Picnic, play, pulled over? It’s not just at Belle Isle, for some

Detroit doesn’t have stop-and-frisk, the controversial New York City police policy of randomly stopping individuals to see if they’re up to no good. But if you pay attention to what’s going on with Belle Isle, it seems we’re taking at least baby steps toward it.

There has been talk of the increased authoritative presence on the Detroit park island, a place I’ve known as a church-picnic and family-reunion destination, or the home of the course where I was once the third-fastest cross-country runner in Detroit Public Schools. Since being turned into a state park, Michigan State Police and the Department of Natural Resources have increased patrols there.

To be clear, I fully support Belle Isle being under state control. The island where I took countless school field trips is not the same as it was back then. It’s dirty, it’s polluted, it’s shameful. I applaud the state for their efforts in cleaning it up.

But we do need to be concerned about over-policing the island. Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones complained that while on the island one day, she felt like the police were waiting for her to go just one mile over so they could give her a ticket.

Her concerns were immediately dismissed. MSP and DNR have arrested around 200 people from the beginning of February through March 31, for such offenses as outstanding warrants, possession of marijuana, carrying concealed weapons and open intoxicants. They should be prosecuted, yes.

But that “one mile over” thing? It’s the fear that otherwise law-abiding African Americans and other people of color live with every day.

Let me explain.

It’s not just going one mile over the speed limit. It’s the constant fear that we’ll do something to agitate someone with a gun. It’s the fear that we’ll unwillingly become another statistic, be it an innocent black man behind bars for reasons unclear or another death at the hands of a stressed-out cop with a loose trigger finger. Or that we’ll be stopped, questioned, harassed – just for minding our business.

That happens a lot. It happened to my cousin, a married father of two, as he was trailed by Canton police leaving his mother’s condo for a few miles until he got to the I-275 on-ramp. Would he have been followed if he weren’t black? Or was the cop waiting for him to go one mile over?

It happened to my brother, who was berated by a Washtenaw County sheriff – in mile-high snow during last season’s polar vortex – while on his way to class at the University of Michigan. The sheriff detained him for walking in the street and questioned him needlessly, even though the sidewalks weren’t plowed and no other pedestrians were stopped.

And it happened to me. Once, while walking from Taco Bell to an eye appointment, a Washtenaw County sheriff decided I fit the profile of someone on the run. I was let go after being patted down on the hood of the car in the parking lot, in full view of the customers at every shop in the strip mall. And then I got new contact lenses.

You try to think of these as separate incidents. Maybe it was just coincidental that a cop trailed my cousin for three miles and darted off when he left his jurisdiction. Maybe my brother was in the legal wrong for walking in the street and he just had to be the example.

But everybody can’t be telling the same lie. At the auto show this year, a white colleague and I were discussing downtown Plymouth. I’d heard there were good bars there. “Be careful,” he warned. “You might get stopped. They do that out there.”

I’ll have to visit Plymouth myself to see if it’ll happen to me, so I don’t unfairly profile the officers there. But it sounds awfully like what I and other black Michiganders have heard over the years. Don’t drive into the suburbs with a dented car. Don’t drive in certain neighborhoods too slow, even if you just want to admire the real estate.

Belle Isle should indeed be a clean and safe place to visit. But what the (mostly white) people beating their chests on social media don’t understand is that the sheer amount of force has a different kind of meaning to a different kind of person.

Most of us are already scared enough of becoming another Jonathan Ferrell, the 24-year-old ex-college football player gunned down by Charlotte, N.C., police as he was asking for help. You don’t even have to go that far, as Malice Green still echoes in our minds. What people fail to realize is that even the little things, like going one mile over on Belle Isle, intimidate us even more.

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Fri, 05/02/2014 - 1:55pm
Racial profiling. Sometimes called "driving while black". Police like to deny it but I have my doubts......
Fri, 05/02/2014 - 8:24pm
I agree with you. Police should be there to protect and serve the people so the people can enjoy the freedom, instead police is harassing and in some cases "accidentally" killing innocent people all over USA. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MB4mcx3u1esI FEAR for my LIFE and I will not be going back to Belle Isle any time soon. I'm a disabled white man with spinal and knee problems, diabetic with hypertension and cholesterol and COPD fighting PTSD and depression. I like to wear comfortable clothing like sweatpants and hoodies, army pants and M 65 field jacket. Like to wear baseball cap and standard beanies winter hat, and aviator sunglasses. I used to visit Belle Isle every week once or twice because I like to relax by river and to feed goose's and seagulls. Once or twice a year I like to get together with family for BBQ and that's is all of my social life that I still have, until now. Now I feel that was taken from me. I feel no't free driving and being pulled over because of clothing that I ware, or being approached by the trooper because I'm seating in my chair minding my own business. I can't afford to myself to go into argument with a trooper regarding my freedom because I don't like to get heart attack or to be slammed on the ground and be pressed with a knee on my bad spine, and me having a COPD that can cause me to suffocate because I don't have enough air circulation in my lungs. Anyway, like I said in the beginning - I FEAR for my LIFE. Somebody needs to do something about it. Troopers need more urban education, and the troopers need to be in equal percentage of all races.
Fri, 05/02/2014 - 9:12pm
You stated the problem. What is the answer?
Silas Farmer
Fri, 05/02/2014 - 9:31pm
This is an excellent column. One can be in favor of state-park-like standards of behavior and law enforcement on Belle Isle and still be sensitive to how African Americans perceive the police. I'm white, and have lived in Detroit or adjacent suburbs all my life. I've seen many examples of what Mr. Foley describes: Cops in border communities paying special attention to black drivers and pedestrians. I received a traffic ticket once in Dearborn and was surprised when I showed up for my court appearance -- virtually everyone in the courtroom was black.
John Teklinski
Sat, 05/03/2014 - 12:17am
New York City has embraced the policy of 'stop and frisk'.....Detroit has not and is attempting to resist a quasi version of it on Belle Isle. New York City has very little crime. Detroit's crime is rampant and unchecked. Connect the dots please.
Sat, 05/03/2014 - 11:21am
Why? Because suburban white are paranoid and xenophobic and they only visiting Belle Isle twice a year, once for Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix and second time for Belle Isle Boat Races. Maybe is the best idea just to close Belle Isle park and open only on the days when suburben white are visiting on these two occasion.
Sun, 05/04/2014 - 2:01am
Last time I checked Belle Isle was being patrolled by the State Police and the DNR, not Canton PD, not the Washtenaw Sheriff's Department and not the Plymouth Police Department. Apples to apples, please Mr. Foley, not just any fruit that suits your needs. Why were both Mayor Mike Duggan and City Clerk Janice Winfrey stopped for speeding in the past months? Maybe because they were speeding! Duggan admitted as much. Winfrey whined about being stopped even though she was going 35 in a 25 m.p.h. zone. City Council President Brenda Jones was recently quoted by the Detroit Free Press that she intends to bring state officials before the Council to answer concerns. Perhaps larger speed limit signs would be a good start. There's a reason the troopers and CO's are making arrests on Belle Isle. It's a target rich environment. Pretty soon that will change and Belle Isle will become what it was intended to be; not what it had become.
William C. Plumpe
Sun, 05/04/2014 - 4:31am
Well let me put my two cents in on this issue. I'm an older, well educated, straight Caucasian male who grew up in Detroit and has lived, worked and retired in the Cit going on 30 years now. I also live a mile from Belle Isle and hang out at the park on a regular basis because the increased police presence makes me feel safer. And from my cultural perspective I don't want some young gang-bangers with guns to invade the island or beat me up because they don't like the way I look. I don't plan on ending up like Steve Utash. And no matter what anybody says or thinks those type of people unfortunately are out there and to deny that only endangers me. Even I was stopped. I stopped in the middle of the road near the Yacht Club to watch a male white swan do a mating dance (maybe I felt some type of connection) and a State Police officer stopped me and in a nice way asked me to move closer to the curb which I did. I see no problem with this. Maybe a little over the top but a message is being sent that rules will be followed and they will be enforced. After this publicity nobody will be able to say that they weren't warned about the need to follow rules. And who knows if what Ms. Winfrey claims happened is true? Remember Christine Beatty and: "Do you know who I am?" I'm just basing my decision on what I know and what I've heard---like anyone else. And at least in a general sense I understand the racial profiling issue and the driving while black but how long will that work as an excuse for individual bad behavior? At some point you have to stop playing the victim and step up and do the right thing. I have African American friends who also are City retirees like me and some of them applaud the increased security because they don't like gang-bangers and gangsta's either. They want a quiet and safe park just like I do and if that means increased police presence well then we're all for it.
Sun, 05/04/2014 - 1:01pm
Stop profiling by being AMERICANS...NOT Afro Americans, Latin Americans, Caucasian Americans, Italian Americans, Irish Americans etc. Do away with A Miss Black American Beauty pageant, NAACP, United Negro College, Black Caucus, etc. Lets start being one!!
Sun, 05/04/2014 - 3:58pm
I like the fact that the state has taken the park And do with it what the city of Detroit could not do but I don't like the fact that the state has turned it into a Rykus Island or Alcatraz rather then a park I realize a lot of Roughriders hung at Belle Isle but every body is not all bad
Mon, 05/05/2014 - 9:35am
Its so easy to fall into the mind set that white privilege provides. Most of the people saying its okay, the MSP are not overzealous and profiling blacks are the people who rarely have negative contact with the police. How many white people get gunned down by the police while seeking help from the police? How about LOTS , how about historically we outnumber arrests but are the minority population. Now you can say what you want but my math is just not so bad that I can't see where the numbers don't add up. Blacks don't commit more crimes than whites.. its statistically impossible, there are more whites than blacks. But the focus on arresting, and incarcerating blacks has been stepped up and MSP on Belle Isle only provides another venue for police to find black bodies to feed the prison corporation machine. (aka the new slavery=prison) Whether you want to believe it or not, Blacks are unfairly profiled, unreasonably stopped and searched, constitutional rights ignored, beaten, and killed at the hands of cops. But I know, most of y'all want to sleep easy so keep lying to yourselves.
Thu, 11/27/2014 - 9:32am
I think it is pretty clear, the patrols only stop those breaking the law. Wouldn't it be wonderful if the people of Detroit could enjoy the same level of safety those in Canton Twp live with? Why are people upset that those with warrants, drugs and illegal weapons are taken off Belle Isle? Why do people want to accept a culture of lawlessness? As far as the original article, police have been behind my vehicle for many miles, I have no idea why or where they were going. If I was walking in the road and blocking traffic, I would move for cars before the police had to tell me that bit of common sense. There is too much crime in white neighborhoods as well, whites have pretty much cornered the market in serial killings and mass murder attacks. I have been more scared by whites ( I am white) than blacks. Unfortunately evil comes in many shapes, that is why we have a civilized society, to band together and root it out. Too many stereotypes, yet too many people who seem to thrive on perpetuating them. Have a blessed Thanksgiving.