Can the police and the public coexist at Rouge Park?

by Jena Brooker and Bryce Huffman

Growing up on the city’s far west side, Nicole Reed has heard exploding bombs and gunfire from the Detroit Police Gun Range at Rouge Park her entire life.

For the last four years, she’s lived directly across the street from the gun range with her two kids, ages one and three. The family, she said, is occasionally rattled by the loud boom of bombs and fireworks detonating, and they hear repeated gunfire almost daily.

“It don’t matter what time, they (police) literally do it in the middle of the night, do it in the middle of the morning, or in the day – they don’t care,” said Reed, 24. “There’s old people that live on this block and a whole bunch of kids, all they hear is gunshots. They need to take that and do that somewhere secluded.”

Nicole Reed and her daughter outside of their home across the street from the Detroit Police Pistol Range, on August 2, 2022. (BridgeDetroit photo by Jena Brooker) 

Despite living just feet from the city’s largest park, complete with a swimming pool, playgrounds, biking trails, Detroit’s only campground, and other amenities, Reed takes her kids elsewhere. The gunfire also brings more police traffic through the neighborhood, added Reed, gesturing to an officer pulling a driver over in front of her house as she talked with BridgeDetroit. 

“You would think that you would feel safe, but a lot of times they harassing people up here,” she said.

A portion of the sprawling 1,181-acre park has been used as a private shooting range for Detroit police for decades. The location, identifiable by a road-facing sign that reads “Detroit Police Pistol Range” includes an indoor gun range, archery range, and a detonation site to dispose of potentially dangerous devices found throughout the city, including bombs and fireworks. 

The area was mainly farmland when the range was first put in, but now it’s surrounded by homes and some residents and environmental leaders want DPD to stop using it for police activities. The city told BridgeDetroit that the detonation site, north of the archery range, is more than 2,000 feet away from the nearest home. The pistol range, Detroit officials say, is necessary for police training and its beneficial location – in the center of the massive park – is tucked away from Rouge Park’s amenities. Detroit has no plans to relocate the pistol range or stop DPD from using it. 

“The City of Detroit has determined Rouge Park to be the best location for both our DPD gun range training facility and Bomb Squad detonation site. To date, there are no plans to relocate either of them,” said Brad Dick, the city’s group executive of services and infrastructure.

The range, Dick said, is fairly isolated and beyond a building and abundant tree cover, there’s no playscapes or restrooms around it. To the east, he said, there’s a wide swath of parkland before any roads or housing. 

Dick said the city has and will continue to work with the community, park groups and police. But some say that collaboration needs work. The police activities there, residents and park advocates argue, has led to multiple concerns. It can be alarming to first-time visitors and has had negative impacts for some of the roughly 200 homes that surround the park.

In the city’s 6th police precinct, where Rouge Park sits, there have been 48 non-fatal shootings this year, as of Aug. 9, according to Detroit police data. But Reed told BridgeDetroit the gunfire residents hear most is from the police range. She said she thinks about moving “all the time” and said if she could, she “for sure” would.

Combating negative stereotypes

Sally Petrella, president of Friends of Rouge Park, a nonprofit that advocates to protect and restore Rouge Park, said the organization works hard to get more people to the underutilized park, but there have been occasions where the gun range has made that mission harder. 

In the last few years there has been a push to combat negative stereotypes about Rouge Park, with groups like Friends of Rouge Park stewarding trails in the park, and bringing people out for nature and wildlife walks. In 2018, Detroit Outdoors, a partnership between the YMCA, Sierra Club, and the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, started bringing kids into the park to camp, for the first time in nearly 20 years. Most recently, the Tom Gores Family Foundation announced a $20 million investment in Rouge Park to build a 25,000-square-foot community center, adjacent to Brennan Pool. 

According to city officials, the nearby Cody-Rouge neighborhood lacks an indoor community center. When completed in 2024, the center is expected to serve more than 24,000 residents with a 1.5-mile radius. 

“People come to Rouge Park for the first time and they hear gunshots. Though we reassure them that it is just the pistol range, it scares people to hear that many shots at one time, and it does not help the city’s reputation as a dangerous place,” Petrella said. 

“In our history with the Friends of Rouge Park, we had thought ‘Well, we have a pistol range. That’s great. The 6th (police) precinct has great community relations officers, they come to our meetings, they work with us. Maybe we can get some support from the police with some of the illegal activity,’” she said. But, Petrella said, “There doesn’t seem to be any connection. It’s just a pistol range that’s in the park. They don’t have any sort of community involvement.”

Dick said he doesn’t see the location of the range within the park as a negative or a positive.

“It is what it is and I think it’s suitable to have it there,” he said. 

The detonation of bombs or fireworks are even more disruptive, Petrella said, resulting in “incredibly loud noises” that traumatize people, pets and wildlife. Even from her home three miles away, Petrella said she can hear it when bombs are detonated in the park. 

It affects horses too, including those belonging to the Buffalo Heritage Soldiers Association, a local group that works to commemorate Black army soldiers who served following the Civil War. The organization, housed in Rouge Park, gives tours, history lectures, pony rides and horse grooming lessons to schools, youth groups, churches and other citizen groups. 

Elroy Reese, grounds facilitator for the association and a retired DPD officer, said DPD used to notify the group before detonating bombs, but he said the department stopped in 2020.

Elroy Reese is the grounds facilitator for the Buffalo Soldiers Heritage Association at Rouge Park. Reese says police don’t notify him or his colleagues before detonating bombs at the bottom of a nearby hill. (BridgeDetroit photo by Bryce Huffman)

“Someone would stop and ring the doorbell or stop and let us know ‘we’re going to be exercising today’ but that’s somehow stopped. We’d like to see that again,” Reese said. The noise from the pistol range isn’t a problem he said, “But the bombing can shake the windows, so that startles the horses.” 

Devices are detonated at Rouge Park on average 4 to 5 times per year; the most recent time was June 16. 

DPD said that it has not stopped notifying people of the bomb detonations during the pandemic.

Dick said the general services department coordinates with DPD and the community to notify residents via email when bombs will be detonated at the park, mainly through groups like Petrella’s. Residents can also request to be added to the city’s email notification list.  

City representatives have met many times with Friends of Rouge Park and other community stakeholders, including during a recent June meeting with Mayor Mike Duggan, the city and Buffalo Soldiers Heritage Association said. Following the mayor’s meeting with the community, the association was added to the notification list.

‘Jarring and alarming’

In early August, Detroit resident Terry Baras was relaxing on a bench near the shooting range. 

He said that he comes to the park almost every other day, to relax, or grill out. That August morning, the police had been firing shots at the range, but he didn’t mind. 

“I like ’em close by. It keeps the gangs and things away,” he said. “I like it out here. It’s peaceful. I come and sit in the shade for a while.” 

Deasha Jacob, 26, was at a playground in the park, also near the gun range, celebrating her nephew’s third birthday. Jacob was unaware of the shooting range but said, “I can only imagine if I was here and then I started hearing shots, I wouldn’t know if it was somebody shooting or the cops, so I’ll be rushing my a** out of here.” 

Garrett Dempsey, program coordinator for Detroit Outdoors, which facilitates youth camping in Rouge Park at Scout Hollow, Detroit’s only campground, said the organization always informs parents of the shooting range before leading camping trips to mentally prepare them. The organization has had a protocol where they notify police they will be camping out, and the police, in turn, inform Detroit Outdoors if something specific is going on. On several camping trips, shooting practice simultaneously took place. 

DPD also has used the Lahser Marsh at Rouge Park for some training exercises.

Donna Hall lives across from Rouge Park and said she walks there nearly everyday. One spring day, Hall said, she was walking by Scout Hollow and it smelled like bleach, or tires burning. It was windy, and the smell, which Hall believed to be tear gas, burned her eyes, nose, and throat, she said. 

“It was burning,” she told BridgeDetroit, “and we weren’t that close.” 

The incident, Hall said, took place in 2020 when protests were taking place in the city and throughout the nation in response to the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. 

Rudy Harper, a DPD spokesman, confirmed that the department has used tear gas during training at the park and said “we are reviewing records regarding training that was conducted at Rouge Park prior to Chief White’s administration.”

Harper added that he could not immediately speak to Hall’s claims, but said the department has made attempts to reach her and hopes address her concerns. 

Antonio Cosme, an education coordinator with the National Wildlife Federation, and leader with Black to the Land Coalition, said he utilizes Rouge Park for his work and personal life. When he takes groups out there, he said, “People are always really alarmed. Because it’s not like a shot, it’s like many, many shots.” 

Being at Rouge Park, he said, is a unique experience, due to the species not found elsewhere in the city, and the tree cover that allows people to walk for a long time without seeing a road, or feeling like you’re in a city. 

“That’s a rare thing to be fully immersed in nature in that way,” said Cosme, adding the gunfire is “jarring and alarming.”

Cosme described some tense exchanges with Detroit police at Rouge Park. In one instance, he said, a police helicopter, seven police cars and 12 officers showed up during an Indigenous maple sugar and syrup tapping ceremony in February. The officers, Cosme said, informed participants that they had to put out the fire and leave, according to the Detroit Free Press

DPD declined to comment on Cosme’s encounters with police at Rouge Park. 

Dick said up until a few years ago the city hadn’t received any complaints about the shooting range, and since then, they’ve only received a few, including from the Friends of Rouge Park. 

“When you have space like we have at Rouge [Park], we’re able to program and do lots of different things out there. And while maybe it’s not ideal for everyone, to have a police gun range out there, it is part of the city life that police officers need training. They should be able to go to a place that they want to work from, that’s accessible and easy to get to,” Dick said. 

Cosme said he’d rather focus on other critical issues, like pollution in the Rouge River, bringing back Indigenous land management traditions, and making the river safe for people to recreate in, and enjoy.

“The police should be helping take care and make that safe for all of us,” he said.


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