Mary Jarrett Jackson, the first female deputy police chief in Detroit history – and the first female chief of any major department in the world – who was appointed by Mayor Coleman Young in 1986, was already a veteran of the Detroit Police Department when she got the nod for the promotion. After applying for a position on the DPD in 1957, she was hired one year later in 1958. This means that by the time Young had been elected as the city’s first black mayor in 1974, Jackson had already been toiling away inside the belly of the beast for close to two decades.
Wayne State University Police Chief Tony Holt was a black youth of only 17 years when the city erupted into chaos, but much of what he saw and experienced during those five days, and in the ensuing years, made him believe that the best way to make things better for the next generations was to become a police officer himself. He has been the police chief since 2008. He has been an officer for 40 years.
In their own words, because they tell their own stories the best, two of Detroit’s finest recall their experiences from an earlier Detroit that dramatically shaped their lives and careers.
MARY JARRETT JACKSON
When Mary Jarrett Jackson first approached the Detroit Police Department for employment in 1957, her desire was to work in the DPD lab. She certainly had the qualifications for the position, but that didn’t matter to the white male officers seated behind the desk that day, who thought it was hilarious that a black woman actually thought she could ever get a job like that. One that required such expertise and a significant amount of relevant schooling. The kind of schooling that Jackson already had.
Jackson majored in chemistry and physics from Howard University, where she graduated in 1952. She minored in zoology.
“I was trying to go to med school, but again, there were quotas in Wayne State, and in Howard where I went to school. …Wayne State would only take 72 students, and of that 72, two, did you hear me? Two were minorities. They could be Chinese, blacks, anything but white.”
Nevertheless, they told Jackson that the only shot she had a such a job was to work as a police officer first. She couldn’t just walk in, a black woman in Detroit, and expect to ever get hired. So even though she never really wanted to work as an officer, at her father’s urging she applied and was accepted onto the force the following year in 1958.
Five years later, in 1963, Jackson heard about an opening in the lab, thanks to a white female colleague who’s boyfriend was also an officer and had told her about the position. Cautiously excited that maybe, just maybe things might be going her way, Jackson called whoever was responsible for doing the hiring and described her extensive lab experience, plus how much blood work she had done at Sinai Hospital.
“I set up the blood bank when they opened Sinai Hospital. And they said, ‘Oh you’re ideal’. But I guess they had time to get down to personnel, and they didn’t understand when I spoke to them to find out that I was black. And then I didn’t get any call backs.”
So when she finally called down to ask why she didn’t get a call back, Jackson was told the position had already been filled by someone named Campbell. But I said ‘you haven’t even posted it’. She continued to get the runaround, so Jackson contacted someone she knew who checked into this Campbell guy’s experience.
“He didn’t have any schooling. Never been trained in anything scientific,” said Jackson, adding that the man had only ever worked as nothing more than an aide.
“I went to my dad again, crying, and said ‘I just can’t ever seem to get anything to go right. I’m thinking of quitting the police department because I’m never going to get into the lab.’ He said didn’t I tell you that you don’t respond that way, baby?’ He said, ‘Let me take care of it’.”
Her father called [now Judge] Damon Keith, who would be elected co-chair of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission the following year in 1964, and Councilman William T. Patrick, the first African American to serve on that body since the 1880s, and told them the situation. They arranged for a meeting with the Berg brothers, who Jackson recalls were the superintendent and deputy superintendent of the DPD, and had a meeting. Eventually it was decided that an exam would be given, and the person who scored the highest would get the position. And Campbell would be removed.
“I said, excuse me, will we all take the test together? At the same time? Because if I’m taking the test one day and you’re taking it another, I don’t know whether you have the answers or not,” said Jackson.
She was told the tests would be administered at the same time, but they weren’t. Jackson still took the test, but she wrote across the top that she was taking the test under protest because “this is not what we agreed on.”
“And so they said ‘well are you gonna take the exam or not?’, and so I took it.”
“Later I was called and told I had the highest grade. I don’t know if I had the highest grade or not, but that’s how I got the position and got in there. Because I couldn’t believe that a young man who had never had any chemistry, biology, nothing, no blood experience, could do better than myself or any of the other four officers. I just would not accept that. So when they told me That I had passed as the highest, I didn’t question it. I was just relieved.”
Coleman Young hired Jackson because of a case she handled that got a Detroit police officer – Raymond Peterson – fired for wrongly killing a black man. Peterson and another officer were taunting a man who was on his way to his midnight shift at the auto plant. Peterson later alleged that the man assaulted him, which was why he had to kill him. Peterson was an undercover cop who dressed as a woman to try and engage black men, said Jackson. He was responsible for killing nine out of 13 men whom he claimed had assaulted him and had to be killed. So when Jackson heard his claim about what had happened, her antennae shot up and she worked the case closely and demanded all the evidence to ensure she came to the correct conclusion. She told them she needed everyone’s clothing, because otherwise “I won’t have the complete picture.” She also tested the knife that Peterson carried. By the time she tested all the evidence from the clothing and the knife it was clear to her what had happened.
“I knew I was onto something and I knew that it was going to cause me trouble.”
She already knew that the knife did not belong to the victim, and now it was just a matter of proving it. Jackson worked on the case every day for six months with a white female officer “until I knew I was right. And when I went to trial, I was ready for whatever.”
Jackson was given officers to examine her car before she went home to make sure there wasn’t a hidden bomb attached. She received death threats.
“They were threatening me and they were threatening my family.”
“When you live through horrible times, you know you’ve done something right. And I think that’s why I was on the mayor’s radar.” The man was fired, even though he was allowed to keep his pension. “But at least he wasn’t on the street killing people anymore.”
Jackson retired in 1994.
CHIEF ANTHONY HOLT
Holt always wanted to join the force, but he graduated college when he was 20, and you could not join the DPD until you were 21. So to bide his time, he took a series of other jobs straight out of college.
“You won’t have a lot of people tell you this, to be honest, but people were being rejected, African Americans, if you had your wisdom tooth in, or sometimes you might break your finger and it doesn’t heal right, but it doesn’t have anything to do with your physical performance as a police officer? You were being rejected. So it was not a big recruiting effort to bring African Americans onto the job.”
Holt joined the force in April, 1977. Although there was racism there as well, he noted that the atmosphere was not as bad as with the DPD.
“When you came to Wayne State police the education level was much higher. And the university was a diverse area. But the area we patrolled was always the south side of campus. And we saw the difference in the attitudes of police officers. If you talked to police officers who joined the DPD in ’75 or before, they will tell you it was a very difficult time. When STRESS was out there, there was a white squad and a black squad. Cop cars were not integrated. White officers would flat out say they would not work with black officers.”
At WSU, “We were probably the second unit in the country to require a bachelors degree. So everybody had a degree, but it was not bias-free at all.”
When Holt joined the Wayne State Police, “there were a total of three black officers. No officer in a command position. No officer in a division like investigations or plain clothes or anything.”
Reflecting on the times surrounding the ’67 rebellion, when he was still a youngster, Holt said,
“The justice system was not looking at people with an open eye. It was very shaded. They were just picking you up, locking you up and putting you in the precinct. And then when you had Judge [George] Crockett go to the 10th precinct, I’m not sure which precinct, and held court right there. Bring people out and arraign them right there, and then release people. I’m pretty sure it was Judge Crockett who went to the precincts and said I’m a judge, and I’m gonna hold hearing right now. And had all these people released, because they were just being detained.”
“They were locking people up in the elephant house on Belle Isle.”
“The difference in police work today, is you will be challenged. You know, when I was coming up, police officer told you to stand still you stood still. I can remember sitting on my porch and watching a police officer pull over two cars with a total of about eight people in them. It was strictly about fear. They would tell you, ‘if you do this, you’re gonna get shot.’ That fear of a police officer, people call it a lack of respect, but it’s not. To get respect you have to give it. And I think that fear of police officers is not there now. Especially with the younger generation. If I see these kids about to fight, I tell them to come over here, they say ‘why?’ And they’ll come over, but they’ll come over at their own pace. They’re gonna send you a message, I am not afraid of you.”