A Consultant's Casebook

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The Detroit Riots

I wasn't there in 1968 when Detroit erupted with racial riots, but the scars were still there in 1975 when I began work as an Assistant Professor at Wayne State University.  Much of the area around Cass Street, near the University had been razed.  Vacant lots, and vacant buildings were scattered everywhere, even along Woodward Avenue, the major artery of the spoke-and-wheel city layout.  

Regardless of who is at fault, the Police Department is always under scrutiny after citizen unrest - after all, police are deployed along the social frontiers.  They defend the status quo, existing property, and the current city administration.  And, they do all of this under the unblinking eye of reporters and their cameras.

In general, the Police in Detroit behaved commendably, but the racial inequality in the force was emphasized when primarily white officers responded in primarily black sections of town.  Affirmative action hiring and affirmative action promotion programs were implemented, but morale among police officers dropped as a consequence.  The best, and most mobile white officers were recruited by surrounding (white) suburbs.  Recently hired black officers felt unaccepted.  

John Teahan, a clinical psychologist and colleague at Wayne State University had a long-standing contract with the Police Department.  He developed a program to sensitize both whites and blacks to the new, racially-integrated structure of the department.  The key to his program was a series of group discussions in which blacks and whites together discussed "critical incidents" of policing.  Typically, these critical incidents emphasized situations in which racial bias was exhibited by police officers, the public, or police commanders.  Discussions focused on how officers should respond to such incidents, how they might reduce the frequency of such behaviors, and mitigate the effects of racial bias on morale and performance.  

It was a natural extension of the affirmative action approach to integrate these criteria with promotional criteria.  Officers who did not demonstrate racial sensitivity would not be promoted.  The intent was to develop mini-assessment centers and evaluate officer candidates on their ability to defuse racially sensitive incidents.  However brilliant John's technology was for eliciting fruitful group discussion and sensitizing police to such issues, his technology was not immediately applicable to promotions.  The reasons will be clear after a brief digression into assessment technologies.


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Last modified: October 19, 2000