July 11, 2014 at 5:37 pm

Ex-Inkster chief: Cuts to police force, murder of 2-year-old took their toll

Max Ortiz)

Inkster— In his time as top cop in one of the state’s more violent cities, Inkster Police Chief Hilton Napoleon has witnessed cuts to two-thirds of his police force, the termination of the department’s drug unit and outside law enforcement agencies taking over operations.

Those hardships, in addition to the shooting death of a 2-year-old Inkster girl, took their toll on Napoleon, ultimately leading to his decision to resign.

“It’s very difficult when you know what to do, and you don’t have the resources and the things that are necessary,” Napoleon said Friday at a press conference at Inkster City Hall. “Michigan is going through a hard time and the things that are necessary for the department to function like the way it’s supposed to function doesn’t always happen.”

Napoleon’s resignation was effective Friday, a day after he submitted a letter expressing his concerns for the police department and announcing he was quitting.

“Over the past three and one half years, I have been working under extreme working condition(s),” Napoleon wrote in a letter to City Manager Richard Marsh. “The lack of resources and adverse working conditions has taken its toll on me.”

Napoleon, brother of Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, recently asked his brother’s agency to take over his department, which is down from 73 officers a few years ago to about two dozen officers, including himself.

“We ask you to do a tough job in tough times, and you did what we asked you to do with limited resources,” Councilman Michael Canty said. “So you should hold your head up high, proud of the record you had here. We are quite proud of you.”

Marsh also praised Napoleon’s tenure with the department.

“He’s served (with) desire, passion and dedication,” Marsh said. “As he said in his letter of resignation, the challenges we’ve had with the community and the police department has taken its toll and he’s decided to make a transition to do other things with his life.”

The tipping point for Napoleon was the shooting death of Kamiya LaShawn Gross, 2. Her funeral is Saturday.

“Additionally, the recent senseless murder of a two year old baby makes my decision that much easier ... ,” Napoleon wrote, referring to the shooting.

Kamiya was shot in the head July 1 outside an apartment in the 30000 block of Carlyle in front of her 34-year-old father, Kenneth French, and 12-year-old cousin, Chelsea Lancaster, who then were also shot. Police say the shooting may have been retaliation for another shooting at an after-hours club.

Raymone Bernard Jackson, 24, of Inkster, the suspected gunman, is charged with first-degree murder, torture and assault with intent to murder. A second man, Raphael Hearn, 29, is charged with one count of first-degree murder and two counts of assault with intent to murder.

Marsh and Napoleon were dressed in black at the s press conference because theyplanned to attend Kamiya’s visitation with other city officials.

“Inkster is a small community and we’re family,” Marsh said. “What happened to that girl affected each and every one of us. So we’re going to show our respect”

Napoleon didn’t discuss his plans for the future, but said he wants to spend plenty of time with his three grandchildren in Florida.

The city of 25,000 residents had 16 homicides last year, up from 12 in 2012.

The burden of cracking down on drug violence with less falls to 22-year veteran Lt. Jeffrey Smith, who will serve as acting chief while the city conducts a nationwide search for its next police chief.

Napoleon offered a frank answer when asked for a solution to what ails the police department: money.

Mayor Hilliard Hampton contends part of the problem is Inkster is under a financial consent decree with the state to restructure its finances, giving the state broad reach over finances.

City officials have explored grants as a means of alternative funding, a $486,000 state grant to pay for making the police department’s radios compatible with the county’s, three vehicles and uniforms.

Napoleon maintains overall crime is down in for the first 6 months of this year and has been on the decline, year over year since he arrived.

But county and state law enforcement have stepped in during that time.

Michigan State Police began assisting Inkster with calls for service in December 2012. Today, troopers patrol the city’s most dangerous locations in addition to handling all non-fatal shooting and homicide investigations.

“We move our patrols around,” Lt. Michael Shaw said. “Many times those with evil intents, when they see the first Blue Goose, they cease what they’re doing and take their activity elsewhere.”

Community activist and third-generation Inkster resident Aaron Simms has tried to combat violence through neighbor involvement. Over the past year, he began distributing signs that read: “I’m not a snitch, I’m a neighbor.”

“It’s a sad day in the city with the chief resigning. It just feels like people just abandon our city,” Simms said. “They are just washing their hands clean of us. It’s going to be left up to the powers (to decide) what needs to be done.”

Violence isn’t the only thing plaguing the community.

Last year, Inkster Public Schools, which had a $15.8 million deficit, dissolved when it failed to secure funding or letters of confidence from its accounting firm. The move forced about 900 students to be dispersed into four school districts: Westwood, Wayne-Westland, Romulus and Taylor. Roughly 1,300 school-aged children from Inkster were attending other districts as a part of Michigan’s Schools of Choice option.

The city’s despondency is a far cry from its history. It was incorporated as a village in 1926 after being part of the 143-square-mile area known as Bucklin Township, which was later sliced up into present-day Inkster, Dearborn, Livonia, Redford and Westland.

African-Americans were drawn to the village due to it’s proximity to manufacturing jobs at Ford Motor Co., according to historical archives and demographers. Workers earned $5 a day in the 1920s at the Ford’s Motor Co. manufacturing Rouge Plant in Dearborn, and the population in Inkster peaked at 39,000 in 1960 after the Michigan Assembly Plant opened in 1957 in nearby Wayne.

In addition to jobs, Ford provided housing and fuel allowances as well as low-interest, short-term loans to its employees living in Inkster and surrounding communities, according to the Henry Ford Museum website. The community was incorporated as a city in 1964.

Inkster struggled in the same way Detroit did with each downturn of the auto industry, especially beginning in 2009.

The downsizing of the auto industry pushed Inkster's population from 30,100 to 25,400 between 2000 and 2010, and housing vacancies rose more than 116 percent, according to Data Driven Detroit’s Census Summary.

The median household income in Inkster was estimated to be $25,792, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey taken from 2009-11. By comparison, Detroit had an estimated median household income of $26,253.

Adding to the economic stress was the arrival of the interstate highway system in 1956. Michigan Avenue was the primary route between travelers from Detroit to Chicago, bringing a number of travelers through the corridor, which sprouted a number of motels along the stretch through Inkster.

Interstate 94, originally used as an expressway to take artillery from River Rouge to Willow Run Airport during World War II, took its place, and Michigan Avenue was rerouted to end in New Buffalo on the west side of the state, said Rob Morosi, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Transportation.

The city’s major artery, Michigan Avenue, carries about 30,000 to 34,000 vehicles a day, according to the Michigan Department of Transportation. Many of the motels lining the roadway have shuttered while others have fallen into disrepair similar to many houses, south of Michigan Avenue.

Understanding the city’s financial constraints, Simms has tried to garner grassroots support for clean-up projects, anti-violence marches and community roundtables.

“Though we do have our difficulties some of the greatest people in history have come through Inkster: The Marvelettes, Earl Jones who ran in the Olympics, Malcom X ... .

“We can’t let those people with bad intentions come in and downgrade our community. It’s time to rebuild with help of those from surrounding communities. It has to be all of us working together.”

tbriscoe@detroitnews.com
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