As a child in Michigan, David Van Wie never quite knew what his father did for a living.
He went to several police funerals, but his dad was tight-lipped about his occupation.
Van Wie graduated high school and, while in college, he asked his father to take him to the shooting range. It was there he noticed notch marks on the bottom of his .357.
“I asked him about it and he said, with a straight face, ‘Why the hell do you think I have notches on the bottom of my gun?’”
His father, Paul Van Wie, was a member of the Detroit Police S.T.R.E.S.S. (Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets) Unit that operated from 1971 to 1974. The unit sent mostly white decoy officers into black neighborhoods with high crimes. These decoy officers waited to be robbed or assaulted while pretending to be elderly ladies, stranded motorists and drunks.
After the first year, Detroit became the city with the nation’s highest number of fatal shootings by police. It also became the No. 1 city for police officer deaths.
A Central Phoenix resident, Van Wie dedicated three years to making a documentary, “Detroit Under S.T.R.E.S.S.,” about this unit. It screens at the Chandler International Film Festival from 7:35 to 8:50 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 13, at the San Marcos Resort.
Produced by Gardner Cole (“Days of Thunder,” “Coming to America,” “The Fugitive”) and Ritta Yee-Fagain (MoliFILMS), the documentary is narrated by C. Thomas Howell (“The Outsiders,” “The Amazing Spider-Man”).
For “Detroit Under S.T.R.E.S.S.,” Van Wie interviewed multiple civil rights activists who fought to disband the unit, which compounded racial tensions after the 1967 race riots, as well as members of the unit.
“Many in the community felt these cops were acting as judge, jury and executioner with little to no supervision or accountability,” he said.
Van Wie received insight into the unit four years ago when his dad was invited to a S.T.R.E.S.S. reunion.
“I said, ‘I’d love to hear about this unit,’” he recalled telling his dad. “He said, ‘Nobody’s allowed. Nobody can go in.’ I thought, ‘What’s the deal?’”
Finally, his father told him the story and Van Wie’s reaction was natural.
“My mouth was hanging open and my head was tilted back,” Van Wie said. “It’s a tough subject to watch. How we treat each other, particularly at that moment of time, was hard on a lot of people.”
Howell added, “These people talk about talk about it and you can see there was a toll taken on their souls. Looking at their faces and their body language, it was a hard, hard life. You feel like everyone needed a hug and a time out. The fact that it went on for as long as it did was amazing. The civil rights movement was such a huge part of that.”
Howell, who was referred to Van Wie by a mutual acquaintance, saw the toll the events took on the documentary’s subjects.
“When you see the darkest moments from the dregs of humanity and horrible times in bad places, I think one can only take so much of that. It’s impossible to manage that properly.”
Van Wie’s background isn’t in film, so it was a challenge. Van Wie formerly taught second grade at Kyrene de la Esperanza Elementary School in Phoenix from 1998 to 2000. He then went into the car wash business, owned and operated a digital advertising business called Bubble TV, invested in real estate and filmed commercials for nonprofits.
Van Wie said it’s a shame that police violence is continuing.
“They say those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it,” Van Wie said. “We are repeating it. We are watching police/community relations deteriorating at a rapid pace. By studying and learning from the past, we can change the future in an informed, responsible manner.”
For more information about the film, the movie trailer and screening details, visit detroitunderstress.com. Tickets for the Chandler International Film Festival are available at chandlerfilmfestival.com.