Kim Clowes | Michigan Korean Weekly
Nearly 50 years after the civil unrest of 1967, the New Bethel Incident stands among the historic low points for the relationship between the Detroit Police Department and the city’s African-American community. The incident occurred on March 29th, 1969, when mounting tensions between a primarily white police force and the Motor City’s black community exploded outside of a church in a neighbourhood decimated by the riots twenty months before.
The investigation of a black separatist meeting at New Bethel Baptist Church by two white police officers ended with Patrolman Michael Czapski dead and his partner Richard Worobec wounded. Squad cars from four precincts soon arrived and stormed the church, leading to mass arrests of the more than 100 people inside.
Within hours, Detroit Recorder’s Court Judge George Crockett, Jr., an African American, entered the police commissioner’s office with a writ demanding that those arrested but not charged but released. Within 24 hours all but two of the prisoners were free. The release of the prisoners led to a hurricane of criticism directed at the judge’s actions and fuelled an increasingly polarized racial divide in the city. White cops picketed the home station of the two officers, protesting the handling of the case. Their picket signs, with messages like “Crockett Justice? Release Killers. Prosecute Prosecutors. Give Licence to kill policemen,” reflected the sentiment of the city’s police force.
The political establishment also weighed in critically, with Gov. William Milliken expressing his “extreme concern” regarding the judicial handling of the case and encouraging an investigation into Crockett’s actions. Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh described Crockett’s decision as “highly unusual (and) to some degree questionable.”
In Lansing, the white-majority state Senate adopted a resolution asking the Judicial Tenure Commission, which probes judicial misconduct, to investigate Crockett’s actions, a move that state senator and future Detroit mayor Coleman Young described as a “Senate lynching session.” Civil rights groups joined Young in expressing their opposition to the legislature’s response, with the local chapter of the NAACP commending the judge for his “courageous action in helping to secure the release of many members of the black community who were arrested in connection with the New Bethel incident.”
On June 16, 1970, a majority-black jury voted to acquit the two men accused of shooting the two officers outside of New Bethel church. In hindsight, Crockett’s ruling is considered by his supporters to have allowed the city to avoid another major major uprising following the trauma of 1967.