Flashback: Beaten by a cop as a teen, Ike McKinnon later became Detroit’s police chief

Isaiah “Ike” McKinnon, 80, served as a Detroit police officer for 19 years and was appointed chief of the department by Mayor Dennis Archer in 1993. He earned a Ph.D. from Michigan State University, became a tenured professor at the University of Detroit-Mercy and served as deputy mayor under Mayor Mike Duggan. The following is an excerpt from his 2001 memoir, “Stand Tall.”

1957: It was a crisp, sunny afternoon when I left Garfield Junior High School, after visiting my former woodshop teacher and mentor, Mr. Raymond Hughes. I was thinking, “Life doesn’t get much better than this.”

I had just started at Cass Technical High School, one of the best schools in the country. I was proud to have been selected to go there — it was really quite an honor, especially since I was one of the few Blacks to be accepted. I had gone back to Garfield to tell Mr. Hughes about the incredible opportunity that I has been given and to thank him for everything he had done over the years.

Ike McKinnon in the chapel on the University of Detroit Mercy campus in Detroit, on Aug. 19, 2021. McKinnon served as a Detroit police officer for 19 years and was appointed chief of the department by Mayor Dennis Archer in 1993.

Ike McKinnon in the chapel on the University of Detroit Mercy campus in Detroit, on Aug. 19, 2021. McKinnon served as a Detroit police officer for 19 years and was appointed chief of the department by Mayor Dennis Archer in 1993.

As I left, I ran into a friend. He was an older guy from the neighborhood and one of the only fellows with a car. He offered me a ride home in his faded green Chevy, and as we pulled out of the parking lot, a big black police cruiser flagged us down. Two officers jumped out — half of the “Big Four.”

The ”Big Four” was a group of white officers that patrolled our neighborhood and got gratification from intimidating and hurting people. There was a group of young Black men that hung out on the corner of St. Antoine and Superior, talking, singing and minding their

own business. But for no apparent reason, they’d throw the young Black men against the car, or prone on the sidewalk, and search them, with one officer aiming a machine gun or shotgun at them.

They’d hassle the young men, tell them to get the hell off the corner, call them a bunch of derogatory names and drive off, laughing.

I saw this and other similar scenes often, but when you’re 14 and don’t hang out on the street corners or get in trouble, you don’t envision anything like that ever happening to you. How wrong I was.

One of the “Big Four” who climbed out of the car that day was Rotation Slim. He was a tall, gangly man with dark hair who was notorious in the neighborhood. He’d scream at people on the street and smack them around for no reason. Word of mouth was that he’d killed a few Black people, including a prostitute. I don’t know whether this was true or not, but, because the perception existed at all, it was more effective than any truth ever could be.

Making a vow

Here’s what I knew: He had beaten others and there was never any recourse to being beaten. I was terrified of joining this fraternity of the defenseless many, but I was as powerless as they demanded I be.

He and his partner pulled my friend and me out of the car, searched us, stripped the seats and trunk, and were as nasty as they could be. Rotation Slim grabbed me and threw me against the car.

“Sir?” I was frightened, without a clue of what I had done wrong.

He hit me in the chest hard, slamming me into the car. I couldn’t believe this was happening. I hadn’t done a thing!

“Sir?” I asked again, starting to cry.

He hit me again. And again. He and his partner began to beat me, knocking me against the car. Out of the corner of my eye I could see my friend being beaten as well. At 14, I stood 6-feet-1 and weighed 170 pounds — and they beat me good. The more I asked why they were doing it, the more they hit me. And the harder I cried, the harder they slammed me into the car …

For years, I didn’t tell anyone about the incident. I kept it locked up inside me. It resided right next to the vow I made that night that one day I was going to join the Detroit Police Department, and that I would do everything in my power to make sure nothing like this ever happened to me again, or to anyone else. I sat in my room that night and promised myself that I was going to make a difference in people’s lives.

***

1967: I was three years out of the U.S. Air Force, having spent time in the Strategic Air Command and in Vietnam. I was in great shape, at 6-feet-2½ and 222 pounds, and was proficient in the martial arts. I was a member of the Detroit Police Department and on patrol with my partner, a chunky white officer with red hair.

We stopped at Big Ben’s, a restaurant on Woodward Avenue across from the Bonstelle Theater. When we walked in, my partner let out a whistle. “Wow, it’s Rotation Slim.”

“Who?” I asked, as the very mention of the name was making my blood boil.

In 1968, then-Officer McKinnon became a model for Detroit police recruiting.

In 1968, then-Officer McKinnon became a model for Detroit police recruiting.

“Rotation Slim,” he repeated, pointing to a lanky, aging man sitting in a booth at the rear of the restaurant. “He’s a legend in the department.”

More from McKinnon: Former Detroit police chief proposes path to stem tide of police violence

A shrinking, pitiful man

There he was, siting right in front of my eyes. He was wearing a white shirt, tie, and brown pants — not unlike any other off-duty officer. But he was different. I saw myself backed up against the patrol car while this man and his friends beat me. I heard their taunts. I felt the pain. I knew their hatred.

“That’s Rotation Slim?” I asked. My mind was clouded by every tear that I had cried that day in 1957 and in the weeks that followed.

I looked at the man, and felt my fists clench at my side. I wanted to rip his heart out. I wanted my pound of flesh. I stormed toward him, the 14-year-old boy now a man, ready to avenge the hurt, the pain, and the tears that I had kept bottled up inside.

I towered over him as he sat at his table. His hair, still black, now shrouded a weather-beaten face of a much older man. He just stared into space as he sat there by himself, sipping his coffee. Every sensibility that I had was heightened as I tried desperately to look him right in the eye, but he never made a move to look at me.

“Rotation Slim?”

He looked up. “Yes, officer?”

After being filled with so much rage, I strangely felt it ebb away. This man, who once called me every derogatory name you can imagine, had just called me “officer.”

I repeated his name. “Rotation Slim. Well. Well. Well.”

His coffee cup shook in his hand. “A number of years ago you said something to me that changed my life.”

His eyes were wide. His hand shook more. His cup rattled against the saucer and produced a clanging noise that permeated the tense air between us. Drops of coffee splashed on the table. ”What did I do?” he asked, his voice uneasy, cracking. “Tell me, what did I do?”

More than a decade after encountering Rotation Slim at a diner, Detroit Police Department Executive Lt. Isaiah McKinnon works at his desk in September 1978.

More than a decade after encountering Rotation Slim at a diner, Detroit Police Department Executive Lt. Isaiah McKinnon works at his desk in September 1978.

Looking down at this shrinking, pitiful man, I suddenly felt a weight lifted from my shoulders. This cowardly excuse for a police officer had undoubted beat many people — probably Black and white alike — for no other reason than that was how he got his kicks. He didn’t know who they were or what ever happened to them. And he didn’t care.

As long as he had his gun at his side — which he did at that moment — he felt that he would never be held accountable for his past. He hurt the helpless. He abused his power. Just seeing him shaking as I stood over him gave me the pound of flesh I needed without having to take it by force. I had my reconciliation.

“You won’t remember what you did,” I told him, thinking of the image I saw reflected in the mirror that morning — me standing proud in my clean, pressed police uniform. “You won’t remember it at all. But you know something, I want to thank you for it.”

I smiled and walked away.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Ike McKinnon was beaten by Detroit police officers before he was chief

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