Detroit’s former emergency manager said Thursday that he worries about his son ending up dead after an encounter with police, echoing the fears of many other black parents.
Kevyn Orr made the comment during an exit interview at the Detroit Economic Club after stepping down from his position overseeing the city last month. He was appointed to the job by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) in 2013, sparking divisiveness in the city throughout his term. Some applauded his ability to negotiate settlements with creditors and pull Detroit out of the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, also completed in December; other residents opposed concessions imposed on retired civil servants and saw his appointment as ceding local control and voting rights.
Orr, a bankruptcy lawyer, spoke candidly while responding to a question about race and policing from moderator Stephen Henderson, editorial page editor at the Detroit Free Press.
“I have to teach him how to speak cop,” Orr said about his young son, as reported by the Free Press. “How to use proper diction. Never put himself in a position where he is considered disorderly because once you do that anything can happen. It can escalate as it just did in Yale.”
Orr was referring to an incident detailed by New York Times columnist Charles Blow, who wrote that his son, a Yale University student, had a gun pointed at him after being stopped by campus police after leaving the library. Blow, like Orr, said he taught his son how to behave with police officers out of fear for his safety:
This is the scenario I have always dreaded: my son at the wrong end of a gun barrel, face down on the concrete. I had always dreaded the moment that we would share stories about encounters with the police in which our lives hung in the balance, intergenerational stories of joining the inglorious “club.”
When that moment came, I was exceedingly happy I had talked to him about how to conduct himself if a situation like this ever occurred. Yet I was brewing with sadness and anger that he had to use that advice.
When Orr spoke Thursday, he stressed his appreciation for police officers, but also recalled getting stopped by cops as a youth and said he worries for his son.
“I don't want him to line up on a slab because somebody rolled up on an incident at a playground where he had a pellet gun and shot him in two seconds,” Orr said. “That is a concern I have even as me, that other people have. And we have got to have a dialogue about that to cycle through this problem. Another 56 years should not pass where we're putting young black children at risk.”
Orr appears to be referring to Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy who was killed in November by a Cleveland, Ohio police officer responding to a 911 call about a guy with a gun at a park. Rice was shot before officers realized the gun he held was a toy.
Orr and Blow’s fears aren’t unique, but are high-profile reminders of the fear black men and their families have about police interactions. They come as national attention is turned to racial inequities in policing and use of force after the controversial deaths of several unarmed black men.
New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio expressed similar concerns in December while addressing the non-indictment of NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner, who was unarmed when he was placed in a fatal chokehold. De Blasio, who is white, talked about how he and his wife have broached the issue with their biracial son.
“[B]ecause of a history that still hangs over us, the dangers [my son] may face, we've had to literally train him, as families have all over this city for decades, in how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers who are there to protect him,” De Blasio said.
Orr, who previously worked on Chrysler’s 2009 bankruptcy and restructuring, will now lend his services to Atlantic City. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) appointed Orr to the financially troubled city's emergency management team last week.
Read the rest of Orr’s comments at the Detroit Economic Club about race and his time in the city at the Free Press.