May 20, 2010 at 1:00 am

Detroit Chief Evans gets in on reality TV action

Detroit Police Chief Warren Evans (The Detroit News)


Imagine this reality show promo: the chief of Detroit police gripping a semi-automatic rifle, standing in front of crumbling Michigan Central Depot, staring down a camera and declaring that he'll do whatever it takes to take his city back from crime.

The camera will tag along with Warren Evans as he goes on house raids, smokes cigars with his underlings and recalls words to live by told to him by his mother.

The promo will be six minutes long and will tentatively be titled: "The Chief."

The thing about this promo is that it is real. And in the wake of the accidental shooting of a 7-year-old girl at the hands of a Detroit police officer with a camera crew tagging along, one begins to wonder if Detroit is becoming reality TV gone wild.

In their hunt for the murderer of a 17-year old boy outside a liquor store last Friday, officers of the Special Response Team, the department's version of SWAT, tossed a flash-bang grenade into a house to stun its occupants.

Thirty seconds later, Aiyana Stanley Jones was dead from the bullet fired by Officer Joseph Weekley. The girl's clothes were singed from the grenade blast, police sources said.

'It is not protocol'

Grenades are rarely used when rounding up suspects, even murder suspects. But it was early Sunday morning. It was dark. And an A&E film crew was in tow filming a true-crime episode for its "The First 48" series.

"I'm worried they went Hollywood," said a high-ranking Detroit police official familiar with the events, who like many others, spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the investigation and simmering sentiment in the streets. "It is not protocol. And I've got to say in all my years in the department, I've never used a flash-bang in a case like this."

The official went on to say that the response team was not briefed about the presence of children in the house, although an informant that led homicide detectives to the location was aware that children were living there.

Evans himself issued a statement saying he expects that investigative findings into the killing "won't be pretty."

Police officials said they expect the city will put the A&E show on ice in the wake of the raid gone wrong.

Television executives around the country have been shown what is known in television parlance as the "sizzle reel" of Chief Evans himself, a video compilation of Detroit's top cop trying to take back the streets. It is part of a pitch for a full-blown television series.

I viewed the reel several weeks ago but took no notes. Yesterday morning, I received a call from a national television executive who had seen the film as well.

"Funny how that one worked out," the executive told me. Not really, I said.

Dysfunctional Detroit has become a ripe field of strawberries for national medial outlets peddling mayhem. Spike TV featured the Detroit bureau of the Drug Enforcement Administration in 2008. A&E is taping a season of "Parking Wars" here; production on a series about the Fire Department wrapped late last year. Even Animal Planet is in on the deal with "Animal Cops Detroit."

But what is the value of the shows like these considering the city gets no money? Why is Hollywood allowed to run around behind the scenes when the Police Department does not even put out a routine crime blotter informing the public about daily happenings?

And some wonder if the cameras encourage those in uniform to go cowboy.

"We have police drawing weapons, officers throwing bombs through windows," said Mohamed Okdie, chairman of the Police Commission, which is charged by city charter to set police policy. "We have to ask, does this jeopardize the safety of police officers or citizens? Does it conform or confound policing standards? We will investigate this. We have to look into policy for allowing or not allowing television crews to follow police around. How do they help anything?"

Success by most measures

To be fair, Evans' sizzle reel may be more about bad timing than bad judgment. Part of his job as top cop is to be something of a public relations man. Part of that is letting people know that Detroit is taking its debilitating crime problem head-on and is now open for business.

John Roach, a department spokesman, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

By most measures, Evans is succeeding. Since taking the job last July, homicides have dropped 20 percent during his six months on the job. What is more, homicide arrest rates have climbed from an abysmal 28 percent to 60 percent under Evans, on par with the national average.

In that vein, it should be noted that the suspect in the killing of the 17-year-old was arrested during the raid; he's expected to be arraigned today.

It should also be noted, however, that complaints against the Gang Squad -- which does much of the door knocking -- have increased three-fold under Evans, according to Okdie.

The balance between zero-tolerance policing, community relations and civic pride is delicate enough. Babies dying on TV doesn't help much. No matter how good the ratings.

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