October 9, 2012 at 11:57 pm

Detroit's biggest crime problem: Lack of police, poll finds

60% say they are willing to pay more taxes to beef up the city's police and fire patrols

Detroit 300 co-founders Raphael B. Johnson, left, and the Rev. Angelo B. Henderson announced the campaign against violence in Detroit during a rally in February. Many residents don’t feel safe in their homes. (Ricardo Thomas / The Detroit News)

Detroit — Detroiters overwhelmingly feel the biggest contributor to crime is a lack of police on the streets — and they'd gladly pay more taxes to hire more officers, according to a poll commissioned by The Detroit News and funded by the Thompson Foundation.

The finding comes weeks after the City Council refused to put a measure on the ballot to do so. The poll found that 49 percent of residents don't feel safe in their neighborhoods.

The results cross most income and gender lines, but generally those who make more money feel safer in their neighborhoods.

The survey also found that residents have mixed views of the Police Department, but generally liked Police Chief Ralph Godbee. Residents were surveyed, however, before a sex scandal that exploded last week. Godbee retired Monday.

"I'd be willing to pay more taxes if it meant the police could come around more," said Levona Coles, 74, who lives on Detroit's west side. "Crime is ridiculous here. We need more protection, and I'm willing to pay for it."

The survey found that 41 percent of residents identified a lack of police on patrols as the biggest safety problem, followed by abandoned houses, 23 percent, and gangs, 10 percent.

A strong majority — 60 percent — said they would pay more in taxes for more police and firefighters. The city's police force has fallen to 2,100 officers from 2,700 in 2005.

Detroit Board of Police Commissioners Chairman the Rev. Jerome Warfield lobbied for the millage and said it's "a shame" the council blocked the tax.

It would have raised property taxes 9 mills for five years to raise $56 million and hire 500 more officers.

"I'm clearly disappointed that the citizens didn't have the chance to weigh in, since they're the ones who are affected by crime," Warfield said. "They should be allowed to determine the level of security in their neighborhoods."

The proposal emerged after the city cut $75 million from the Police Department's 2012-13 budget to about $340 million. City council members balked because Detroit's tax rate is among the highest in the state — 67 mills for residences and 85 for businesses. The proposal would have raised tax bills $225 for homes worth $50,000.

Councilman Kenneth Cockrel Jr. said he wasn't surprised by the poll results because "a lot of people are so desperate, they will try anything."

But he noted that Detroit has a high percentage of renters who are more willing to support tax increases. He said he needed more specifics before putting the issue on the ballot and wanted police to answer whether "we are doing everything we can with existing resources."

Residents like Joseph Bernhart said times are getting desperate. The former Detroit Public Schools teacher said he was robbed twice in recent years in addition to being threatened by students several times.

"It's not like I'm constantly looking over my shoulder — but I try not to take any chances," said Bernhart, 66, a retired math and social studies teacher who lives in southwest Detroit.

"I've been held up twice," he said. "A couple guys got me in the CVS parking lot; I didn't actually see a gun, but they indicated the presence of a gun. I felt violated; I was mad. I was going to go buy a gun, but my wife persuaded me not to."

Bernhart said he was accosted by gangs while teaching at Southwestern High School, and threatened by a hammer-wielding Cass Technical High School student.

"I guess I'm lucky," said Bernhart, who retired in 1995. "I've had a couple scary things happen to me, but I haven't been killed yet. I've learned my lesson — ever since I got robbed, I just don't carry much money with me."

ghunter@detroitnews.com

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