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Documentary looks back at violent history of Detroit police’s S.T.R.E.S.S. units

Director David Van Wie and the films narrator Thomas Howell
Courtesy of David Van Wie
Director David Van Wie and the film's narrator Thomas Howell at the premiere of "Detroit Under S.T.R.E.S.S"

In 1971, the Detroit Police Department launched the S.T.R.E.S.S unit, an acronym for “Stop the Robberies and Enjoy Safe Streets.”

The unit was eliminated by Mayor Young in 1974, but the stories of those three years are dark and violent.  They included tragedies of unchecked use of excessive force against the city’s African-American community. 

An award-winning documentary, Detroit Under S.T.R.E.S.S, delves into this controversial era. 

David Van Wie is the film’s producer and director. Van Wie joined Stateside’s Cynthia Canty to discuss the history of the S.T.R.E.S.S. unit and his motivations for the making the film. 

Movie poster for "Detroit Under S.T.R.E.S.S"
Credit David Van WIe
Movie poster for "Detroit Under S.T.R.E.S.S"

Van Wie is a Michigan native, whose father served as S.T.R.E.S.S officer on of the “decoy units.” His father did not wear a uniform, so growing up, Van Wie had no idea what his father’s job was. 

Through the years, Van Wie said he began to gather bits and pieces of the story. Then, just five years ago, he confronted his father about the S.T.R.E.S.S. unit. 

“He finally sat down, and he told me the story of S.T.R.E.S.S and I about fell over in my chair. I just couldn’t believe what had happened, what the unit did, the consequences of that unit," said Van Wie.

Van Wie told his father that they had to share this story. His father responded: “Nobody’s talking to you, including me."

Listen above to hear Van Wie discuss how S.T.R.E.S.S operated, and what he hopes viewers will take away from the film. 

Detroit Under S.T.R.E.S.S will be screened this Thursday at 7:30 pm at the Emagine Theater on North Main Street in Royal Oak, as part of the second annual "I See You Awards.”

David Van Wie will hold a question and answer session after the screening.


This post was written by Stateside production assistant Sophie Sherry. 

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