June 8, 2012 at 1:00 am

The crime crisis

Police cuts loom as Detroit struggles to curb violence

Detroit residents fed up with crime
Detroit residents fed up with crime: Andre Ventura and Robin Murphy describe dealing with crime in their Detroit neighborhoods.

The fight against crime in Detroit has reached a critical stage, experts say, with massive police budget cuts looming in a town that's already the most violent big city in the country.

Through the years, Detroit police have encountered gang wars, organized crime, race riots and Devil's Night mayhem in a town once dubbed the "Murder Capital" — but the embattled Detroit Police Department is on the brink of its worst crisis, Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee said.

"We're at a tipping point in Detroit … this is probably the most challenging time in the city's history," Godbee said. "I have the toughest job of any other Detroit police chief that came before me."

Mayor Dave Bing has approved the 2012-13 budget, slashing $75 million — or 18 percent — from the department's $414 million budget.

The cut, which takes effect when the fiscal year begins on July 1, will result in the elimination of 380 positions from the force of about 2,600 through attrition and early retirement. The prospect of fewer officers on patrol has residents, elected officials and police fearing a spike in crime, which Godbee said is already at an "unacceptable" level.

Bing acknowledged that the city's crime problem has reached a boiling point.

"This is a difficult time in the city's history," he said. "But I know we can fight back."

In May alone, at least 657 aggravated assaults, 278 robberies, 33 carjackings and 33 homicides were recorded. Among those were several high-profile crimes, including the May 8 robbery of former Detroit Police Chief Stanley Knox as he mowed the front lawn of his northwest Detroit home. A day later, an 84-year-old guard Joseph Lewis Jr. was killed in the church lot he was guarding. And the May 16 carjacking of internationally known gospel singer the Rev. Marvin Winans made national headlines.

Although crime in Detroit dropped significantly in recent decades, the city is by far the most violent in the United States of those with populations greater than 400,000. There were 2,378 violent crimes per 100,000 residents in 2010, the latest year for which figures are available.

If Detroit's crime rate was equal to that of Memphis, Tenn. — the second-most violent with a population of more than 400,000 — there would've been nearly 6,000 fewer violent crimes in 2010. And if the Motor City had New York's crime rate, there would have been 49 homicides in Detroit in 2010, not 310.

Andre Ventura, 41, has two American flags flying upside down — an official sign of distress — in the lot he owns next to his east side home, because he said the crime has gotten so bad. He also hung up a sign warning that "this city is infested by crackheads."

"(Criminals) take anything they want," Ventura said. "They don't care. If they want something, they're just going to kick your front door in and take it. You call 911 … there's no police cars coming. And now, they're talking about cutting police? That's a disaster waiting to happen."

Godbee said he understands residents' frustration and is trying to reconfigure the department to get more officers on the street. Only 67 percent of sworn officers are assigned to patrol.

Godbee has launched several initiatives to put more officers on patrol, including "Inside Out," which redeploys desk officers, and "Virtual Precincts," in which precinct offices are closed after 4 p.m. to free up more officers to patrol.

Even President Barack Obama is aware of Detroit's struggles, Godbee said.

"He was here last year for a labor speech," Godbee said. "As I was walking up to him, he said, 'Chief, you've got a tough job.'

"I'm looking at the person who has the power of the free world in his hands, and he recognizes the difficulties of my job."

Scrambling for solutions

The violence in Detroit has contributed to the city's plummeting population, said Joe Duncan, president of the Detroit Police Officers Association.

"Detroit is Baghdad," Duncan said. "More people have been killed in Detroit over the past decade than our soldiers over in … Afghanistan. That kind of violence is why the population got so low in the first place — you have fewer police officers, the tax base has eroded, and crime has exploded."

Since combat troops began the Afghanistan campaign in 2001, there have been 1,983 Americans killed, according to the Department of Defense. During that span, there were 4,185 homicides in Detroit.

Godbee acknowledged the situation is dire."From a leadership standpoint, we don't have the opportunity to cry, take our ball and go home," Godbee said. "I don't think anyone would argue that violent crime is too high. I've got to make the necessary adjustments to bring those numbers down with the resources I have."

The Police Department has about 1,000 fewer officers than it did a decade ago, and residents routinely complain that officers show up late — or not at all — to emergency calls.

"It doesn't do any good to call the cops, because they never come," said southwest Detroit resident Frances White, 37, who said she dialed 911 recently after three men snatched a gold chain off the neck of a co-worker.

Godbee said it's a struggle for officers to properly patrol the city and respond to emergency calls, and said he's forced to deploy his finite resources to the areas with the most problems. Detroit Police officials review crime statistics daily and focus on the worst areas, he said.

"We have spikes in crime, and when we do, we make adjustments and suppress — but then they crop up again," Godbee said. "That's where resource challenges become an issue: When you redeploy and get an area under control, we don't have the luxury to have street patrol the way we used to. We're intensely focused on areas and suppression to make sure those areas stay under control."

Daniel Kennedy, a criminal justice professor at University of Detroit Mercy and Oakland University, who also provides consulting to several suburban police departments, said police officials should take a more scientific approach to fighting crime.

"When police officers and residents learn there's going to be a cut in the budget, there's always an emotional impact first," Kennedy said.

"But you have to get through the emotional stuff and figure out how to counteract the unavoidable impact of the budget cuts."

Kennedy said the Police Department should hire a professional crime analyst, an option Godbee's predecessor, Warren Evans, was exploring.

"What they're doing now is having some police officials looking at crime stats and saying, 'Hey, there are a lot of crimes happening on Seven Mile; let's send more officers over there,'" Kennedy said. "But that's so 25 years ago. They need to hire a professional analyst."

Council President Pro Tem Gary Brown has argued there are enough police officers on the force, but he questions how they are being deployed.

"The department has more than sufficient financial resources and personnel to proactively address crime," said Brown, a former ranking Detroit police officer.

"We spend more on our police budget than all 10 of the safest American cities of similar size, and we have more officers than nine of the 10 safest cities," he added.

"DPD is spending resources on the wrong areas and it's using trained officers behind the desks instead of civilians."

'A long way'

Of the city's 2,600 sworn police officers, 1,758 are assigned to patrol, with another 480 working in investigative capacities, including homicide, gang enforcement and traffic; and 384 handling functions such as human resources, dispatch and management services.

If Detroit's entire police force is taken into consideration, there are about 2.75 officers per 1,000 residents — below the average of 3.1 officers per 1,000 among Midwest cities with populations of more than 250,000, according to the FBI. But if only the Detroit officers assigned to patrol are counted, there are 2.47 officers per 1,000 residents.

Godbee said it's unfair of Brown to compare Detroit to many of the country's safest cities.

"You have to look at issues like unemployment, illiteracy, entrenched poverty, the availability of jobs," Godbee said. "Some of those 10 cities on that list are San Diego; San Jose, which has Silicon Valley; last time I checked, we don't have Silicon Valley. Without those other factors, that's not the best way to propose the dollar investment for public safety.

"Now, as Detroit changes and develops different industries and the educational system comes online, and we start to deal with some of these socioeconomic issues, that's how you drive down your costs for public safety, but we're a long way from that point."

While the city's population has shrunk to about 713,000, the size of the city hasn't shrank, meaning police officers still have large areas to patrol.

"Detroit is unique in many ways," Godbee said. "In other cities that have had major crime problems, you can go to isolated areas where the problems are. For instance, in Chicago, Cabrini-Green (a housing project) was a problem.

"It's different here. This is where the density issues play into Detroit — we have 140 square miles we have to provide police services for."

One way to offset that would be to move residents into a smaller area — as has been suggested by several city planners.

Bing in 2010 started a project called Detroit Works to consider ways to consolidate city services. The plans are to be unveiled in August, but one aspect would be to eliminate nearly half the city's 88,000 streetlights in an effort to prompt residents to move to a central area.

Under the proposal, an authority would be created to borrow $160 million to upgrade streetlights in selected neighborhoods, and reduce the total number of lights in the city to 46,000.

Other aspects of the project include concentrating grass-cutting, blighted home removal and other services into select areas.

But unless that plan is adopted, police are forced to patrol sparsely populated neighborhoods.

"With fewer officers, it's not easy," Godbee said. "We don't use it as an excuse, but we still have to patrol those areas, with fewer officers to patrol. The population has dropped, but we haven't had the requisite drop in crime.

"There's been a lot made about the current leadership of the Detroit Police Department, and the direction we're going, but the reality is, we didn't get into this situation overnight, and we're not going to solve it overnight."


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Minutes between violent crimes


Number of times a gun was used in street robberies


Average hourly number of burglaries, car thefts and thefts from vehicles

About this series

This is the first of a series of stories The Detroit News will publish in the coming months examining crime in Detroit, one of the major issues facing the city. Amid growing concerns by citizens, police and elected officials about rampant violence and a Police Department facing massive budget cuts, The News will provide an in-depth look at the city’s crime problem: the human toll, its impact on the city’s image, the domino effect on the region and the struggle for solutions.
The series also will provide statistical analyses showing what crimes are being committed and where they occur. An online database will be regularly updated, allowing readers to see where the most violent crimes are taking place, including murders, which are not plotted on the online mapping service used by the Detroit Police Department. The newspaper’s data, though not comprehensive, will be based on figures released by the Detroit Police Department.
Readers are encouraged to send comments, story tips and suggestions to George Hunter at ghunter@detnews.com or at (313) 222-2134.

Robin Murphy has been posting these fliers in her southwest Detroit neighborhood. There have been robberies happening in broad daylight in the area. / Robin Buckson / The Detroit News
Pallbearers carry the casket of Faraj Fred Dally, who was killed last ... (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)
Andre Ventura has two American flags flying upside down an official sign ... (Ankur Dholakia / The Detroit News)
Cynthia Wilkins pays her final respects to her grandson, Delric Miller, ... (Clarence Tabb Jr. / The Detroit News)