Updated: Feb 9, 2019
Detroit Police TMU Challenge Coin, designed by Roy Cavan (TMU 8-9) and Officer Jim Thornton.
My partner deftly steers the distinctly marked blue and white Tactical Mobile Unit car with his fingertips and , foot off the gas, lets it cruise on its own down the curb lane of Linwood Avenue near Pingree. We barely crawl along and pedestrians can pass us if they chose to. It doesn’t matter. Our whole purpose is to find crime and arrest it in its tracks, preferably before it gets started. And you can’t do that at ten miles an hour, or even five.
All our senses, except taste and feel, are being deployed to find incidents in progress or about to happen. And we are very good at what the judges hate - using that sixth sense, instinct, as a tool in our crime-fighting arsenal.
It takes a while but soon our eyes adjust for the evening to the darkness of this summer night. Streetlights and shop lights that weren’t broken or shot out reflect off storefront windows, absorb into the faded paint of old cars or glisten on broken liquor bottles in the alleys as we pass.
We watch, each of us trusting the other to keep a lookout on his side of the street. We aren’t just observing the activity in front of us. It is deeper than that. We peer inside storefronts as we crawl by, and into liquor stores, adult book stores, dry cleaners, bars, the open doors of hotel lobbies where the hookers rent rooms by the hour, and of burlesque show ticket offices. We gaze deeply into alleys, not just at what is nearest to us, but into the shadows, between cars and buildings, and under cars or cardboard containers.
Sometimes an empty shipping box is used as a house for a jakeybum and sometimes it is used as a bed for a quick rape and run. When we crawl down an alley with our lights off, we sit first and let our eyes adjust to the darker shadows. Then we silently slink down the narrow strip, hoping our tires didn’t crunch too much dirt and debris as we approach. We scan backyards and back porches, back doors and basement doors, garage doors and rear windows, looking for any sign of forced entry or assault. We look for the silent, but bright flash from a gun muzzle inside a house, a shop window or a parked car.
And we listen with purpose. We have learned to mute into the background the constant chatter of the police radio, unless the dispatcher calls for a car to respond to a shooting or a robbery in progress, or a man with a gun. We listen so intently to everything around us that we can even hear the creaking leather of our belts and holsters. But we listen primarily for the sounds of crime. The sound of wood splintering or glass breaking, the snap of a lock being pried. The sound of tires squealing in desperate flight, or of one car slamming into another, into a building, a tree, or into a body.
The sound of a fist slamming against a face, a grunt, a groan, a stifled gasp or sob. The hushed grunt of a pimp robbing a john underneath a hooker, in the backseat of a parked car. The muffled scream of fear or pain, the unseen voice that begs, “please no” or the voice that demands, “gimme all of it”.
And of course the gunshot. The rifle, the pistol, the shotgun. The large caliber that can kill you and the small caliber that can kill you too. The shot from a block away or six blocks away, or two houses away. The mechanical clack of a round being chambered too close.
We immerse ourselves into the very fabric of crime, trying to become one with it so the hairs on the back of our neck will stand as we approach it. So our stomachs tighten even before we turn the corner on it. We know it is there in the shadows or hiding in plain sight, waiting for us to pass. We just need it to trigger the sensors in our eyes, our ears, our noses or in our gut. We need to find it before it finds us.
Did I mention the smells? Smells of the street. Urine, feces, body odor from the uncleanliness of a junkie or from the fear of someone worrying we will find out he’s wanted for a crime. The stench of a street-person. The trailing scent of cologne and sweat from women of the street, whoring in the alleys, or the front doorways of the burlesques houses and bookstores, or the back doors of apartment buildings. The sour odor of corn-mash from home made whiskey, or of rotting food left over, after even the homeless reject it. And death.
Some say smell is the strongest of the senses to trigger memory. And there are smells one never forgets. One is that of a clotted pool of blood that sits in the sun too many hours under a layer of flies and maggots. Another is the smell of a human body burned in a fire. And yet another is of a body not discovered for a few days in the heat of the summer, or in an overheated slum apartment in the dead of winter. And so we sniff the night air.
Sensory engagement is how we spend those moments when we are not chasing someone on foot or in our car, or speeding somewhere with lights and sirens blazing, or fighting to affect an arrest, or to get your gun back from a guy intent on killing you with it.
We drive. We go looking for it, we listen for its telltale signs and we sniff out crime. We are the proud and few members of the elite Detroit Police Tactical Mobile Unit whose mission is pretty simple really, enter the highest crime precincts in the city and put a stop to it.
To give us that freedom of action, we don’t answer the typical radio runs of the precinct officers. We are on “free patrol”, left to our own devices to find crime, grab it by its shirt collar and drag it kicking and screaming to the local station. And we are good at it. Damned good. We are so effective that within a couple weeks of being in the highest crime territory, criminal activity comes to a virtual standstill. Here’s how it works.
Two precincts that meet the previous month’s criteria of “crime being out of control” are given the gift of TMU being assigned there for a month. The leading precinct on the east side of the city and the one on the west side each get a complement of ten two-man TMU cars along with our sergeants and lieutenants. Over twenty officers in each sector with one mission. Slam the door on crime, hard. And don’t worry if a few fingers get caught in the process, or if their sensibilities get bruised.
There is no eighth precinct at the time, so our Unit bears the designation of the "Eight-Series". Our cars are numbered 8-1 through 8-20. The "low cars" are 8-1 through 8-10 and the "high cars" 8-11 through 8-20. We are split into two groups, east side and west side, accordingly. Our supervisor cars are numbered 8-70 and 8-71, the Lieutenant is 8-60 and our Inspector is 8-50. We are also the crowd control unit responsible for managing major disorders, robberies in progress and barricaded gunmen. The entire force knows something is up when a city-wide broadcast comes from the dispatcher, "Attention 8-50 and all eight series units ...". TMU is being mobilized as a strike force and the entire on-duty law enforcement community in Detroit is aware of it at that moment. That is what we train for, what we wait for day after day. Waiting for all that training to be put to good use. We are the riot squad.
The regular precinct guys hate us. Maybe hate is a strong word, but we sure make it tough on the precinct desk crews. Here we come, in to their precinct, and we start locking up whatever they "missed". Maybe that isn't fair either. The precinct officer has to respond to the routine runs. We are free from that. Our sole purpose is to fight crime, not to write the report after it happens.
Within minutes of being on the street, we begin bringing in arrests to be booked by the desk sergeant and the clerk, and fingerprinted by the cellblock booking officer. Within the first few hours, it is not uncommon for the clerking crew at a precinct to see TMU cars bringing in ten to twenty lockups. There are plenty of drunk drivers, drivers without a license, or wanted on traffic warrants. But mostly we seek out felonies. Guns, stolen cars, drug dealers, junkies in possession of heroin or cocaine. Felons wanted on outstanding court-ordered warrants for robbery, rape, burglary and all kinds of assault. We nab motorcycle gang members wanted for shooting each other, for blowing up each other's clubhouses or general mayhem against the public. And hundreds of felons for failing to appear at their trials.
And that goes on for the first week or two, until we take pretty much every felon from their cars, the sidewalks, or their dope corners. We take their cars, their dope, their money and their guns to the station. All of which has to be entered into evidence and managed by the precinct officers. Every day, bless their hearts.
It's not uncommon for each two-man TMU car to bring in 3-4 good felony arrests a night. That's somewhere around thirty something key lock-ups in each precinct we are assigned to, each night. Sixty to eighty arrests a night for TMU when you take into account both the east side precinct and the west. And we are there for the entire month! That's between eighteen hundred and two thousand arrests a month by our Unit. We don't know it at the time, but our annual arrest records will never be matched by any other unit in the history of the Department.
Precinct detectives go from reading a half dozen reports a night, to reading several dozen. Clerks go from booking one or two prisoners a shift to booking twenty, thirty or forty. Precinct command officers complain that their regular desk crews call in sick for the first few days that TMU is assigned there.
And “citizens” gripe that "the TMU cars are stopping every car on the street”. It isn’t true of course, but you could sure see how they might think that. Nearly every couple miles throughout the entire precinct on a main thoroughfare, a side street or even in the alleys, you see a TMU crew out of their car checking the occupants of another car, investigating someone on the sidewalk, or arresting and handcuffing them in plain, public view. And it's a regular occurrence to see TMU officers scuffling on the sidewalk with someone who thinks he has more to lose by being arrested than by resisting arrest. It never, ever works out in their favor. Nightly, you can hear TMU cars race through the precinct, sirens wailing, as they pursue fleeing felons. So maybe it seems like we are everywhere, stopping everyone and locking up everything that moves. But that's the whole point.
And it goes on night after night until it becomes harder and harder for us to find a crime or a criminal in our area. Eventually the radio runs quiet down for all the cars in our assigned precinct, even ours. For a brief few days the precinct patrol officers, station sergeants and their clerks can experience a little quiet-time before we rotate out to another high crime area the next month.
TMU officers thrive on the energy of being totally engaged for the entire shift. Every encounter is filled with heart pounding excitement. Surviving the pursuit, the hunt and the arrest is instant gratification of the highest form. It’s almost as if being an adrenaline junkie is a pre-requisite for membership in the Unit. We can’t wait to get out of the station after a lockup and right back on the street to feel the rush all over again.
And when we drive our cars back to the “barn” at the end of the night, it is with a feeling of intense satisfaction. For an hour or so after off-duty roll call, TMU guys stand around, winding down in a sort of choir practice. We share our highlights of the evening with brothers who understand what we are saying. And more importantly what goes without saying. It is the first step of a catharsis to calm us down before we go home to our families. The events of the shift become the lifelong stories that people listen to, in awe or disbelief. Then it’s time to go home and give our senses a rest before we get back at it the next night.
Mike Saad, TMU 8-3, 1971-1975
(During the 1970s TMU was renamed, in an attempt to be more "community sensitive", to Tactical Mobile Section (TMS) and then Tactical Services Section (TSS). Eventually the name and the Unit went away altogether. In 2018, Chief James Craig, in a special dedication ceremony and in honor of the proud tradition of the Unit, renamed the Special Response Unit Tactical Services Section. In the ceremony, Chief Craig spontaneously remarked, "It is unlikely any unit will ever match the statistics, but we hope you will maintain the proud tradition of this Unit.")