Mother Bernice Has Her Eye on Detroit 

DETROIT — Bernice Smith, 89, got her start in political activism in 1973 when she volunteered to be on the campaign of late former Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young.

Part of Young’s campaign ran on rooting out racist tactics used by the Detroit Police department which targeted and mistreated African Americans in the community. After Young won his election, he set up a crime committee to tackle crime and policing. Bernice ran Young’s downtown campaign and eventually was tapped to serve on the committee after Young was elected. She would become an integral part of the city’s effort to right-size the criticized practices of brutality toward Black citizens by Detroit Police filled with many racial undertones during that time.

“We tried a much as possible to get rid of the racism and the big 4,” Bernice said. “They would go around to the Black neighborhoods and stop Black men and antagonize them.”

She is referring to a Detroit Police Department unit, Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets (STRESS). It operated from 1971 until 1974. STRESS was created to reduce crime in Detroit. It deployed decoy units, targeting African American men. It was disbanded by Mayor Young.

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She believes policing in Detroit has dramatically improved but keeps her eye and ear to the streets and stays ready to be involved and let her voice be heard.

“She’s very well-known and very well-respected,” said Martin Jones, vice chair, Detroit Police Commission. Jones has known Smith for nearly 15 years and despite her notoriety, he claims she maintains her passionate persona to care about people and her community. “She’s been the same person, even-kilter all along.”

Smith has kept her pulse on the city policing issue for years. She has actively been involved in police commission meetings and most recently served on a former DPD advisory board under former Detroit Police Chief James Craig.

But attending board meetings and being a part of an advisory board isn’t enough for the person Detroiters have dubbed “Mother Bernice.”

Over the summer, an officer encounter with a man in Greektown left him tumbling to the ground after he was pushed off by an officer. Video captured the man retreating from the officer when he was struck and landed head first on the pavement. This incident and other crowd and police encounters during the summer weeks in Greektown is what prompted Mother Bernice to put back on her hat of oversight and see for herself what’s unfolding in Detroit’s popular downtown gathering spot. Her trips are often made after 9 p.m. and her stay, sometimes until 2 a.m.

“I made it up in my mind that I wanted to see what the police were doing to the citizens,” Smith said. On a Friday or Saturday night, she hops in her car and makes the ten-minute drive to Monroe St. where she parks and observes. But watching the crowds and police officer interactions from her vehicle isn’t her only “God-given assignment.” Mother Bernice steps out of her car at times and interacts with the mostly young crowds she encounters.

“They call me grandma,” she recalls. “When I see them walking down the street with their pants down, I call them over and say, ‘young man, your underwear looks really nice, but pull your pants up.’ They laugh at me and say, alright grandmama.”

It’s a sweet, yet firm conversation that yields a good relationship she has with the young people downtown.

This relationship of respect is also true for the officers she encounters, making sure they are conducting enforcement but also not engaging on behavior with citizens that crosses the line.

She normally reports back to the police commission on Zoom public hearings on what she witnesses and often gives suggestions on how police can make improvements.

“It’s a great and dynamic service she offers to the citizens of Detroit and the police department,” said police commissioner Jones. “At her age, to be out there, active and involved eliminates all the excuses for everyone …as to why they can’t participate in the activities that take place in our city.”

Mother Bernice is seen as a community treasure and while she knows she could be sitting comfortably inside her home, keeping an eye on her city is something she has no regrets or apologies for.

“It’s a pleasure to be in this city, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I want it to be known that I care for people, that’s my main objective.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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