Former Detroit police chief and deputy mayor 'Ike' McKinnon lauded for regional leadership

Ike McKinnon has been a lifelong leader.

He led Detroit’s police as their chief, led Detroit’s citizens as deputy mayor, led college students as a professor, and led security staffs that guarded the University of Detroit Mercy, the Renaissance Center and, these days, are guarding the hometown venues of the Detroit Pistons, Red Wings and Tigers.

Through his legendary career, while leading organizations, McKinnon has also been a thought leader. He forever challenged, inspired, and sometimes pushed those around him to share his vision of a better Detroit, the city where McKinnon has lived since arriving with his family from Alabama at age 9 in 1953.

He didn’t keep to himself his vision for a region of less racism, violence and ignorance. He lived his vision in how he led others, and in how he spoke, wrote and broadcast that vision — on the "Today Show," "Oprah" and the History Channel, in three books he wrote, and on the Free Press editorial pages in occasional guest columns, most recently about how best to reform policing.

For McKinnon’s five decades of sharing his vision, the Detroit Free Press and the Metropolitan Affairs Coalition have chosen him for a 2021 Shining Light Award. McKinnon, 78, and still working every day, will receive the Neal Shine Award for Exemplary Regional Leadership.

Meet the 2021 Shining Light honorees:

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RSVP: McKinnon will be honored during a virtual ceremony Oct. 7. RSVP to watch here.

This year marks the return of the awards, named in memory of the late Neal Shine, a former Detroit Free Press editor and publisher. They honor Shine’s dedication to improving the region he loved. The Shining Light ceremony was canceled last year amid the escalating pandemic. The Free Press announced that those awards recognized the front-line heroes who stepped up to keep Michigan going. This year, McKinnon and two other awardees will be feted at a virtual event on Oct. 7.

Isaiah “Ike” McKinnon is the grandson of sharecroppers born into slavery. As a Black teen in the late 1950s attending Cass Tech High School in Detroit, McKinnon chose his career after he was beaten by four white cops while walking home, he said.

“I had done nothing wrong, but that’s when I decided to become a police officer. I decided I had to change the system,” he said.

After military service in Vietnam, McKinnon returned to become one of the first Black people in the Detroit Police Department. He encountered stark racism, he recalled. White officers placed cardboard dividers to segregate him in patrol cars. Use of the N-word was rampant. McKinnon said he told himself, over and over, "Don’t quit." During the heat of the 1967 “riot or rebellion, whatever you want to call it,” he said, he barely escaped death when, at the end of a tense shift, “two of my white colleagues in the DPD pulled me over and shot at me — a fellow officer in uniform.” He dived back into his car and escaped.

In 1969, McKinnon was on the job when he met Neal Shine’s younger brother, Sgt. Bill Shine. 

“We both worked in a special unit. I was the only Black officer. One officer had shot and killed a young Black man. He walked into the office and said, ‘I shot me a n-----.’ Everybody looked at me. Bill Shine pulled me outside and said, ‘Don’t let this ruin your career.’ We weren't close, but he must’ve seen the anger in my face.”

Not long afterward, Sgt. Shine was named to an elite unit, the executive protection detail that guarded Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh. Shine requested that McKinnon be promoted to it.

“I became the first Black officer on that detail. And over the years, I became close with the entire Shine family,” he said, during a phone interview from his office at Detroit-based City Shield Security, where he’s chief operating officer. In the 1970s, McKinnon rose through the ranks of the Detroit Police Department and began fulfilling his boyhood vow, demanding that fellow officers stop abusive, racist tactics “or else,” and backing that with his big physique as well as a black belt in karate.  

In those trying years, McKinnon recalled finding vital stress relief in college studies. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at UDM, and a Ph.D. in 1981 from Michigan State University. In 1984, he retired from the Detroit Police Department with the rank of inspector, formed his own security firm, then returned in 1993 to spend five years as chief, chosen by Detroit’s then newly elected mayor, Dennis Archer. 

McKinnon was teaching at UDM when Archer, planning to run for mayor, called him and said, “I want a better police department,” Archer recalled. The two began conferring often. After Archer was elected, he made McKinnon his police chief.

“And he did a heck of a job,” Archer said. Among McKinnon’s key initiatives were recruiting numerous Black officers; and implementing community policing, which helps officers build citizens' trust by getting to know people in the areas they patrol. 

In 2013, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan appointed McKinnon deputy mayor. To serve, McKinnon took a two-year leave from his post as associate professor of education at UDM. He retired last year after more than two decades of teaching.

McKinnon is an unabashed Detroit booster. Still, his wide-ranging board memberships speak to a regional outlook. He’s on the boards of the Detroit Zoological Society, the Detroit Wayne County Stadium Authority and the Detroit Jazz Festival. He was nominated for a Shining Light award by Royal Oak-based public relations executive Mort Meisner, a former television news reporter who met McKinnon in 1978 and has been a friend ever since.

In his nominating submission, Meisner wrote: “Ike’s years of work and dedication has not only supported the city of Detroit but the surrounding cities and counties as well ... Over the years, some may have disagreed with his position on various initiatives, but he always courageously stood his ground as he does to this day.”

Contact Bill Laitner: [email protected]