December 18, 2013 at 1:00 am

Editorial: Detroit must mimic NYC in crime fight

Chief James Craig can find lessons for Detroit in New York's successful initiatives to take back its streets

Craig (David Guralnick / The Detroit News)

Detroit Mayor-elect Mike Duggan brings crucial management skills to the task of rebuilding city services and finances. Chief among those services is public safety, without which businesses and middle-class families will not take root.

As New York City showed after a state takeover and resulting financial reorganization in 1975 by an Emergency Financial Control Board (the model for Michigan’s emergency manager law today), financial stability is not enough to guarantee a city’s future. Neither will Detroit’s future be assured after emergency manager Kevyn Orr and a federal bankruptcy court restructure the city’s debt — likely late in 2014. New York continued to suffer from high crime rates until the mid-1990s, when the team of Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Police Chief William Bratton brought the city’s mean streets under control.

Duggan and new police chief James Craig carry the same potential for Detroit today. Craig is a longtime disciple of Bratton’s zero-tolerance crime policy and obsessive, statistics-driven COMPSTAT crime mapping. Craig has already hit the ground hard in implementing reforms meant to restore safe neighborhoods.

His task begins with transparency. The top cop’s office has had a revolving door in recent years (Craig is the sixth chief in five years), but the department has often been an impenetrable fortress in providing information to the public. Public affairs officers were told not to talk with the press, the department’s website made look state of the art, and crime information was hard to extract.

Craig has brought a breath of fresh air. “He wants to be transparent about everything,” says spokesman Sgt. Michael Woody. “Gone are the days when you’ll get ‘no comment.’”

Battling crime with data

In keeping with Craig’s emphasis on data collection as a crucial tool to track crime trends, the department is also implementing a modern, efficient website that will update weekly with COMPSTAT-driven statistics. “It was like NASA came to visit,” says Woody of recent computer upgrades.

Crime data is useless unless cops are on the street to enforce laws and respond to emergencies — it currently can take a half hour or more for police to respond to a serious crime — so Craig is building a culture of community policing.

In 1994, New York’s Bratton deliberately echoed Winston Churchill in declaring that “we will fight for every house in the city. We will fight for every street. We will fight for every borough. And we will win.”

Now Craig echoes Bratton.

In return for his officers’ commitment to flood the streets, Craig has boosted employee morale by reducing shifts to eight hours from 12. He has also extended his zero-tolerance crime policy to the police, publicly reprimanding officers involved in corruption. The chief has waded into the neighborhoods himself, holding town hall meetings urging party stores and gas stations to assist police by cleaning up trash and shooing loiterers who deter customers. The “broken windows” theory, that even small signs of disorder, left untended, breed further disorder, is another hallmark of Bratton.

“Stop the behavior when it’s small, stop the cancer when it’s small,” Bratton tells The Wall Street Journal.

It’s also important to note that Detroit police have had the authority to enforce strict gun ownership laws for years, yet follow-through has been inconsistent. Bratton credits New York’s turnaround in part to enforcement of laws already on the books. Such laws are crucial to initiatives launched by Craig to get illegal weapons off the streets and round up individuals with warrants.

“I have been especially impressed by Chief Craig’s moves to improve rank-and-file morale,” says Duggan, “and I will give him all the support he needs.”

That support will be crucial, because Craig’s task is more challenging than what Giuliani/Bratton faced in New York in the ’90s, when Gotham was losing 22 citizens per 100,000 residents to murder. Detroit’s murder rate was more than double that last year, but, unlike New York, Detroit has lost the middle-class tax base needed to put more officers on the street.

Public safety matters most

Chapter 9 bankruptcy will trim Detroit’s liabilities so that scarce city resources can be concentrated on crime-fighting. Craig’s reform of police morale, data acquisition, and community policing is crucial, therefore, because he and Duggan will have little margin for error in focusing resources where they matter most.

Detroit is on the cutting edge of both a charter school revolution transforming school choice and innovative blight removal that promises renewed urban development. Yet none of that will matter if the streets aren’t safe. Today, New York City has more than regained the 1 million population it lost between 1950 and 1980 because its murder rate dropped to just five-per-100,000 residents in 2012.

Safety is not a racial issue. The majority of lives saved in New York have been African-Americans in its once-violent neighborhoods. From 1999 to 2011, the number of black middle-class families in Detroit reporting income between $35,000 and $150,000 dropped to 74,104 from 112,101 as those who could fled for the safer confines of Oakland and Macomb counties.

Craig boasted of a 15 percent drop in crime from 2010-11 when he was Cincinnati police chief. This month he trumpeted news that Detroit’s crime is down 17 percent already this year from last.

The road will be difficult, but the guardrails are finally being put in place.

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