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Thin line separates Detroit, Baltimore

George Hunter and Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

A man is cuffed, loaded into the back of a Baltimore police van and then dies from a spine injury while in custody.

Eight days later, shots ring out from a federal agent's gun in a house on Detroit's west side, killing a suspect in an armed robbery.

While Baltimore erupted in rioting, Detroit has avoided violence.

<cutline_leadin>Left:</cutline_leadin> The police-custody death of Freddie Gray sparked Baltimore protests. Rioting ensued in some neighborhoods, and six officers have been charged.<252><137>Protestors demonstrate against the police-custody death of Freddie Gray outside City Hall, Wednesday, April 29, 2015, in Baltimore. Hundreds of protesters marched through downtown calling for swift justice in the case of Gray, a black man who suffered critical injuries while in police custody. (AP Photo/David Goldman)<252><137>

Yet these two impoverished industrial cities share many traits that can contribute to civil unrest — high unemployment, lingering distrust of police and strained race relations, among others.

"It's fragile," said Malik Shabazz, director of the Marcus Garvey Movement/Black Panther Nation, who in the past helped defuse irate crowds. "You have anger, pain and the frustration of powerlessness, abject poverty, a rotten education and lack of opportunity."

Anger followed the shooting of Terrance Kellom in Detroit, but protests were mostly peaceful with leaders calling for calm, repeating "Detroit is not Baltimore." While six Baltimore police officers have been charged in the Freddie Gray incident, the Kellom case is far from closed with the investigation ongoing and the autopsy not yet released.

Teria Kellom of Detroit, left, receives a hug outside the house where her brother was killed by a federal agent. The investigation into the attempted arrest is ongoing.

"It's not that I don't think a riot can happen here," Shabazz said. "Let's not fool ourselves — it can absolutely happen. But a lot of people have put in the sweat equity to make sure it doesn't happen."

The Motor City is on the rebound with millions in investments from foundations and the private sector, and for many a sense of optimism is replacing an ingrained feeling of pessimism over the city's future.

For sure, Detroit still ranks at or near the bottom in many measurements that can lead to hopelessness and anger, especially among young people: joblessness, low household income and lack of access to health care. Baltimore fares better. So why the different reactions to the recent deaths?

"You are on the brink of opportunity and they are on the brink of failure," Robert H. McNulty, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., said in comparing Detroit to Baltimore.

A changing relationship

Law enforcement officials and civil rights activists credit, in part, the relationship between Detroit police and the community.

The Detroit Police Department has seen a multitude of changes over the years, some forced upon them by the federal government.

Detroit police officials and community leaders say policies enacted after the 13 years that the police department was under a federal consent decree have strengthened ties with the community and lessened some of the tension between officers and residents.

Shabazz said Detroit Police Chief James Craig and Mayor Mike Duggan have done a better job reaching out to community leaders than their counterparts in Baltimore.

"We have a mayor and a police chief who have a sense of purpose," Shabazz said. "We're not where we need to be, but we're a far cry from where we were."

It's vital that police officials relay information to the community quickly after a controversy involving officers, said Craig.

"What goes wrong in a lot of cities is, there's no dialogue," he said. "Nobody in an official position will say anything. That's the most important thing. ... I'll give the public enough so they know what took place."

Two days after the shooting of robbery suspect Terrance Kellom during an attempted arrest at a west side house, federal and local law enforcement officials attended a community meeting at a church around the corner. Detroit Chief James Craig has made good communication with residents a priority for the police force.

Forum held after Kellom death

Within hours after Kellom was killed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Officer Mitchell Quinn, Craig was on the scene, promising a group of angry residents there would be a thorough investigation, and that he would meet with the community within 48 hours.

Two days later, local and federal law enforcement officials attended the meeting in a church around the corner from where the shooting took place.

While residents expressed anger toward police, they also praised them, applauding when statistics showed how many murderers and rapists have been arrested by the multijurisdictional Detroit Fugitive Apprehension Team that was involved in Kellom's shooting.

"We're standing behind DPD," said Bobbie Davis, who lives near the Kellom home. "We're not going to burn down our city; we're going to build up our city."

Baltimore police commissioner Anthony Batts admitted his department hasn't done a good enough job connecting with the community.

"We are part of the problem," he told CNN. "The community needs to hear that. The community needs to hear from us that we haven't been part of the solution, and now we have to evolve. Now we have to change."

After the 1967 riot, Detroit leaders came to the same conclusion. While change hasn't always been easy, experts say there have been advances, including sweeping changes forced by a 2003 federal consent decree, which mandated new policies governing how police shootings are investigated, and how prisoners and witnesses are treated.

Federal officials said the department has improved in several areas, including the use of force. From 1995 to 2000, Detroit police officers fatally shot 47 suspects; from 2009 to 2014, 18 were shot.

Above: Detroit is on the rebound with millions in investments from foundations and the private sector, but still ranks poorly in many measurements that can lead to hopelessness and anger.

'It took almost 50 years'

Detroit Public Safety Foundation director Catherine Govan said a lot of work has gone into uniting the police and the community.

"Detroit has gone through its Baltimore," she said. "It took almost 50 years to come back in a significant way. It takes a long time to recover from that kind of violence, and I think people here realize that."

Before the 1967 riots, aggressive police unit the Big Four, which was charged with searching for dangerous felons, often was at the center of conflicts with Detroit's African-American community.

The unit randomly stopped and harassed black citizens, fueling racial tensions that led to the riot.

In 1967, 95 percent of the police department was white. Now, 61 percent of the 2,306-member force is black in a city that is 83 percent African-American. Baltimore's police force is 48 percent black for a city whose population is 63 percent black.

Poverty and unemployment

Detroit and Baltimore, with similar populations, are alike in many ways. Both have a resurgent downtown. Both are aging Rust Belt cities. Both have neighborhoods that residents say have been neglected.

But in many ways, Detroit is in worse shape than Baltimore when measuring ingredients that can make for a combustible mix.

Detroit is poorer, less educated, has higher unemployment and crime, and has more people without health insurance than Baltimore, according to data from the Pew Charitable Trust from 2013 and 2104.

Detroit also has a lower median household income than Baltimore and a lower percentage of high school graduates.

In seven categories Pew used to measure the health of 11 American urban cities, Detroit ranked worst in four: crime, poverty, unemployment and the number of residents not in the labor force, while Baltimore ranked second worst or landed in the middle of the pack.

Jeff Horner, a senior lecturer in the department of Urban Studies at Wayne State University, said uprisings like the kind that occurred in Baltimore can happen anywhere in America, and Detroit is no less or more vulnerable because of its demographics.

Horner, who studies poverty, said if you look at individual census tracts across America, there are areas of the United States that have higher poverty rates than Detroit, such as census tracts in Gary, Indiana, and Camden, New Jersey. He said there are at least 17 "Detroits" out there.

"While Detroit and Baltimore share extreme poverty, it's a lot more complicated than that," Horner said. "It's local politics, tension between police and the community. This could really happen anywhere in any major city."

Shabazz said the 1967 riot is still fresh in the memories of many Detroiters, who are well-aware how badly a riot can destroy a community.

"We're still recovering," he said. "We know what it's like to burn it down. Nobody wants that."

Close calls

Ron Scott, director of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, has warned that some residents are angry and could become violent, but he said most of the Kellom protests have been peaceful.

"We want to protest, but we need to do it peacefully," Scott said.

Some gatherings, though, have edged toward violence. During a protest outside the Kellom's home the day after he was killed, some in the large crowd called for violence, only to be shouted down by others, including a man who yelled, "Take that mess somewhere else. We don't want it here."

Later that night, an unruly crowd was captured on video spilling into the street, preventing squad cars from moving and chanting obscenities toward officers.

There have been other brushes with crowd violence over the years. After Malice Green was beaten to death outside a west-side drug house in November 1992 by Detroit Police Officers Walter Budzyn and Larry Nevers, protesters gathered at the scene, including members of the Detroit Communist Party who tried to incite a riot, Shabazz said.

"They were chased out of there," he said. "People in the community resented these outsiders coming in and saying 'burn it down.' "

Shabazz and other civil rights leaders also were called to quell unrest in May 2010, just days after 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones was killed during a police raid on her home on Lillibridge Street.

A high-speed chase by a Michigan State Police car ended just six blocks from Aiyana's home, with a state trooper shooting and wounding a fugitive.

"People were already upset with the Aiyana shooting so fresh in their minds," Shabazz recalled. "You had some people wanting to set it off. We had to convince them that isn't the answer."

Foundation support

Strong support from foundations has also helped keep things on an even keel in Detroit.

McNulty said Detroit is in the middle of intense capital and social investment across all its sectors — neighborhoods, businesses, the arts and education — which positions itself to provide a future for its residents.

The Motor City also has enormous financial support from the national and local philanthropic community that included a $366 million infusion in 2014 to the so-called "grand bargain" to help Detroit exit bankruptcy, as well as tens of millions of dollars of other investments for social programs, business investment and entrepreneurial support.

The New York-based Ford Foundation committed $125 million to the bankruptcy deal, plus a $10 million pledge in grants to Detroit for 2015. The Kresge Foundation spends about $30 million a year in Detroit and put $50 million into the M-1 rail transit system.

"You have a huge consortium of foundations, all trying to do innovative things. Turning around blighted neighborhoods into agriculture," said McNulty, who teaches at Oxford University in England. "Detroit has a lot going for it right now. Baltimore does not."

Detroit Police Commissioner Ricardo Moore, who spent 10 years as a Detroit police officer, said the majority of Detroit residents are not engaged — but he said the minority that is connected helps police and city officials reach the others.

"Only about 18 percent of the people are in block clubs; most people don't vote; they may or may not go to church; they're not involved in civic activities at all," Moore said. "Those are people we're not connected to.

"But we're fortunate in Detroit, because the people who are involved have reached out to the majority to bridge that gap. They've helped to keep things peaceful."

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