A teenager’s unnecessary death stokes controversy over race and policing in Detroit 

Black and blue

Teenager Damon Grimes was killed riding his ATV during a police chase in August. - FAMILY PHOTO
  • Family photo
  • Teenager Damon Grimes was killed riding his ATV during a police chase in August.

The Mohican Regent neighborhood, located just south of Eight Mile in Detroit's far northeast, is a model of the city's middle class: small single-story brick houses with small neatly trimmed lawns. SUVs parked on narrow streets. Families, mostly black, who take their kids to the park and worry when cars drive through too fast. "Typical Detroit neighborhood," says Caruan Key, a 25-year-old who stays with his grandmother on Carlisle Street.

Late in the afternoon of Aug. 26, Key's neighbor Damon Grimes, a 15-year-old with broad shoulders and a contagious smile, decided to go for a jaunt on his black and red four-wheel ATV. Grimes was a week and a half away from beginning his freshman year at Michigan Collegiate High School, a charter in Warren. He was a good student; he also enjoyed shooting hoops and chatting with friends and, especially, cruising through the neighborhood on his hoverboard or the ATV, a gift from his father John Hughes. "Regular kid stuff," says Key.

Around 5:30 p.m. Grimes and his ATV caught the attention of a blue Michigan State Police patrol car. The squad car tried to pull the teen over; when Grimes didn't stop, the police pursued him. Grimes was still driving his vehicle, heading east on Rossini Drive, a quiet street that intersects with Gratiot Avenue, when Trooper Mark Bessner, riding in the passenger seat of the moving MSP car, fired his Taser at Grimes through the open passenger window. Grimes was hit on his back and the back of his head with the Taser's electrical prongs, surging 50,000 volts through his body. He lost control and smashed into the back of a parked pickup truck.

Bessner and his partner, according to a later lawsuit, never stopped their vehicle. Minutes later startled neighbors came out of their houses to find a chaotic scene of a half dozen or more police cars, emergency vehicles, and reams of yellow crime tape. Grimes' family arrived to the scene in a panic, unclear of what happened or where Damon was. Left in the street, flipped over next to drying pools of blood, was the ATV. Damon would never come back for it: He was pronounced dead upon arrival at St. John's Hospital and Medical Center.

Bessner, a white man who lives in Grosse Pointe Farms, had previously faced allegations of excessive force. The agency he worked for, the Michigan State Police, is a statewide force whose director is appointed by the governor; the MSP primarily patrol state highways and began operating in Detroit precincts in 2012 under a crime-reduction partnership program. But for decades the state force has been criticized over racial issues; in a state that's 14 percent African-American, the force remains only five percent black, according to figures reported in 2015. In late September, while tensions over Grimes' suspicious death stewed, the agency's director, Colonel Kriste Kibbey Etue, sparked a new controversy by posting a racist Facebook meme that called NFL players who protest police brutality "millionaire ingrates who hate America" and "arrogant, ungrateful, anti-American degenerates."

In an era where a debate over race and police-related killings rages across the country — and 50 years after racist policing sparked the rebellion that would redefine Detroit forever — the events have provoked a new storm of outrage over how America's blackest large city is policed.

"They've allowed outside jurisdictions to come into this city and terrorize — and I mean that word — terrorize our community," says activist Brenda Hill. "And that was what caused the murder of Damon Grimes."

***

On Nov. 5, 1992, six months after the Rodney King acquittals sparked riots in Los Angeles that jolted America, Malice Green, a black 35-year-old, dropped off a friend in front of a run-down building on Warren Avenue in Detroit. The house was a suspected crack den, and Green was quickly stopped by undercover police officers, who demanded he open his hands. Moments later two white officers were pummeling the unarmed Green in the head with their flashlights; witnesses would testify a group of cops also kicked and punched a defenseless Green as he lay bleeding and handcuffed in the street. "Racism killed Malice Green," the Reverend Charles Adams proclaimed at his funeral. "And if it is not destroyed, nobody in the U.S. can be safe."

Twenty-five years later, the issue of race and policing is as fraught as ever, but in Detroit, among the most controversial recent police-related deaths have stemmed from a slightly different dynamic: external jurisdictions — often whose agency demographics bear little resemblance to Detroit's — policing the cash-strapped city. "There is a sense of 'us versus them, black versus white,'" says the Reverend David Bullock, a prominent Detroit activist, of the region's policing. "Nobody wants to have that conversation."

In December 2015 a Dearborn police officer spotted Kevin Mathews, a Detroiter who suffered from mental illness, walking near the border between the two cities. Matthews was wanted for stealing a Red Bull from a gas station earlier in the day, and the officer initiated a foot chase that continued across Detroit city limits. Matthews, who was unarmed, ended up shot nine times after allegedly reaching for the officer's magazine. The next month, Janet Wilson, another Detroiter with a history of mental illness, was shot to death by police in Dearborn following an altercation at Fairlane Town Center mall.

The incidents came months after a highly controversial raid in Detroit's northwest side, carried out by the Detroit Fugitive Apprehension Team, a highly-touted federal-local partnership program, that ended with the death of Terrance Kellom, a 20-year-old father wanted for robbing a pizza delivery man. Kellom was alleged to have threatened officers with a hammer, a version of events disputed by his family; the ICE officer who fired four rounds into him had been hired six months earlier after losing his previous Detroit P.D. job for aiming a loaded gun at his ex-wife's head. All three shootings were ruled justified.

The Michigan State Police began patrolling precincts in Detroit (as well as Saginaw, Flint, and Pontiac) in 2012 as part of Michigan's Secure Cities Partnership, a new initiative from Gov. Snyder to address crime in some of the state's most violent — and blackest — cities. "Specifically," the governor said, troopers involved in the partnership "will focus on homicides, drive-by-shootings, sexual assaults, narcotics, and other violent crimes."

For decades the MSP had struggled with a lack of diversity. In 1975, the U.S. Justice Department sued the agency over underrepresentation of minorities and women in its ranks, leading to a federal consent decree monitoring the department's hiring. By 1993, the last year of the decree, 13 percent of the department's troops were black, slightly less than Michigan's overall black population. In 2015, according to a Free Press analysis, the department's diversity had fallen sharply: Only 59 out of more than 1,100 officers were black, or just more than five percent, and an even smaller percentage had been entering the academy.

"Everybody became complacent," Jack Hall, a retired captain who was hired in 1967 as the agency's first black trooper, told the newspaper.

The MSP also faced a litany of discrimination lawsuits, including one that resulted in a $5.2 million payout to two black troopers who had been denied promotions. In August 2016 one trooper, Ann Poehlman, blew the whistle on the agency's practice of exploiting minority communities for ticket writing: "We are told to go to specific intersections, in specific areas, to get our numbers up," Poehlamn told Michigan Radio. "If you go into poorer communities, or communities where they can't afford an attorney or where they don't feel supported by the court system, then it's an easy ticket to write."

Colonel Etue, a white woman who began her career as a trooper in Brighton in 1987, was appointed the MSP's first female director in 2011. Speaking to the Free Press in 2015, she admitted the agency's diversity wasn't "where I want to be," and promised to make the issue a priority. "I'm very optimistic you're going to see a diverse State Police."

But even more problematic than the racial underrepresentation, in the eyes of many activists, has been the agency's insistence on following its own chase protocol, even in heavily black neighborhoods where police-community relations are often strained and the potential for casualties is elevated. While police departments for cities like Detroit and Flint maintain a protocol that restricts their officers from engaging in pursuits unless a suspected felony is involved, for years the MSP has allowed its troopers to chase at their own discretion, even if the suspected crime is minor. Across the country, African-Americans are nearly three times more likely to be killed by police pursuits than anyone else, a comprehensive 2016 USA Today investigation found; in 2014 alone, MSP chases in Flint ended in the deaths of four people, all black. Three of the four were bystanders. One MSP trooper, pursuing a driver for a seatbelt violation, ran a red light at 60 miles an hour and smashed into Jacqueline Nichols, a 64-year-old woman who had been at a hair salon. Another MSP pursuit ended up killing James Thompson, a 75-year-old Navy veteran, when Thompson was hit by a fleeing SUV. The MSP officer stopped the driver for a tinted window violation, then pursued him after the driver sped away.

"The decision to flee from police is a choice made by the driver, not the officer," MSP spokeswoman Shanon Banner told USA Today.

In February 2015 State Representative Sheldon Neeley introduced a bill, intended to curb the needless pursuit deaths, that called for MSP troopers to comply with local jurisdictions' more restrictive pursuit policies. Facing staunch opposition from the agency, the measure stalled. "If they had followed DPD's protocol," Bullock says of the MSP Troopers who pursued Grimes, "or had been willing to work with Rep. Neeley on that bill, Damon Grimes may still be alive. Because he would have never even gotten chased."

***
Mark Bessner’s Michigan State Police graduation ceremony in 2012. - MICHIGAN STATE POLICE FACEBOOK
  • Michigan State Police Facebook
  • Mark Bessner’s Michigan State Police graduation ceremony in 2012.

Mark Bessner, the trooper who would later unload his Taser onto Grimes, is a 43-year-old who went to college and graduate school in Texas and earned a law degree from Ave Maria School of Law in 2006. He joined the Canton Township P.D. in early 2009 and then MSP's Metro Post in 2012. At the academy's graduation ceremony that October at the Lansing Center, Governor Snyder praised his class of 78 new officers for accepting the challenge to "go to work in a place where you're going in harm's way"; in one photo Bessner, standing with his cohort in dark blue uniform and tie, looks straight ahead with a solemn expression. "Way to go 'lil brother!" Michael Bessner wrote on Facebook.

Less than a year later, on Sept. 28, 2013, Bessner and at least four other officers approached an unarmed man named Martin McCurtis outside of the emergency room at Sinai Grace Hospital, near Outer Drive and the Lodge Freeway in northwest Detroit. According to a later civil suit, the officers "suddenly and violently" tackled McCurtis, and one officer Tased him several times. While he lay defenseless on the ground, Bessner allegedly "gratuitously kneed him in his face and head multiple times." No charges were filed against McCurtis over the incident. The civil case against the officers was settled for an undisclosed amount.

The following year, in September 2014, Bessner and his partner were on an early morning patrol in Detroit's Grandmont-Rosedale neighborhood when they saw suspicious plates on a silver TrailBlazer driven by a 56-year-old black man named Michael Crittle. The officers flashed their lights; when Crittle didn't stop, Bessner and his partner engaged in a complicated high-speed chase that meandered through the city. After more than 10 minutes, and with the help of another squad car, they finally cornered Crittle near Warren and Grand Boulevard.

Crittle still failed to cooperate. The officers smashed his passenger window with a baton, Tased him, and then forcibly removed him from the vehicle, breaking his arm in the process. "I Tased him four times," Bessner testified in a later pre-examination for a case against Crittle. In court Bessner defended his final Tasing, when Crittle was already out of the vehicle and on the ground, by claiming that Crittle tried to kick him. But the entire episode was difficult to discern, Crittle's defense attorney Dionne Webster Cox argued, because a dash-cam video from one of the squad cars was turned off partway through the encounter.

Crittle, a repeat offender, eventually pleaded guilty to multiple charges, although Webster Cox also filed a civil suit against Bessner and the other officers. "I was really outraged by it," she tells Metro Times. "I saw the medical records — he didn't start off with a broken arm. He was Tased." She eventually dropped the civil suit, after concluding Crittle's actions made for an uphill case. But now that suit, she added, would likely strengthen a new case against Bessner. "It starts to show a pattern."

Richard Convertino, Bessner's attorney, did not respond to a request for comment from Metro Times but has issued a statement characterizing Bessner's Taser firing as a "split-second decision" made under "tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving" circumstances. Bessner has declined to speak with press.

***

An autopsy concluded that Grimes died from blunt force trauma to the head, the result of crashing into the pickup truck, and that the manner was accidental. "We're not saying that the accident was caused by accident," says Wayne County Medical Examiner spokeswoman Lisa Croff. "We're only saying why his heart stopped."

Others were more blunt. "Our understanding," high-powered attorney Geoffrey Fieger declared at a widely-covered news conference, "is that in essence this Michigan State Police officer conducted what I could only describe as a drive-by shooting."

Fieger filed a $50 million civil suit against Bessner and the MSP on behalf of Grimes' family. The trooper's actions, he tells Metro Times, were unprecedented. "And it's been a coverup from Day One," he says. Fieger argues the Michigan State Police are obstructing justice by failing to release key details like the name of the officer who actually drove the vehicle. Electrical prongs discharged by the stun gun were also found improperly discarded in a trash can. Fieger also challenges the narrative of a dangerous high-speed pursuit, because at the time Grimes was hit he was located to the side of the police vehicle rather than in front of it. "So it's obvious he wasn't involved in a chase," Fieger says of Bessner. "He was involved in a drive-by killing of a child."

Kim Powell, Grimes' aunt, tells Metro Times that Damon was a sociable, funny kid who rode his ATV just for fun. She said the vehicle topped out at 40 miles per hour. "He did not have the fast one," she says. "He had the kid one."

After racing to the site of the flipped over ATV, Powell and other family members were entirely left in the dark by authorities, she says. "No police wanted to talk to the family. No police wanted to talk to us on the scene. ... They didn't even tell us what hospital they took him to." Neighbors — those who knew Damon and those who didn't — were both shocked and outraged that a teen could end up dying the way Grimes did. "It could have been one of my kids," says Tasha Simms, who had emerged from her house on Rossini to discover she was in the middle of a crime scene.

click to enlarge Damon Grimes. - FAMILY PHOTO
  • Family photo
  • Damon Grimes.

Two days later, on Aug. 28, Bessner was suspended with pay for violating MSP's Taser policy. (MSP prohibits officers from firing the devices from a moving vehicle.) Three weeks later he resigned; two other MSP officers, unnamed, were also suspended. The MSP temporarily stopped patrolling in Detroit's 9th precinct, and on Sept. 19 Etue announced the agency was revising its pursuit policy statewide to "situations where there is reasonable cause to believe the driver or occupant(s) of the pursued vehicle has committed a felony, other than the crime of fleeing and eluding."

The moves did little to quell tensions. Grimes' death inspired protests at the Manoogian Mansion, Detroit P. D. Headquarters, MSP's Oak Park post, and the Wayne County Prosecutor's office. Four days after Grimes' death dozens of mourners, led by Grimes' father John, rode ATVs and motorcycles through the neighborhood in a show of defiance, some showing off wheelies. The candlelit vigil that followed was attended by hundreds, shutting down a section of Gratiot. Family members and friends held posters remembering "DaeDae"; at one point a crowd of several dozen raised fists in protest. "All power to the people!" they chanted. "All power to the people." Some young men surrounded a Detroit P.D. squad car, then jumped on top. "We ain't just going to let motherfuckers come to the hood and do what they want!" one protester yelled. "Shameful!" a woman cried. "Shameful!"

After Etue shared the NFL player meme on Sept. 24, various civil rights groups began calling for her ouster. On Oct. 16, a group of approximately 70 clergy and activists traveled from Detroit to Dimondale, outside Lansing, for a rally outside the agency's headquarters; several leaders met with Etue and her staff inside a large conference room on the building's first floor. The MSP chief, according to Rev. Bullock, who attended the meeting, was engaged but maintained that her position was that she respected the flag, whereas the NFL players who protested didn't.

"So I tried to help her understand," says Bullock, "if you're the colonel of the Michigan State Police saying that people are 'degenerates' for peacefully protesting police brutality, then you've got a problem. Because you have a major blind spot."

Etue, Bullock adds, seemed to be expecting the group to attack her as a racist. They didn't, but made it clear that in their view she wasn't currently fit to lead the state's police agency. "We suggested to her to take some time off and get better," Bullock recalls. "It wasn't super productive. ... She has to be willing to admit that not only did she make a mistake, but she doesn't understand the issue at all. She's got to be willing to say, 'I got this wrong.'" (Etue declined to speak with Metro Times. "Colonel Etue is not doing any interviews about this matter," MSP spokeswoman Banner says, "as we are focused on moving forward.")

Three days later Gov. Snyder announced he had "full faith" in Etue's leadership. Citing her apology and demonstrated willingness to work on the issue, he issued a penalty of five days of lost pay. Separate investigations into Grimes' death are currently underway by the Michigan State Police and Detroit Police Department. ("We do feel the investigation supports criminal charges," Banner tells Metro Times, "but that decision will ultimately be decided by the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office.")

As of press time none had been filed. "To the last breath in our family," says Powell, "we'll keep pushing to get charges."

A civilian who had acted like Bessner, adds Fieger, "would be in jail right now without bond. The only difference between you and them is they're wearing a badge, and when they kill somebody they don't go to jail."

But even a conviction wouldn't solve the bigger problem, many argue, of a broader culture that values white lives more than black lives. "You got Black America and you got White America," says Pastor W.J. Rideout III, an activist who has been among those leading the Grimes protests. "It should never be that way."

Despite the horrendous circumstances, Rideout adds, Grimes' death had largely failed to inspire a broader public outcry, including from state elected officials. "When it happens to a little white boy or a little white girl, that's when you're going to see change."


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