Richard Tillman was working in the auto industry in 1953 when a friend, newly hired at the Detroit Police Department, told him about what the work was like. Tillman thought it sounded interesting and applied.
Now in his 7th decade of law enforcement, Tillman’s career began as a patrolman back when Detroit had nearly 2 million residents. He worked through the 1967 riots and retired from the department in the 1980s. Since then, Tillman has run the Oakland Police Academy where he oversees the training of dozens of cadets each year.
He spoke with WDET’s Jake Neher in a wide-ranging interview – some of his comments were part of a “CuriousiD” segment answering a listener’s question about the use of force by officers.
He also talked about some of his philosophies about teaching new recruits, including how he navigates the discussion about the use of force. Those conversations take place against the current backdrop of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, which has been critical of police shootings. Tillman says some of that criticism is justified. “I’ve seen situations on television, shootings that have just embarrassed me, that were so wrong,” he says.
Tillman, who admits he is long past the usual age of retirement, says he stays working because he is still excited when he sees “a brand new group of people who are enthusiastic and wide-eyed, and they want to be police officers.”
Here’s some of his conversation with Neher:
JN: I understand that you were in Detroit in 1967. What was your experience with the riots?
DT: I remember it very well. The city was totally burning during the day. I’m in police headquarters, the second floor, that’s where I was stationed. I’d look out the window in the afternoon and I’d see smoke all over. It was on fire. We figured it was beyond our control, local police. Thank god President Johnson was on television and said – we were all watching it – and he said I have reluctantly ordered the 101sts Airborne Division into assist. So when they arrived after several days of rioting, within a couple of days it was put down.
JN: As a police office on the ground, how did it make you feel when you heard the president make that declaration?
DT: Those of us standing around the television watching it cheered because police agencies aren’t set up to handle huge insurrections like that. You need help from the outside. A lot of people don’t understand that but that’s the reason that today there are consortiums so agencies band together now to put these kinds of things down. It was really interesting driving around in a scout car after the curfew was on. Absolutely no cars at all on the road except police cars. It was strange. You never had to stop for a red light or a stop sign. So it was really interesting.
JN: Can you give me a couple of specific examples of what you remember of how your training played into that situation and maybe some of the biggest challenges to that?
DT: I was a patrolman back then, at the lowest level of the department. I’m basically told what to do all the time. My assignment was the transportation division, so we would transport people to different locations, particularly popular people, important people that came into Detroit and they needed a ride from one location. So that’s what I did. Then I was taken out, I had to drive a medical examiner out to the scene of a lot of deaths, and he had to try to identify bodies, and for me that was a great experience just to watch how they did it.
JN: In some ways, was it a difficult experience or did you view it like you said more of an education kind of moment?
DT: It was real educational. It wasn’t difficult. It was very educational to see how they operated. … This is what you’re talking about. The riots. ‘67. This is where they sent me. But those are the riots.
At this point during the interview, Tillman opened an envelope of 11 x 14 photos.
JN: Help us visualize, especially listeners who can’t see. What are some of the things that strike you about these photos?
DT: The number of people. The fact that police were so outnumbered that they couldn’t go down and police these areas. You see them standing back observing. You see police officers here guarding firemen who are putting out a fire. They had to guard them otherwise their lives were in jeopardy. Firemen were shot at during that period time. To see the military vehicles in these photographs, which you see a military vehicle back here ad her. That meant a lot to these police officers who were looking for cover. So yeah, I do remember the riots of ‘67. I was there and I went down to this particular area here. What happened in this particular area is looters were in one of these stores which was a liquor store. They were looting the liquor store and it was on fire at the time. The floor gave away and a few of them fell into the basement. They lost their lives. So they brought these people up who were also burned very badly I brought them medical examiner out to help identify these people who were in the basement. That’s what this is here.
JN: Can you talk from personal experience about what were, how was the interaction between police and the community before the riots and after the riots.
DT: I never had any problem with the police and the community. I thought we were doing well. At the time I was in what they called the accident Prevention Bureau. We would ride up and down neighborhood streets. Back then kids would call out and say “Hey Police” and so forth. We got along quite well, and it was hard to understand why all this happened.