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Detroit's Ron Scott, relentless campaigner for police accountability, dies at 68

Longtime Detroit community and civil rights activist Ron Scott has died of cancer.

Scott headed the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality.

He left a big mark on the city’s police department, with his decades of activism against police misconduct and for increased transparency.

He was instrumental in securing a U.S. Justice Department consent decree against the DPD in 2003, at a time when Detroit police led the nation in civilian shootings. 

That led to more than a decade of federal oversight and major changes in Detroit police operations. Even though Scott disagreed when a federal judge released Detroit from the decree in 2014, he acknowledged the DPD had made progress.

Current Detroit Police Chief James Craig says despite their differences, he had “tremendous respect” for Scott, and wishes the two could have had a “historical” conversation before Scott passed away.

“Just to sit down and just talk about that history--the history of the old Detroit police department, and the community, primarily the African American community,” said Craig.

Craig recalled meeting Scott in the 1970s, when Craig was a young Detroit police officer and Scott was still fighting to dismantle the Detroit Police Department’s notorious STRESS (Stop the Robberies Enjoy Safe Streets) initiative.

That initiative was widely seen as targeting African Americans with aggressive policing, inflaming tensions between that community and the city’s then-predominantly white police force. STRESS was eventually disbanded by Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, who integrated the DPD.

But Scott continued his relentless push against police misconduct, which he said continued despite that integration. 

“Now, you have people alienated for different reasons than race,” Scott told the Detroit Newsearlier this year. “A lot of it is socioeconomic. A lot of times, you’ll have black officers who gain power, and they end up engaging in the same kind of abusive behavior that white officers used to do.”

Scott also spoke out against the increased police use of military-style raids and other tactics, well before that became a topic of national conversation.

Willie Bell, a former Detroit police officer who now chairs the city’s police board of commissioners, says Scott’s constant agitation for police accountability won him many enemies—but he proved in many ways to be ahead of his time.

“In most cases he was right. And you can see that now,” said Bell, alluding to a renewed focus on police misconduct and race relations in the wake of a string of police shootings nationwide.   

“You know? He just wanted us to be fair, and treat people properly, and when there’s wrongdoing there’s got to be accountability.”

Scott was also a co-founder and original member of the Detroit chapter of the Black Panther Party. That experience continued to inform his activism and community work throughout his life, as he worked to establish “Peace Zones for Life” and other efforts to address the roots of community violence.

“I like to call myself a ‘Transformational Anthropologist,’” Scott wrote on his personal webpage. “I am deeply interested in activities and projects that change human and social behavior in the direction of peace and reconciliation.”

Scott’s family issued a statement on his death Monday. “We, the family of Ron Scott, are grateful to the outpouring of love and support that we have seen from the Detroit community as well as nationally,” it read in part.

“Ron was our brother, and we all benefited from his wisdom and love as the elder member of the family; but we also know and understand that he belonged to the community as well,” it continued, adding that the family was “in the process of developing a mechanism by which people who cared about Ron's work can contribute to its continuance.”

Scott died Sunday at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak. He was 68.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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