnon.” That was my dad’s name. I said yes. He said he was a—and the term he used was hind catcher, which was an old country term for catcher. I said yeah, yeah. He said, “Boy I’m going to tell you something. Your daddy had these huge arms and these big hands. That man could play some baseball. He was one of the best catchers I’ve ever seen in my life.” He said, “I’m going to tell you something boy. If the color line had been broken at that time, your daddy would have been in the major leagues.” Of course, I almost jumped off the floor because he was reaffirming what my father had said to me all this time. Satchel Paige went on to tell me. He said, “Now, your daddy probably didn’t want to travel like the rest of us because he wanted a family.” He talked about those guys barnstorming, and that’s what they did. They didn’t make any money doing that. He said your daddy wanted to stay home and take care of his family. I was so proud of this.
So I remember I went home, and I said, “Well pop, guess who I met today?” He said who. My father had this way of expressing himself. He would kind of go back and he’d lean forward. He said, “Who’d you meet?” I said, “Dad, I met Satchel Paige.” He says uh-huh. I said, “Well dad, we talked.” He said, “What did he tell you son?” I said, “Daddy he told me you were one of the best catchers and best baseball players he’d ever seen. He said if the color line had been broken, you would have been in the major leagues.” My father said, “See, I told you that, but you didn’t want to believe me.” That’s really a true story in terms of my father. My father had taught me how to pitch. He taught me how to catch. Again, this was a man who was at that time had to be in his 60s, which you don’t believe, but those are things that happened. To think that my dad could have been up there with Jackie Robinson and Babe Ruth. In fact, my dad talked about the fact that he had played against Babe Ruth and those guys when they were barnstorming.
Dr. McKinnon: So that’s a story that always stands out about me and my father.
Danielle: Yeah. Opportunities lost or given up and denied.
Dr. McKinnon: Yeah. Ironically, I went back to Alabama I think in 1989 to talk to some relatives because I wanted to get more information. One of my relatives that I had never met before, I got a name from I don’t remember where and I went to his home. He told me these stories about him and my father. Of course, in the country, as they would say, they had no baseballs. So this man’s name was Brassall. He said, “Son, let me tell you.” It was really interesting how they all started off with something like that. “Son let me tell you. We didn’t have no baseballs, so we had to make our own baseballs. What we would do is we would skin a squirrel.”
Dr. McKinnon: Yes, yes. He said, “We would skin a squirrel and we would get some rubber bands and we would roll them all up in a ball. We would take a needle and sew the squirrel hide to make a baseball.”
Dr. McKinnon: He said, “That’s how we played ball. None of us had shoes.” It was their way of life because they did not have the ability and certainly location to play in the 1910s at that time.
Danielle: Wow. That’s country ball.
Dr. McKinnon: That’s country ball. Yes.
Danielle: So you were born in Alabama.
Dr. McKinnon: Born in Montgomery, Alabama.
Danielle: Montgomery, Alabama.
Dr. McKinnon: Yeah, yeah. My dad moved the family to Chicago when I was a month old.
Danielle: Wow. You were so little.
Dr. McKinnon: Yeah, yeah. There’s a reason that he moved the family because my father worked for a company called the Southern [inaudible] Company. The other colored workers—as they were called at the time—they asked my dad to represent them and go and talk to the boss about getting the colored workers a pay raise.
Dr. McKinnon: My dad had the audacity to go to this white man and ask for a pay raise for the colored workers. This man was incensed that this colored man would come to him and ask for a pay raise for the other people. He told my father to get out of his office. He immediately told my father he was on the midnight shift. Now, the midnight shift, they had to put coal into these huge furnaces by yourself. This was his punishment. Of course, my dad went home and came back at midnight. He said it’s scary, it’s eerie, but it’s also a learning experience. He said that he was on the shift and he’s putting these coals into these big furnaces. At some point, probably around 1:30 or 2:00, he said he heard these men yelling they were going to kill him, and they called him by name. He said he could see these men dressed in their KKK robes. My father, he said, “Son, let me tell you something.” He said, “We have always been fast runners, the McKinnon’s, but I realized how fast I was at the time.” My father ran home, which was probably about three or four miles from this plant and told my mother we had to leave. My father went to the Greyhound bus station and took a bus to Chicago.
Danielle: That night.
Dr. McKinnon: That night. Then he sent for the family. I was a month old at the time.
Dr. McKinnon: It saved him and saved us because who knows what would have happened.
Danielle: Right, exactly. That’s the sad reality for so many people. One question to the white man, to the boss, and suddenly your wife is at risk.
Dr. McKinnon: Absolutely. It was a point in life for him and for us because he got to see a different part of life that he hadn’t seen before.
Danielle: Yeah, yeah. So you guys moved to Chicago. Do you remember growing up in Chicago?
Dr. McKinnon: No, no. No. I was a little boy, and I think I was four or five when we went back to Montgomery. I was in Montgomery until I was nine years old.
Dr. McKinnon: So I started school there. When I was nine, the family then moved to Detroit for better jobs because of the automobile industry.
Danielle: Right. So that would have been around 1953/54.
Dr. McKinnon: 53. Yes, yes, yes. We moved into the Brewster Projects.
Danielle: Oh gosh.
Dr. McKinnon: I’ve never seen anything like this. These huge buildings and all these black people staying in these buildings. We lived at 529 Erskine apartment 168.
Danielle: Wow. How do you remember that?
Dr. McKinnon: I remember that because when you’re 9/10/11 years age it stands out because I had never seen anything like this. There were swimming pools, which we didn’t have. There were places to exercise. There were people that spoke to us in a nice manner, not like the people in Montgomery.
Dr. McKinnon: As a young boy, seeing people who didn’t speak to you, who treated you poorly, who you just didn’t feel comfortable with. What I do recall is there were two catholic priests. I’ll never forget this. There was a catholic church that was not too far from my home. These priests would walk down the street in their priestly garb, and they would stop and say good morning, good afternoon, and talk to us. My mother, she was kind of dumbfounded that here are these white people talking to them like nobody else would.
Dr. McKinnon: So it had a profound impact on my life. Of course when we got to Detroit, it was totally different.
Danielle: It was totally different. Yet, you were still in an area that was still in some ways segregated.
Dr. McKinnon: Oh it’s totally segregated. I started in Lincoln Elementary School, which is still there now. I was I think in the fifth grade. I was shocked that there are all of these young kids who spoke differently than I did because I had a southern accent. All these teachers, black and white, at Lincoln Elementary School. They were all so nice. Not that the teachers in Alabama didn’t want you to learn.
Dr. McKinnon: But the teachers were different in that—I remember Mr. Stasovich, a white man. It was very interesting because his son and I connected sometime later. I was at a function and the man said his name was Stasovich. I said, “Do you have a dad who was a teacher at Lincoln?” Oh yeah, oh yeah. I said, “Please tell him that I was one of his students.” He did and it was very nice. His dad, he didn’t remember me, but the fact is that this man stood out too. To have someone have a profound impact on my life.
Danielle: Did you feel like as a kid that the teachers thought you could be somebody in a way that teachers in Alabama didn’t think that about you as a young black child?
Dr. McKinnon: The teachers in Alabama from the first, third, and fourth grade—I remember a teacher by the name of Ms. Laura Thomas. The kids were afraid of her because she was so tough. To me, her portion in life was to get us to think that we could do better. To let us know that everything that we are seeing there wasn’t the end of the world. It was important for her to get us to study and to think about the future for our lives. Because think about her growing up in Alabama and the other teachers who had no future other than to be teachers. Well, there’s nothing wrong with that. To see young black kids graduate, that was it. You’re going to have a certain kind of job and that was it. They always showed us, told us, “Look, this is not the end of your lives. You have to learn to study and most importantly to read.” Read, read, read.
Danielle: So you came to Detroit. Do you remember—That must have been close to the Hastings area. Do you remember what Hastings Street was like?
Dr. McKinnon: Oh yeah.
Danielle: An area that’s now gone.
Dr. McKinnon: Yeah, yeah. I lived at 4125 St. [Anne ph?] after we moved from Brewster. Look at these addresses. I remember all of these addresses.
Danielle: That’s amazing.
Dr. McKinnon: For me to go and see Hastings Street, which was a black area. I mean there were whites who owned businesses, but blacks owned businesses in these areas. To see all these white people who were doing so different and more prosperous and progressive than the people in Alabama and to have them let you think that things could get and be better for us. I would walk up and down the street—In fact, when I was 10 years old I got my first job. I was shining shoes at a barber shop on Hastings Street. Reverend Murray owned the barber shop. I would shine shoes and clean up the hair off the floor when I was 10. I think I was paid something like four or five dollars a week, but that was heaven for me.
Danielle: It’s a lot for a 10 year old at that time.
Dr. McKinnon: Oh yeah. What really stood out for me was these men always talking about life in the future. They were not stuck in the fact that there was segregation and all of these things doing on. They would always say to me, “Listen son. Things are going to be better for you.” They would stress also the importance of learning. Interesting for me too is they would say, “Don’t do or be like me. We want you to have a better life than me.” So not only was my dad saying this, but these other men were saying this to me. They would probably say this to all the other young black kids, but they really stressed this to me because obviously they saw something that was different. So I remember as I was shining shoes and I went home, and I told my dad. He said, “Son, let me tell you something. You can do this at home.” I didn’t even think about this. He said, “Yeah, there’s a church across the street.” Which was New Bethlehem Baptist Church.
Danielle: Oh wow.
Dr. McKinnon: He said, “A block and a half from here is Reverend Franklin’s church.” Aretha Franklin’s dad at New Bethlehem Baptist Church. He said, “Son, let me tell you something. These deacons come here on Saturday and Sunday and they’ll want their shoes shined.” He says, “Boy, let me tell you. You can make some money doing it.” Now my dad was an entrepreneur and I didn’t know what the word went.
Dr. McKinnon: So this was just amazing to me. My dad he sent me to a hardware store on Hasting Street. He said, “Here’s what I want you to buy.” He gave me a list. I got this list of things—boards and things like that—and my dad and I built a shoe shine stand in front of my house at 4125 St. Anne.
Dr. McKinnon: It was a two seater as I would say. The catch here was my dad would say, “Okay, I want you to go to the store.” A paint store. I came back with these two buckets of paint and we painted the shoe shine stand and it was pink.
Dr. McKinnon: I said, “Dad, we can’t have a pink shoe shine stand.” He said, “Son, let me tell you something. People are going to come from miles around to see this boy with a pink shoe shine stand. Just wait.” At this time in 1954 I was making $20 a week shining shoes.
Dr. McKinnon: It’s unheard of. My dad was making $40 a week at the auto plant, but I was making $20 shining shoes. These black men would come by and they would say things like, “Son, you understand you shine a good pair of shoes.” I said yes sir. Black men at that time, the big shoe was Stacy Adams or Stetsons. I would shine those shoes and they would love that, and they would give me a nice tip—a quarter or something. The big tips were half dollar.
Dr. McKinnon: So that’s 1954 and 1955 I was doing that.
Danielle: You must have been privy to a lot of grown up conversations in that setting.
Dr. McKinnon: Oh yes.
Danielle: How did that influence you? Do you remember any of the deacons or preachers that came by that really stand out to you?
Dr. McKinnon: Well what they would do is they would talk about their lives. I remember this because—Think about this in terms of the way the life was at the time for black people, in particular black men. They would say to me, “Listen, we don’t want your life to be like ours. We want you to grow and do much better than what’s happened for me and other people in our lives.” They would say things like this. I’m sorry this phone is ringing right now.
Danielle: It’s okay.
Dr. McKinnon: They would say, “Listen. Things are bad right now for us colored people. There’re places we can’t go and even do here in Detroit, but at some point it’s going to change.” This is at the point Dr. King was speaking out after Rosa Parks did what she did. It was totally different. It was really just seeing how they would continue to try and inspire to make my life better than theirs.
Danielle: Did you have a sense of that as a young man, a young boy, from Montgomery what had happened in Montgomery in 1955/56 and sort of the emerging civil rights movement as an adolescent, teenager?
Dr. McKinnon: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. See what was interesting to me is that certainly my father was in tune with what was going on than my mother. My father would always talk to me about something I mentioned last week in terms of as a young black man, colored man, you’ve got to be mindful of what you do and what you say because you could lose your life. That was right after [inaudible]. He would say, “Listen, always make sure you know where you’re at. Always make sure you know what you’re doing, but listen, always maintain your dignity.” As a young boy 10/11/12 years of age, that meant a lot. At the same time that was happening, in the winter time I got a job delivering coal because we had all of these stoves that burned coal. The man who owned the coal yard was a man by the name of Mr. Bunche, Ralph Bunche’s relative.
Dr. McKinnon: I didn’t know who Ralph Bunche was. I was the only young boy working for him. Mr. Bunche, he was like Creole colored. He would talk to me about life. He said, “Listen here son. The world is different in different places.” He had traveled through Europe, he had travelled to the far east, he had travelled to the south pacific. He said, “Now son, one day I want you to visit these places because there is so much.” The thing that really stood out to me was he started asking me questions about classical music. I didn’t know anything about classical music. He would play this music in the coal yard. I remember this one day I said, “Mr. Bunche, what is that?” He said, “Son, that is Beethoven.” I said who is Beethoven, you know? He said, “You don’t know who Beethoven is?” I said no sir. He said, “Do you know who Strauss is?” I said no sir. Unbelievably, Mr. Bunche closed down the coal yard, took me up to the library, and said, “Listen. I want you to hear this.” So back in those days they had the big LPs and you would put the headset on, and you could listen to the music. I listened to The Blue Danube, and I went wow. Then I listened to The Tale of Vienna Woods and I said, “My god. This is absolutely incredible.” Then he said, “Now listen to this.” I heard the music and I said, “Oh that’s the Lone Ranger’s theme.” He said, “No, no, no, no. This is much more than the Lone Ranger’s theme. This is in so many movies that you see.” I said wow. That peaked my interest, just opened up my interest in all kinds of music. Because we had been listening to regular music.
Dr. McKinnon: That coupled with his talking to me about life, and then he told me about his relative Ralph Bunche, the first African American to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. I said wow. I would talk to people about this. They thought I was nuts. You’re talking about classical music. We want to listen to James Brown or Bill Doggett or something like that. To me, it was a window to the world. So in 1959, the family moved to 15817 Holmur in northwest Detroit near [inaudible]. Of course it was a nice home. I went into the attic and there were all these books. They were encyclopedias. I remember I said wow. They were written in the 1890s.
Dr. McKinnon: I read every one of them, every one, because of this insatiable desire to learn. Of course it was outdated, but I learned. Then I compared that to what was happening in the 1950s.
Danielle: That’s incredible.
Dr. McKinnon: Oh yeah. This was part of my life.
Danielle: It’s wonderful to think about these older men in the community lifting you up and giving you a window onto the world, giving you access to possibility and opportunity. Then because I know part of your story, it’s heartbreaking to think of men like Rotation Slim who could only see you in a very narrow negative small way. I wonder if you don’t mind telling us about Rotation Slim and your experience with him as a teenager.
Dr. McKinnon: Oh sure, sure. I had had no interaction with Detroit police, none. In fact, I remember my friends saying to me you’re just too nice. You have to do something bad. Anyways, when I graduated from Garfield Junior High School and was admitted to Cass Tech, which was one of the best schools in the country. In fact, at that time they said it was the second best school in the country. I was very proud of that.
Danielle: Yeah. It’s a good school.
Dr. McKinnon: So back in 1957, the first day of school was a half day for high schoolers. So I went to Cass that first day. Then I decided that I was going to go back to Garfield and speak to my favorite teacher of all time Mr. Raymond Hughes because he had had such a profound impact on my life in the two years that I had been at Garfield. So I went to the school, probably 1:00/1:30 or something. He was so proud of the fact that I was there at Cass Tech. As I started to leave the school, I’m walking out. I get to the curb and this police car pulls up, and it was known as the Big Four. Now I had seen them before because so many young men in my neighborhood had been rousted or beaten up by the Big Four. We all knew Rotation Slim because he was thought of to be the most vicious and vile person in the neighborhood. It’s like every black person who grew up in my neighborhood, they knew Rotation Slim or had some experience with him. So as I’m starting across the street, three of these men jumped out of the car. Very big, tall white men. They grab me and threw me up against the car. I’m 14 years old. They started swearing at me. I said, “Sir, sir, sir.” The more I said sir and asked questions, the more they proceeded to beat me up. They were good at what they did. They beat me from my neck to my waist.
Danielle: So you couldn’t see it.
Dr. McKinnon: Yeah, yeah. I said sir, sir. I mean the name calling and the anger on this one man’s face. That was Rotation Slim. Just the anger and the names—Of course he called me the n-word and so forth. As they were doing this, I was looking behind them. I could see all of the other black people there and I’m wondering why nothing’s happening, why they aren’t saying anything. I realized they couldn’t.
Dr. McKinnon: If they had said something, something would have happened to them and probably they would have gotten killed. So after they finished doing that, they told me to get my black ass out of there. I was crying and I ran home. Now my mother was at home, my dad was at work, I didn’t tell them. Never told them at all until years later. At that time, if a black person had gone into the police station to make a complaint against the white police officers, he or she probably would have been locked up or beaten. I said nothing. But that evening I made myself a promise that I was going to become a police officer—a Detroit police officer—and certainly not like those vile profane mean brutal people. I remember keeping this to myself and not saying anything at all, but it stayed in the back of my mind that I was going to do that. I wanted to do other things, but I wanted to become a police officer to make sure these kinds of things didn’t happen to anybody else. Ironically in 1965, I joined the Detroit Police Department. Just before the rebellion, I was working with a group. We were driving down Woodward Avenue, me and this other officer. He’s white. He said, “Let’s stop and get some coffee.” I still don’t drink coffee. So I was going to get orange juice. So we walked into this restaurant. It was called Big Ben’s right across from the Bonstelle Theater. As we walked in, in uniform, this officer said, “Oh, there’s Rotation Slim.” I tell you that anger that I had at that time came to me that I wanted to kick his ass, you know.
Danielle: Now you’re in a much better position to do it.
Dr. McKinnon: Much better position. I was a black belt in karate. I was much younger than this guy. He’s sitting in the rear of the restaurant in a booth. I made a beeline to him. I tell you, my intention at that time was to rip his head off because of what he’d done to me. I stood there over him as he was drinking a cup of coffee. I said Rotation Slim. He looked up at me. He said, “Yes officer.” Which was a far cry from 10 years earlier when he had called me all these names and beat me up. It grabbed me. I came back to the person that I was. I said, “Rotation Slim. Listen, you did something to me a number of years ago that changed me life.” I’m looking at him and his hand with a cup of coffee is shaking. He said, “What did I do officer?” I said, “Well, really it doesn’t matter what you did, but I want to thank you because you had a profound impact on my life.” “What did I do officer?” So I’m thinking to myself he had kicked so many black people’s asses it didn’t matter. He wouldn’t remember me from anybody else. I turned around and walked away.
Dr. McKinnon: When I tell that story to people, they say, “Well I would have kicked his ass.” In particular young black people. I said let’s think about this now. It’s 1967. I said if I had beaten or killed this white police officer, no one would have known what he had done. I said it would have been my word against his and I would be in jail right now.
Dr. McKinnon: But think of what I’ve been able to do since that time. Most young people understand that. So that was Rotation Slim and my interaction.
Danielle: In doing some of my research for my book, I kept encountering older black men in particular—and women too—and they all mentioned Rotation Slim. Like everyone of a certain age—black people of a certain age—that I’ve encountered in Detroit either had something to say about the Big Four or Rotation Slim. I kept wondering who was Rotation Slim. Like it’s a nickname. Who was he really? I found an article in the Detroit Free Press from when he retired.
Dr. McKinnon: Oh when Brian Flannigan called me?
Danielle: His name was Jack O’Kelley.
Dr. McKinnon: Jack O’Kelley. I knew that, yes. I wasn’t going to reveal it because I don’t want to have his family—if there’s some remnant of his family—realize what an ass he was, you know.
Danielle: Right, right. I’ll tell his name. His name was Jack O’Kelley. What struck me about this article, and I looked at it again this morning, and it was written in 1972. So it’s still a reflection of the times, but it’s revealing in the disparity between how African Americans saw Jack O’Kelley “Rotation Slim” and how white people saw him. So the headline was that he was “one of the most savviest coppers in Detroit”. One of the first sentences in the article about him said that things would be a lot better if we had more cops like him.
Dr. McKinnon: More cops like him. Yes, yes.
Danielle: It twisted my stomach because I know that even in 1972, of course, you’re still dealing with that legacy of hatred and segregation and even Klan presence in the Detroit Police Department.
Dr. McKinnon: Yes.
Danielle: But I can’t help but think that there are people who would still say that today.
Dr. McKinnon: They still think that way, some do. Thinking about his now, there was more than one Rotation Slim. There are a great number of black people, probably lost their lives, and never investigated. Think about 1967 when I was shot at by my fellow officers. I mean I could have been killed. They would have said a sniper killed me.
Danielle: Yep. So take us back to that. It’s 1967. You’re two years on the Detroit police force. You joined in 1965, right?
Dr. McKinnon: Yes.
Danielle: What precinct were you in?
Dr. McKinnon: I was assigned to the second precinct, but during the rebellion I was assigned to the 10th precinct because that’s where most of the things were occurring.
Dr. McKinnon: So I lived at 3265 West Boston. It was in the heart of the rebellion. I had gone to work at the second precinct. That night I got off about 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning. I was in my uniform. I had a 1965 Mustang Convertible, black over green. It was wonderful I thought. My first car that I owned. I left work and was driving home. I remember I drove off the Lodge freeway onto Chicago Boston exit. I made a left turn on Chicago. Again, I’m in uniform. I had my badge on. I had a two for the precinct and windows down. This car with two officers pulled me over. I said, “Please officer.” “Get out of the car they said.” Of course, they started using the racial epithets. I stepped out of the car, and I said, “Please officer.” Had my hands up. Every time I see these young people with their hands up, I think about that.
Dr. McKinnon: People don’t realize the impact these kinds of things have on you and certainly on other people. Anyways. So I’m standing next to my car. Thank God the door is open. There are these two white officers. The older one had silver hair, brush cut, and the other one had dark hair. He was standing behind him, and they both had their guns up. The older one, he said, “Tonight you’re going to die nigger.” I’d heard this word before. It was like time stood still because I could see him pulling the trigger on that gun. As I saw that, I dove back into my car. As I dove into my car, I grabbed the steering wheel with my left hand and pushed the accelerator with my right hand, and they started shooting at me. I sped off. Thank God they didn’t chase me because we’d get into a gun fight and then what would have been. So I got back to my apartment and I called my precinct. I said to the sergeant, “Let me tell you what happened.” I explained that to him. His words to me were, “Well Ike, you know we have some assholes out there.” So you’re telling me what we have. Nothing was ever done. Nothing was ever done. Again, it just went on to show to me the disparity and the inequality. We lost, what, 43/44 people during the rebellion.
Dr. McKinnon: I think except for one they were all black.
Danielle: They were majority black. In most cases they were killed either by the national guard or by police officers.
Dr. McKinnon: Yeah, yeah. yeah.
Danielle: Originally the story was that they were killed by snipers, but subsequent investigations both by the Free Press and other people showed that they were not. I mean the most egregious case, of course, is the Algiers Motel incident where a group of officers from the 13th precinct raided the Algiers Motel—a black owned and patronized motel. They found a group of young black teenagers hanging out with a couple of white prostitutes, and they decided to terrorize and murder them. Then they left and they pretended it never happened. They “forgot” to write a report, refused to write a report, and then wrote a report after the fact that was false. They were eventually brought up on charges but were never held responsible for the deaths of the three young men that they were responsible for that night. You were not an eyewitness to it literally in the sense that you weren’t at the Algiers Motels, but you were in the Detroit Police Department when that happened.
Dr. McKinnon: Yes.
Danielle: I wonder if you could just shed a little bit of light on what that felt like being inside the police department when that was going on because in your book you say it divided officers. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Dr. McKinnon: At the time of the Algiers Motel, we didn’t know about it. Then towards the end of the rebellion, the word leaked out that something had happened. That these three young men had been killed by Detroit police. So I remember talking to certain white officers about this, and they would say to me, “Well obviously they would have to do it because obviously they feared for their lives.” That’s the catch phrase in law enforcement. We feared for our lives and safety. I’m saying to myself come on guys. There are three guys. Then the more the word got out in terms of what had occurred, we got angrier. Not every white officer believed the story. Not every white officer believed that these officers were innocent, but a great number of them believed that this is what happened. What do you do when somebody has a gun or shoots at you? Obviously, they were shooting at them. Of course, we found out that was different.
Dr. McKinnon: It became a point for me as the person who was beaten up by the police, was shot at by the police, and shot at during the riot rebellion that there’s a lot wrong that’s going on. When you’re in a situation where you have racist people who are saying and doing things around and in front of you—Let me tell you my first night as a Detroit police officer.
Dr. McKinnon: I mean you don’t believe these things happen, but they did. Here I am a young police officer, had spent four years in the military, the last year to date in Vietnam for my country. I signed up August 2nd, became a Detroit police officer in the academy. My first day at the second precinct I was on the midnight shift. I did not know the miniscule number of blacks on the Detroit police department. So I walked into the station in uniform first night. I said, “I’m Officer McKinnon. I’m new.” “Just go upstairs.” That was it, the guys behind the desk. So I walked upstairs and in the squad room was this huge room that had a ping pong table, a pool table. There’s a place that we would have roll call. So I walked in. There had to be 30 officers there. Everybody was white. I walked in and everybody turns and looks at me. I saw this guy, a police officer, that I had gone to high school with. I said, “Ed!” He turned his head. Yeah. I said well lord, here we go. So the sergeants and the lieutenant come up for roll call. They would say roll call, and everybody would go into a line formation. There were two lines of officers. They would call your name and your assignment. So I’m the last person in line. I’m the new person. I don’t know what’s going on. So they say two names, scout 2-1. Those two officers are assigned to the second precinct first detail. 2-1, 2-2, and then they get to scout 2-7. They called this officer’s name. “Here sir.” “McKinnon, scout 2-7.” I said here sir. This officer, at that point, yells out at roll call, “Jesus fucking Christ I’m working with a nigger.” Of course, all of the other officers, including the supervisors, started laughing. My first day. This is my introduction.
Danielle: Your very first day.
Dr. McKinnon: I said nothing because I knew I had to stay there and stop these kinds of things, in addition to the Rotation Slims, from doing this to other people. Other officers—later on—had told me they had left because these kinds of things had happened to them. So after roll call I went down to see the car I was working. I see this officer that made this dispersion comment. He’s sitting in the car. I walked over and I said, “Excuse me. Am I working with you?” He said nothing. I said, “Excuse me. Am I working with you?” Nothing. He looked straight ahead. I then went back to the sergeant. I said sarge. Sergeant Anderson as the sergeant. I said, “Excuse me sarge, who am I working with?” He said, “You’re working with that guy.” He called his name, which I won’t call at this point. I said oh okay. So I went over to the car, got in. He never said a word to me for eight hours.
Danielle: Eight hours.
Dr. McKinnon: Eight hours. At 5:30, I remember there’s a restaurant called Hygrades on Michigan Avenue. He’s driving, pulls over the curb, turns the engine off, walks into the restaurant, sits behind the counter, and orders breakfast for himself.
Danielle: Just left you in the car.
Dr. McKinnon: I got out, ran into the restroom because I didn’t want him to leave me because that could have been the next thing. I got in the car. Never said a word. That was the pattern for some of the white officers. Now, there are other officers who—I remember Andy Parker, older white officer. My second or third day they assigned me with him. He said, “Hey, what’s your name?” I said Ike McKinnon. He said, “Oh, nice to meet you.” Which is a far cry from this guy. Another officer, Frank Mitchell, who to this day is still my friend. He says, “I’m Frank Mitchell. Listen, there are some very bad and bigoted guys on this department. Don’t let them force you to leave this job.” I said, “Thank you. You have really made a difference to me.” He and I became friends and to this day are still friends. That’s what 50 or so years from that time.
Dr. McKinnon: That was my first day as a Detroit police officer. So I say to other black officers, if they’re treating us this way, what are they doing to the regular people on the street? Of course, ’67 and what happened to me before was indicative of what they had done and how they treated people.
Danielle: Yeah. So you were able to have an insight seat in that world for a long, long time.
Dr. McKinnon: Yes.
Danielle: You were able to have an inside seat in that world for a long, long time. After the rebellion, of course, maybe you were a sergeant by then when Dr. King was murdered in 1968.
Dr. McKinnon: Yes. I was still a police officer, yes.
Danielle: You were in the department then. Was that a similar feeling that is happening now? I guess what I’m trying to say is what we’re seeing happening across the country are these uprising. To me it has the feel of 1968 Chicago, but it also has the feeling of ’67 Detroit but not entirely. I’m just wondering having lived through both of those moments of extremely high tension and uprisings what you think.
Dr. McKinnon: When Dr. King was killed, it’s ironic that I was on the afternoon shift at the time. We heard this. I was devastated. I think most black people were devastated at the time. We just couldn’t understand that here was this man who had done so much for the world who had lost his life. Now, of course, we had gone through President Kennedy being killed and then we’d gone through Malcom X being killed, but it was different. Here’s a man of peace and he was killed. I remember I was working with this officer who brought it back to the reality for me. He said, “You know, probably Martin Luther King had himself assassinated.” I said what? He said, “He probably had himself assassinated so he could have the colored people riot again.” One of the few times I exploded.
Dr. McKinnon: I swore at this guy. I said, “Are you out of your fucking mind? Where are you getting this from?” He said, “Well, that’s the word you know?” I said wait a minute. Please. Let’s not even talk about this. Black people in general I think had a sense of hopelessness because this was our leader. This was the person who had brought hope for so many years to the community. It was something that tore us apart. I still, to this day, regret the fact that I didn’t go to his funeral. I wish that I had. Of course, it was different because at that time we were on alert and police officers couldn’t leave. There was a sense of hopelessness, I think, within the African American community that here’s this great person who lost his life and what’s going to happen now. The United States is going to blow apart because of this.
Danielle: Yeah, and it did. There were riots and uprisings in hundreds of cities across the country at that time.
Dr. McKinnon: Yeah, yeah. But there was nothing like it is today in terms of all these young people coming together and saying, “We matter. We matter, and we don’t want anymore of this stuff.”
Dr. McKinnon: I think this became a focal point because what they’re doing is trying to take away the reality of what happened to Floyd and say oh those radical left and right and all this kind of stuff. The reality is that what’s the underlying cause? The underlying cause is all of these years of brutality and killing people. If we go back to Tulsa, the number of people that were killed there. We can go on and on and on. I remember in 1958 they found this black man in the river in Georgia. He was wrapped up in barbed wire. I think he had these cinder blocks tied to his legs and he was shot in the head. They were talking to the sheriff. The sheriff he said, “Worst case of suicide I ever saw.”
Danielle: Oh god.
Dr. McKinnon: The mentality.
Dr. McKinnon: Your life meant nothing. People are tired.
Danielle: Yeah, extremely tired.
Dr. McKinnon: Extremely tired, and they’re angry.
Danielle: They’re angry.
Dr. McKinnon: White and black. I got a message this morning from a former student of mine who lives in Germany. Another message from a former student of mine who lives in Minneapolis who were saying the same thing. So all these things that I’ve experienced and others. I’m just one part of this big puzzle that experienced it and was able to write it and talk about it. Other people, they are showing their anger. Well I’m angry too, but I display it in a different way.
Danielle: Right. You really work to make change from within the system. So when we talk about police violence and the systemic problems that enables it, I feel like you’re one of those people who have been there working on the inside to make change. So as a patrolman, you worked to get other officers not to behave in ways that were violent and brutal towards citizens. A lot of officers paid a price for speaking out against other policemen that way. Is that right?
Dr. McKinnon: There’s no question that in particular black officers and white officers were ostracized or fired because they did. Think about this. You’re riding with an officer who—Okay. One of the most egregious ones for me. I’m riding with this young white officer and it’s 4:00 in the morning. There’s this older black man who is walking to work with his lunch pail. Now I knew this and had seen this with my dad.
Danielle: I was going to say. Yep.
Dr. McKinnon: So this officer pulls up next to this man, this old black man, and he says, “Hey boy, come here.” I’m going oh god, oh lord don’t do this. Please. He says to him, “God damnit, what are you doing on the street boy?” The old black man, who was the epitome of my father, he says, “Sir, I’m going to work.” This officer was probably in his late 20s, he says, “God dammit. You’ve got to get your black ass off the street.” At this point I said to this officer, “Look, you will call this man sir or mister. Do you understand that?” He looked at me and I said, “I’m going to tell you something. If you continue to talk to this man, I’m going to kick your ass right here.” This old man, he had never seen anything like this before. He goes—I know he was just shocked. So the white officer was just, “You don’t talk that way to me.” I said, “You don’t talk that way to this man. Do you understand that? This is not a boy. This is a man.” I said, “Sir, where are you going?” He said, “I’m going to work.” I said, “Fine, you go on about your way.” So this officer, he says, “I’m going to tell the supervisor.” I said fine. You tell the supervisor. So we went into the precinct and he has his meeting with the supervisor. Supervisor came out to me and he says, “Ike, what happened?” I said, “Sir, this is what happened.” He said okay. They sent the white officer home. I mean this is unheard of, unheard of.
Dr. McKinnon: It was just incredible to me to see these kinds of things continue to happen over and over again. If it happened in front of me, what’s happening to others?
Dr. McKinnon: You can just imagine the name calling that was there today. Black women were commonly locked up. White women were not locked up. If a white woman was locked up, the officers behind the desk would let her go. In particular if black guys locked her up. This is the inequality we saw. You spoke out or you had to speak out. Other officers were not like me who didn’t speak out. It was important for me. My father talked to me about maintaining your own dignity.
Dr. McKinnon: My dignity was telling them listen. If you do something in front of me, I’m not going to let it go. I’m going to stop you. So I’d reached a boiling point when I became the young sergeant. I was a sergeant at the 10th precinct. Ironically, I had a corporal, a driver. My driver that night was a young white guy. We’re on the midnight shift, and he’s driving. We hear a police chase that starts in the 2nd precinct that’s coming north towards the 10th precinct. So I said to the driver, “Let’s head up this way.” Because I know that at the end of every chase, somebody’s going to get your ass kicked. That’s the way it is unless you were like me who didn’t believe in that stuff. So the closer it got, the more I realized that something was going to happen. So we’re a block away and we hear they’re out of the car. So I said turn here. That’s where they’re at.
This is what I saw. I saw four or five Detroit police cars in a circle with their lights on and these three young black boys on the ground being beaten and kicked, hit with sticks, and so forth. I could not believe what I was seeing. So I jumped out of my car and I yelled, “Stop it damnit, stop it.” One of the officers yelled, “Supervisor! Supervisor! Get out of here.” At that point, I grabbed one of the officers and we tussled. As we tussled, I grabbed his badge off. He ran and got in his car. So I grabbed another officer and we tussled. I grabbed his gun. The third officer, I grabbed him, and I said, “You’re not getting away from me.” The only black officer that was there, his name was Atwood Stevenson. We had graduated from the police academy together.
Dr. McKinnon: I said put this guy in your car and take him to the precinct. He did. I started heading back into the precinct to deal with this. The officer who was driving me, I said, “So what did you see?” Here’s what he saw. He said, “Well the lights got in my eyes and I couldn’t see anything.” I said, “You are a cowardly asshole. You’d better quit this job because I’m going to make sure you’re fired.” He did quit. He did quit. So we get back into the station. Now, think about this. I mean you had to have guts, or you’d be a little crazy. Maybe I was a little bit of both. I had experienced too much. We had the three boys. I get into the station and my boss was an inspector. Someone from the precinct had called him and said, “Ike is crazy. He’s locked up this police officer.” My boss he said, “Ike, what the hell’s happening out there? God dammit you’re going to make these officers lose their job.” I said sir? “God damnit Ike,” he said, “These officers are only doing their job.” I said, “Sir, do you want to hear what I have to say?” “God damnit Ike and he hung up.” At that point, a lieutenant at the precinct where these officers were, he said, “Sarge, what happened?” I said, “Well, they were kicking these young men’s ass.” He said, “Well you know they were only doing their job.” I said, “Their job was not to beat them up.”
Danielle: Right, right.
Dr. McKinnon: He hung up on me. So at that point, all of the officers and other officers from the different precinct showed up at the 10th precinct to scare me, which wasn’t going to happen. Black and white officers, black and white. So I’m in the room and I’m doing my report. I’ll never forget what the sergeant said to me. He said, “Ike, listen. You’re doing the right thing. Stand up, stand tall.” That’s where I got the name of the book from.
Danielle: Oh wow.
Dr. McKinnon: I said thank you. He said, “Don’t let them scare you.” So I’m typing my report. I ask the young men, I said they all brothers. Twins and an older one. They were 14 and 15 years of age. They had stolen a car. I said, “So who do you guys live with?” “We live with our mother.” I said, “What’s her number?” They gave me the number, and I called. Her response was so vile and profane against her sons that she didn’t care how her sons got their asses beat. In fact, she said they need to get their asses whipped. I said, “Mam, let me explain to you. I’m the sergeant and this is what happened to your sons.” She said, “I don’t give a fuck. Lock their asses up.” I said, “No mam. I’m going to bring them home to you.” “God damnit, I don’t want their little black asses home.” So thinking about this in terms of how bad this was. I had no complainant. The mother wasn’t going to complain. So now I’m out there making this–
Danielle: On a limb.
Dr. McKinnon: This move and nothing. So I took them home. She says, “Get the fuck away from my house.” To me, you know. So I got back to the precinct and these officers are still there. I had nothing. So I said to the officers, “Look, I’m going to let you go this time because I realize that you’re not all bad.” I’m saving face because there’s no complaint. Of course, they thought I was the greatest guy in the world. The reality is these officers should have gone to jail and nobody was going to prosecute.
Danielle: Right. The pressure that was put on you by your superiors to not bring any kind of punishment down on those officers. Or their fear for them instead of the citizens that they’re sworn to protect. Was that just the status quo?
Dr. McKinnon: Status quo. Police officers didn’t go to jail.
Dr. McKinnon: Police officers did not go to jail. They might have quit their job, they might have been fired, but they didn’t go to jail. These officers should have gone to jail.
Dr. McKinnon: In fact, one of the officers was a police officer that I graduated from the academy with.
Dr. McKinnon: We’re friends you know. He apologized later. He said, “Man, it just went out of my hand.”
Danielle: I could see how tensions would be high and feelings and emotions would be high. I could empathize, I guess, with police in those situations. How do you change that culture where—I mean of course a lot of that has to do with training and you always seem to be able to keep your cool in these situations. How do you train people differently so that they act in a responsible and protective way instead of a violent way?
Dr. McKinnon: Well, so much depends upon the individual. So that’s how you start. It’s the kind of person that you bring into that job of law enforcement because police officers have to understand they’re not there to chastise. They’re not there to beat. They’re there to serve and protect. So, of course, they know what to say. “Oh, I’m there to serve and protect my community.” So you have to have regular evaluation of officers. What they’re doing, what they’re thinking, and understand that there are those who are going to slip through the system but not a great majority of the people in the police department. There are those who you want to get them to know that you just aren’t going to take this. So it starts at the top and goes down, but this regular evaluation training is a part of it. For instance, I did diversity training at a great number of [inaudible]. I was doing the diversity training up at this suburban community, and we were talking about certainly not beating people and certainly you as a law enforcement officer what your duties are. I said to them—there had to be probably 50 officers in the room male and female of different races. I said, for instance, there might be some gay officers in your department. I’ll never forget this very large officer. He said, “What? There ain’t no fucking fags on my department.” I said, “Well, you never can tell. There might be a large proportion or a small proportion.” He said, “Chief, there ain’t no fags on my department.” I said, “Well, you never can tell.” [inaudible] officer who was sitting next to him. She said, “Well, I’m gay.” This is at this diversity class. She said I’m gay. This is what he said. He said, “You can’t be no fucking fag. I want to fuck you.”
Danielle: Oh my god.
Dr. McKinnon: In the classroom. In the classroom.
Danielle: You had your work cut out for you.
Dr. McKinnon: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. You see, this is what you’re dealing with. So the kind of people that you bring into this job of law enforcement, they have to be people who are international and they have to be able to understand what’s going on in the world, and that there are different kinds of people is what my father used to say. They don’t.
Dr. McKinnon: They have been raised a certain way and that’s it. The world is black and white. You’re either right or you’re wrong. This is what we deal with. So training is fine but having the kind of people who really want to serve and protect regardless of race.
Danielle: Right. Is this part of the reason why—I should tell the audience in case they, well, we’ll introduce you at the beginning but—you became chief of police of the city of Detroit in 1993, which is just amazing? I wish I lived here then. Is that part of the reason why when you were chief, it was important for you to promote people who had bachelor’s degrees or undergraduate degrees or higher degrees in college?
Dr. McKinnon: There’s no question. There’s no question because what I saw is that people who had a higher quality of education also had a higher quality of understanding of people. Unfortunately, the history of law enforcement work is that you had to be big and strong and tough. No wonder those people became [inaudible] not necessarily to understand what was going on in the world. It’s like being in the military, you know. You go into war and you kill people. Well, we don’t kill people. We’re not supposed to. We’re supposed to understand the climate of the people we’re dealing with. That’s why we have to be really mindful of who we bring into this law enforcement field. At the time that I came onto the force, probably none of the people had higher degrees of education. So many of them had brought other people on who were high school or less than that, a GED. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I figure you have to be exposed to the complete surroundings around you. So that’s what I said. That you had to. It was important for me to see the quality of education. So I think that all of the people in the extreme hiring were either master’s degrees or PhDs. It became important for me—If you became my executor, you had at least a bachelor’s degree or probably higher. I was not going to promote you unless you had that.
Danielle: Now, had you already earned your PhD by the time you were chief?
Dr. McKinnon: Yes, yes. In 1981.
Danielle: Okay. So I know that you went to college and I knew you had a master’s and then a PhD from Michigan State. Did you do that throughout—Like you were a full time student and a full time police officer during those years?
Dr. McKinnon: Yes. Yes, yeah. People were shocked that here’s this cop going to school and doing this. It became more of not a challenge but a right for me after ’67 because I saw these stupid people out in the streets and what they were saying about people. Then I saw others who were great police officers who had seen the world and who had a great knowledge of education. Once, to me, you became educated to the world, you understood things better.
Danielle: So you’ve been the chief of police. When you became chief, I mean just thinking back to how you became a police officer—that horrible and brutal encounter with Rotation Slim—all the way to the point where you’re in charge of the entire system, how did you tackle reform in the Detroit Police Department?
Dr. McKinnon: Well I knew that the history had not been great. In fact, the previous chief—Chief [Hardy ph?] —had gone to jail. No one, to me, had gone out and tried to truly empathize and be an active part of the community. So mine was to get the community’s trust. To let them know that there’s someone who really cares for you and thinks about you. I let them know that. I sent out number one, a video of which I addressed all of the officers in the department. Number two, I addressed the people in the city of Detroit. I said this is what I’m going to do with you. I’m one of you. I grew up in this city. This is what I experienced. I’m not going to let this happen to you. People started to understand that. It’s ironic that 25 years later people are still saying thank you for that. That was important for me to—I mean I went every place in the city. Churches and schools. It was so important to go out and talk to schools because young people, they see you and they understand that if you’re genuine and you have a heart. That was a show to them.
Danielle: Right. Was it hard to change the inner structure of the police department in terms of just down to basic behaviors and assumptions of patrolmen?
Dr. McKinnon: Well, again, it starts at the top. I remember this one police officer saying to me. “Chief,” he said, “you know you have some good ideas. You ain’t going to be here but for four years. The most is probably five or six.” He was right in terms of that. I said to him, “Look, you’re going to conform during those four years or so or I’m going to fire your ass because you’re going to do what’s right.”
Dr. McKinnon: I said let’s think about this. You’re here to serve and protect. I continued to say this. The law enforcement code of ethics. The first paragraph basically states it. As a law enforcement officer, my fundamental duty is to serve the community; to safeguard lives and property; protect the innocent against deception, the weak against oppression or intimidation; and to respect the constitutional rights of all to liberty, equality, and justice. I said that’s the basic foundation for law enforcement. Once we get away from that, we’re not law enforcement officers. We’re rogue people. That’s what I try and live by. I said, “That’s what you as law enforcement officers should live by. Somebody can piss you off. Let me give you an example of something. In all the time I was a police officer, certainly I got into fights, but I would always say to the guys who wanted to fight me chances are that we get into this fight, I’m going to kick your ass.” That’s right. I’m a blackbelt in karate. I’m good at what I’ve done. I said, “Chances are we get in a fight, I’m going to kick your ass. Now let’s not do this because not only am I going to kick your ass, but you’re going to go to jail.”
Dr. McKinnon: The ultimate threat I would give to them is that if you start kicking my ass, these other officers behind me, they’re going to kick your ass. They’re going to do a better job than I would do. Only one guy took me up on it in all the time I was a police officer. I said, now that’s a smart guy. It’s not worth it. So they would laugh. They would say, “Man, you’re different.” I said, “Yes, I’m different because I don’t want to kick your ass.”
Dr. McKinnon: I said, “I’m not going to do it with a stick. I’m going to do it with what I have here.” Again, there’s so many guys who I came in contact with throughout the years, especially when I became chief. They wrote me letters saying thank you for the way that you treated me. I humanized them.
Dr. McKinnon: That becomes part of the problem that we have and have had for years—dehumanization of black people. In particular black men.
Danielle: Yeah. I know you’re watching everything that’s happening around the country with very unique eyes with this history. If you were in charge of all the police departments in the country right now, what would you do? What can they do right now? What should they be doing?
Dr. McKinnon: Well, it’s interesting you say that because when I was deputy mayor, I was invited along with police chiefs and deputy mayors and mayors from around the country at the White House. They were talking about the job of law enforcement, but none of them talked about empathy. None of them talked about training as such as making sure we had the right people on the force. I told them the story of my being beaten up when I was 14. I told them the story of being shot at by my fellow officers. I said, “Look, in the United States of America we have over 700,000 law enforcement officers in this country. There’s 330 million people in this country. Please understand this. We’re not going to change all those people. We have to change. We have to get them to make a difference with the kind of people that we bring on our jobs to make sure that they’re not rogue police officers who would do these kinds of acts.” Nobody said anything.
Danielle: Not a word?
Dr. McKinnon: Nobody said anything.
Dr. McKinnon: It bothered me that all of these police chiefs, all these mayors and deputy mayors around the country, nobody said anything. What I will do is exactly what I said before. Making sure that we are mindful of the kind of people we bring on the jobs. Number two, I would make sure that certainly the training, but making certain that those people who are law enforcers are regularly monitored and checked. Not just by their fellow officers because those officers could have been the same ones that were rogue officers before who got into a higher rank.
Dr. McKinnon: Those are the primary areas I would look at because we have to make sure that we don’t lose anymore people. We know that supervisors lie, other offices lie, but how do we change that? We don’t want someone to say that’s the worst case of suicide I ever saw. We don’t want someone to say, “Well, Rodney King kept getting up. He was resisting.” I mean these are things that people have seen for years and years. Or like the officer I was in the car with who made that comment. How do you talk to people? How do you talk to people? It’s very simple.
Danielle: Right. Do you see them as fellow human beings or do you see them as things that you control and manipulate and brutalize?
Dr. McKinnon: Yeah. So let me tell you my last story I’m going to tell you.
Dr. McKinnon: There was an area in the second precinct that was undercover called Little Mississippi. It was two buildings that all white people lived, and the white people moved up from the south. My partner and I at the time were black. We were the only black car in the second precinct. There was a dispatch call to that location. They never sent black officers to that area because of who they were.
Dr. McKinnon: So dispatcher says, “2-7, Scout 2-7.” They give us the address. There is a fight in front of the building. I said, “Radio, this is Scout 2-7. You know who we are.” The dispatcher says, “2-7 I know who you are, but you’re all we have.” So Jess, my partner and I, we drove to that area. As we get in front of the building, 3700 Lincoln was the building. There are these people out front fighting, white people fighting. I mean they’re really going at it. So as we stepped out of the car, they stopped fighting and here’s what they said, “No, no, no, no. We don’t want the nigger cops. We want the real police.” So now in another world, I might have gotten upset and wanted to whoop their behinds. So I said to them, “You want the white police?” “Yes, we want the white police.” I said, “Okay. Now listen, do you promise to stop fighting if we leave?” They said, “Yes, we don’t want no more nigger cops here. We want the white police. We promise we won’t fight.” I said, “Okay. I want you to hug each other.” It’s unbelievable.
Danielle: That’s crazy.
Dr. McKinnon: They started hugging each other. They stopped fighting.
Danielle: United in their racism.
Dr. McKinnon: Absolutely. So I got on the radio. I said, “Radio, this is Scout 2-7. We have resolved the problem. They promised not to fight anymore as long as we don’t come back.” Of course the dispatcher started laughing. He says, “I understand Scout 2-7.” I said, “Thank you radio.” Jess, my partner, and I, we rode away, and we laughed. We said there’s a purpose to some of this stuff. Understanding where the racism is, where it isn’t. It’s certainly in the police department. It’s certainly in this location but think about this. If we had gone out and beat these people or locked them up, what was going to happen to them? Chances are we would have had a complaint against us. So the end of the story is I was in that area on another location with a white officer. We had stopped into this record shop—I was getting an orange juice and he was getting coffee. He said, “A man just walked past here with a rifle.” I said come on. He said, “He just walked past with a rifle.” We stepped out and I don’t see the man. Right next to the building was an alley. I got to the alley and there’s this guy walking towards the alley with this rifle. I said, “Hey stop.” Turned around, he shot at me.
Danielle: Oh my god.
Dr. McKinnon: Yeah, yeah. I got on the radio. I said radio, this is who we are. Guy just shot at me. He ran into 3700 Lincoln, which is that same address. He said, “We have a car that’s on the way.” Which was the Big Four. Another Big Four. Not Rotation Slim but another one. So we get there and—It’s tragic. It’s funny. We get there and the crew—all white officers except for me. As we get ready to walk into the building, this guy up on the second floor says, “Officers, it’s okay for you to come but we don’t want no nigger cops in here.” Alright. So this is my life. So this officer who was a crew chief he said, “What did you say?” He said, “We said we don’t no nigger cops in here.” So they grab him, and they must have beat the living crap out of him. He said, “Where is the guy who shot at our officers?” He said, “He’s on the second floor.” So as we get to the second floor, we see the guy and they arrested him. All these southern whites that were there, and they were saying, “He shot at the police officers?” “Yes. He shot at Officer Ike there.” “Well damn they shouldn’t have shot at no Detroit police officers.” So the crew chief, he says to me, “Ike, this is your arrest. You lock him up.” This guy says, “Ain’t no nigger going to lock me up.” The officer commence to beat the living crap out of him, right in front of everybody else. So the people start yelling, “He shouldn’t have shot at that nigger cop.” I’m telling you.
Danielle: Oh my god.
Dr. McKinnon: This is my life. Anyway. So I have the guy handcuffed and I’m taking him down the steps. He says, “God damnit. Ain’t no nigger going to take me to jail.” He starts twisting and I’m letting go and he falls down the steps. Now sometimes I subconsciously wonder if I had let him go.
Dr. McKinnon: So he gets to the bottom of the steps and his head’s busted. He woke up and he goes, “Sir, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I called you a nigger. I won’t call you a nigger no more.”
Danielle: Oh my god.
Dr. McKinnon: I’m saying to myself God, thank you for giving me these experiences so I can laugh at it. People don’t believe this or will believe that this is the reality of the life that so many of us have faced.
Dr. McKinnon: We have to get through that to have a better not only police department or city but a better world. We can’t let every impediment like an asshole who’s saying and doing those kinds of things dictate our lives.
Dr. McKinnon: But there does come a time—and I think we’re seeing it now—where people can’t take it anymore. They can’t take the dehumanization and the pain and the trauma. I can imagine watching this and having all of those experiences has been very difficult.
Danielle: It’s been extremely difficult. When I saw the officer with his knee on the man’s neck, it really, really bothered me because 50 years ago that could have been me. It could have been me 20 years ago or it could have been me now. That bothers me because it hasn’t changed that much.
Dr. McKinnon: Yeah.
Danielle: Has the quality and the intellect of those people who are involved in law enforcement really changed? Has it gotten better? That truly bothers me with what we have right now.
Dr. McKinnon: Yeah. I hope that it’s the beginning of a better world and a better system. That’s all I can hope for right now. I think we see people wanting to destroy the world that we have right now, and there are some things that need to be destroyed.
Danielle: There’s some things—That’s right.
Dr. McKinnon: Racism, white supremacy, yeah.
Danielle: Those old attitudes. The number of young white people who are saying to me, “We have white privilege and you don’t. White supremacy is part of that, but we have to speak out against white supremacy, white privilege.” So many of those young people have said this who have spoken to the media in the last few days or so.
Dr. McKinnon: Yeah, yeah. That’s a start. That’s a good thing. That’s a change. That’s a difference from the past, which is helpful.
Danielle: Well, there’s so many things we could still talk about. We didn’t even touch on your decades long career as a professor, but we’ll have to do that again. I know that we’ve been talking for a long time and you have other things to do. Are there any other things you wanted to mention to our audience before we go?
Dr. McKinnon: I’ve had a great life. In spite of those things, that doesn’t dictate my life. I was fortunate enough to travel a lot, to have a great life and great family, to have some great friends. You’re one of those people.
Danielle: Thank you.
Dr. McKinnon: What I try and do is say here’s what I can do to help people, to make a difference, and that’s what I will continue to do. In two weeks I will turn 77 and I’m not going to change. I’ll keep working to try and make a difference with that, with everybody. I’ve listened to people throughout my life, and they’re people had a profound impact. My dad, as I was a young boy, said this. He said, “Son, there are good people and bad people in every group and every race in this country. Remember that. I don’t want you to be one of those bad people. I hope that I wasn’t one of those bad people. That I tried to do everything I could to make a difference. That’s why those senior citizens that I spoke with. That’s why I take every effort, every chance I get to talk to young people about life because they can be better. They can do better. They don’t have to be subjected to the kinds of things that I was subjected to or the people before me. It’s important for me to share that and certainly the education being a professor at the university meant so much to me and young people. Ironically, those young people—both black and white—they wanted to know about those experiences. This is what I still try and do.
Danielle: Yeah. Well, you’re an inspiration to me. I wish you a very happy birthday in two weeks. I hope that we’re able to celebrate many more as friends, and I thank you for your time today and everything that you’ve done to make a change in our world.
Dr. McKinnon: Thank you. Thank you for what you’re doing, and you’ve done.
Dr. McKinnon: Thanks and have a great day.
Danielle: Thank you. You too.