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Newly unveiled police officer mural in Sterling Heights ignites backlash

A newly unveiled mural in Sterling Heights that depicts police officers holding hands in front of an American flag is drawing backlash from critics who call it tone-deaf amid the Black Lives Matter movement.

The mural, a replica of a painting originally created in 2018 by Detroit artist Nicole Macdonald, was unveiled earlier this month in front of the Sterling Heights Police Department. It was painted as part of the Detroit Institute of Arts' Partners in Public Art Program, which pairs artists with communities in Metro Detroit for specific projects.

Macdonald couldn't be reached for comment Thursday but has referred other media outlets to a Metro Times interview, in which she said she was trying to create a piece with a message about police reform that showed "humility and introspection and peace."

“So people are now saying that it’s like bowing and praying in front of the flag, which is just gross," Macdonald told the Metro Times in a recent story, where she said she also believes the mural should be taken down. "I mean, I understand the reaction.”

The mural, called "To Serve and Protect," was unveiled with fanfare in early June in front of the Sterling Heights Police Department. But shortly after its reveal, a group called DIA Staff Action questioned it on Instagram, calling the DIA and its Partners in Public Art Program "out of touch."

"Did our taxes fund this pro cop mural?" reads a post from DIA Staff Action. "...The leadership of the DIA continues to demonstrate that they are are unable to lead our institution and serve the diverse communities of Detroit."

For its part, the DIA has released a statement saying like all Partners in Public Art projects it coordinates, the artist "designed the mural based on input from the specific community that requested it."

"As outlined in the contracts that the museum has with each county that provides funding to the museum for these projects, community partnerships like PiPA must 'respect and sustain the mission of the local organization and preserve the local character of each program,'" said the DIA in a statement.

But it noted that since the mural was painted in 2018, "much has transpired in our country and we understand and respect that many members of our community are hurt and angered."

"To support healing, we will continue investing in partnerships with community-based non-profits in the tri-county region led by and serving the BIPOC community," said the DIA in its statement.

Macdonald was paid $6,000 to re-create the mural. Another $400 went toward tiles below the mural that were created by police officers and their families at the DIA.

Sterling Heights officials, meanwhile, say they have no plans to remove the mural.

They said their police department worked with Macdonald to create a mural "that reflects our City's diversity, unity, peaceful and humble service." The mural is a replica of an original painting that hung in the police department's lobby since 2019.

Sterling Heights officials said the mural -- designed as a replacement for its former reflective pond memorial to fallen officers -- is one of five now in the city.

"Not only does public art enhance quality of life in a community, it also provides a method to break down barriers, provoke thought and create important community conversations," said city officials in a statement. "The time has never been better to spark conversations around continuous improvement and promote a message of peace, love, unity, kindness and humility in service to our community, and we look forward continuing to do that important work -- through both this art and, even more importantly, in our listening and actions -- for years to come."