2 years in, Chief Craig says ‘work isn’t over’
Detroit — His detractors say James Craig is a showboat. Supporters insist what critics call grandstanding is Craig’s on-the-street, in front of the camera, person-to-person connection with the community he has sworn to protect and defend.
Craig himself embraces the “Hollywood” nickname some have hung on him, and believes the Detroit Police Department has made significant strides under his leadership.
“How else are people going to know what their police department is doing? I talk to the citizens through the media,” Craig said in a recent interview with The Detroit News. “I strongly believe they have a right to be informed. ‘No comment’ won’t do. Not nowadays.”
Despite having more than 10 percent fewer officers today than when he became chief, the DPD has “reduced overall crime and made a lot of improvements, but I’m not waving a flag of accomplishment,” he said. “We’ve done good work, but the work isn’t over.”
When he assumed command of the Detroit Police Department in July 2013, there weren’t great expectations that Craig, now 59, would have greater success or staying power than his predecessors: nine since 1991, most of whom left under clouds of controversy.
Over the past 25 months, he has overhauled the department several times, and he promises more changes — including, he told The News, equipping officers with Tasers.
“I think he’s done an excellent job, and most people in the city think so, too,” said Mayor Mike Duggan, who renewed Craig’s contract in May.
Former deputy chief Jamie Fields sees it differently. Fields says Craig is using “smoke and mirrors” to make himself look good.
“The chief does a good job at public relations, but that cannot mask the inherent risks of a department that has the same manpower today as in the 1920s and is 300 officers under budget,” said Fields, who retired in 2010 after 30 years on the force.
Data drive Craig’s policing philosophy, and he is quick to cite statistics that suggest the approach has been successful.
“We’ve had an uptick in homicides this year, with a 1 percent increase over last year. But if you look at what’s happened since 2013, when I got here, we’re down 14 percent.”
Reductions in robberies and carjackings have been even steeper, with each dropping 38 percent over the past two years.
Craig credits the decreases to several factors, including the focus on data and — reprising his comments last year that made national headlines and brought criticism — citizens who legally carry guns.
“Detroiters are fed up,” he said. “You’ve seen the stories: A woman shoots a home invader, a man shoots an armed robber.”
Self-defense shootings have dropped from 26 in 2014 to nine this year. Craig said criminals are getting the message that armed citizens will shoot back.
“I believe suspects know Detroiters will protect themselves when faced with an imminent threat, and that’s had an effect on crime. It’s not the sole reason; I don’t want to take away from the good work our officers have done. But criminals have learned that CPL holders aren’t afraid to take action if they’re attacked.”
Craig also credited the drop in crime to the COMPSTAT policing model he adopted shortly after arriving. The data-driven approach increases accountability of commanders by requiring precinct captains to appear at weekly meetings to explain crime trends in their areas and what they’re doing to address them.
Mark Diaz, president of the Detroit Police Officers Association, said Craig has done a “fantastic job.”
“Given the circumstances he came into, with the bankruptcy, demoralized officers undergoing major pay and benefit cuts, he’s done about as good as anyone could expect,” Diaz said.
Northwest side resident George Kaleniecki agrees. “I like what I’ve seen so far,” he said. “I would prefer more officers in the neighborhoods, but that’s not his call.”
But everyone wasn’t so complimentary.
Erik Shelley of the civil rights organization Michigan United said Craig was premature when he told the media armed robbery suspect Terrance Kellom had lunged with a hammer at a federal agent, who shot and killed him April 27.
“I was disappointed he was so quick to decide the officer had acted in self-defense before anyone knew the facts,” Shelley said. “But he’s in a political position, so he does what he feels he needs to do.”
Eventually, Craig’s quick determination was supported by a lengthy investigation. Based on state police findings, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, on Aug. 19, cleared federal agent Mitchell Quinn in the shooting.
Craig’s two predecessors, Ralph Godbee and Warren Evans, resigned after sex scandals surfaced two years apart involving the same female subordinate officer. Former chief James Barren was fired just weeks after Mayor Dave Bing said he planned to keep him. And Chief Ella Bully-Cummings left the same day Kwame Kilpatrick stepped down as mayor amid scandals that would culminate in a federal racketeering conviction and long prison term.
“I know I came into a tough situation,” Craig said. “Coming in the door, I had three goals: restoring officer morale, restoring the credibility of the department to the community and tackling crime.”
During his first three weeks on the job, he scrapped the unpopular “virtual precincts” model initiated the previous year, in which some precincts and districts were closed at night; fired several top officials; and eliminated 12-hour shifts, which were unpopular among officers.
Other changes include adding the ranks of captain, detective, corporal and neighborhood police officer; instituting an outreach program to the LGBT community; and revamping several units, including disbanding the Narcotics Section, after allegations of corruption and mismanagement. Craig ordered an Internal Affairs investigation that’s ongoing.
Craig’s tenure has not been without its own rough patches. During his second day on the job, the City Council voted 5-1 against his $225,000 salary, which was 60 percent more than the $140,500 offered during the search for a new chief.
“It is unconscionable that the chief makes more money than the chief of New York while substandard wages make many Detroit police officers eligible for (public assistance),” said Fields, the ex-deputy chief.
Craig’s supporters point out he is paid less money than chiefs in other big cities, including Baltimore, Los Angeles and Chicago.
More controversy arose when, three months into his tenure, Craig told an audience at an anti-carjacking rally he was almost the victim of a carjacking, when a man ran toward his car. He said he drove away, a decision that was criticized, although Craig later insisted the man hadn’t done anything to warrant an arrest.
“I don’t worry about my critics,” he said. “I’m passionate about serving this city, and I’m focused on what needs to be done, not what people say about me.”
Craig announced this month that all his officers will be equipped with body cameras within a few years. Now, he’s working on getting them Tasers.
Duggan said he plans to look at a number of equipment options for police.
“Whether it’s nightsticks, Tasers, the guns they’re equipped with, all these are on the table,” he said. “I’ll look at the Taser recommendation when it comes, compare it to what other major cities are doing, and make a decision how to proceed.”
When Craig heard Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan was coming to Detroit to speak at Fellowship Church last week, he asked to meet with him.
“I saw a video in which he talked about retaliation, and I wanted to know what he meant,” Craig said, referring to a controversial recent speech in which Farrakhan urged a crowd of 1,500 African-Americans in Miami that “we should kill those who kill us.”
“I told him I understand the anger,” Craig said. “I understand the distrust. But you cannot paint every police officer with a broad brush.”
Highlights from James Craig’s DPD tenure
May 15: Mayor Dave Bing announces James Craig as the city’s 41st police chief. Craig says he’s taking his dream job. “When home calls, you answer,” he says.
June 27: Four days before he assumes command, Craig vows a major department restructuring that includes demoting several top police officials and returning to the precinct system.
July 1: Craig’s first day as chief follows a bloody weekend that saw a man shot after a card game argument, a Greektown altercation, a drive-by triple shooting and a killing at a bank ATM.
July 5: Public safety communications dispatch system crashes, forcing officers and firefighters to use telephones to respond to calls for service for two hours.
July 21: Craig ends unpopular “virtual precincts,” in which some precincts were closed at night, and restores 24-hour service to all police stations.
July 25: Three top department officials are fired and Craig redeploys 175 Special Operations officers to patrol neighborhoods. He also scraps 12-hour shifts.
Aug. 2: Craig relaunches COMPSTAT, the data-driven crime-fighting model.
Aug. 8: Craig rips command staff for being content with the “status quo. No sense of urgency. No accountability.” He says he’s uncovered rampant waste, including the department paying leases for out-of-commission vehicles.
Oct. 8: Another department restructuring Craig says will save taxpayers $1 million.
Oct. 21: Craig says he was nearly a victim of carjacking as a man ran at his car while he was stopped at a red light on Jefferson Avenue.
Nov. 15: The first of several “Operation Restore Order” large-scale raids.
Jan. 1: Police officials announce there were 332 homicides in 2013, a 13.9 percent drop from the previous year. Despite the decline, Craig names new head of Homicide Section.
Jan. 2: Craig causes a national stir after he tells The Detroit News he supports “good citizens” who arm themselves against criminals.
April 2: Motorist Steve Utash is beaten by a mob. Craig says the beating of the white motorist by the black crowd was being investigated as a hate crime.
May 25: Craig orders an internal investigation into the Narcotics Section for mismanagement and corruption, a probe that’s ongoing. Within weeks, Craig revamps the Organized Crime Section that oversees the drug unit.
Aug. 25: Department ends 11-year federal consent decree ordered to avoid a civil rights lawsuit alleging excessive force and deplorable jail conditions.
Nov. 11: FBI shows sharp drop in violent crime the previous year hadn’t prevented Detroit from being the most violent city per capita in the U.S.
Jan. 3: Craig announces there were 300 homicides in 2014 — the fewest since 1967.
April 27: A federal agent fatally shoots armed robbery suspect Terrance Kellom. Craig calms agitated residents and within days holds community meeting. Protests are organized and peaceful.
May 22: Mayor Mike Duggan extends Craig’s contract by two years.
June 20: A block party erupts in violence as 11 people are shot, with one killed. Craig is criticized for calling the shooters “urban terrorists.”
Aug. 18: Craig announces all officers will receive body cameras beginning in early 2016.