For English cop, Detroit’s streets are a culture shock
As a police officer in England, Michael Matthews doesn’t carry a gun — but while on a recent ride-along with Detroit cops, he says there were times he wished he was packing.
Detroit’s rampant violence, “Third World poverty,” and the availability of firearms aren’t as prevalent in his homeland, said Matthews, a 41-year-old Scotland Yard cop who’s in Detroit researching a book he’s writing about the city’s police department.
“In the U.K., officers don’t go to calls thinking they could be shot at any second,” the 21-year police veteran said. “The average cop in London deals with fights, domestic calls, and burglaries. In a year, they might never get called to a homicide scene.
“Being on these streets (in Detroit), knowing there are so many guns around, you very quickly become aware of your own mortality.”
Matthews, 41, whose father was a police officer, says he became fascinated with American policing as a boy watching television cop shows. When he finally visited the United States for the first time 13 years ago, he said he wasn’t disappointed.
After several trips to the U.S., visiting police departments from Alaska to Mississippi, Matthews wrote a book last year, “We are the Cops: The Real Lives of America’s Police.”
Matthews is now working on a second book focusing on Detroit police. The book’s working title: “American Ruin.”
While riding with the Gang Intelligence unit on the city’s east side recently, Matthews got an up-close look at the prevalence of guns, said Detroit Police Sgt. Edward Brannock, who heads the gang unit.
“I was driving slowly, showing him a house where a lot of gang members hang out, and a house across the street where I had a double homicide,” Brannock said. “I look in my rear-view mirror, and here comes a kid out of the house, and he’s got a blue steel automatic in his hand.”
Brannock said he called for backup and parked down the block. “Before the other cars get there, here comes the kid walking right toward us with his hand stuck in his waistband. You could see he was holding something.”
Brannock and other officers scrambled out of the car and ordered the youth to freeze. “He drops the gun down his pant leg. He was on a mission: He was probably coming to shoot our car up.”
The youth was arrested and charged with carrying a concealed weapon, Brannock said.
Matthews said the incident startled him. “I thought, ‘I wouldn’t mind having a gun right now,’ ” he said.
It’s difficult to grasp how routine violence has become in Detroit, Matthews said.
“In my country, every murder would be national news, and it amazes me that in Detroit, there are murders that don’t get covered at all by the press,” he said.
In addition to the violence, Matthews said he was struck by what he called the city’s “extreme Third World poverty.”
“One of the things that interests me is Mack Avenue (near the Grosse Pointe Park border). On one side it’s pet boutiques and Disneyland; on the other side is Detroit — a marked difference. Burned-out houses, empty lots and such. Of all the places I’ve been in America, Detroit visually looks most interesting, and not in a good way.
“In the U.K., we have our poverty, but it would never be allowed to get this bad. And there wouldn’t be the kind of shortage of police officers you see in Detroit because of the way police are funded. Here, towns and cities pay for their own police; in the U.K., police are funded centrally by the government. So my tax pounds in London pay for police in Nottingham. The money is spread equally.
“Areas of Detroit look like the aftermath of a war. To police something like that is extreme policing. Some of these streets are quite dangerous; cops are going against gangs with AK-47s and AR-15s every day. That’s just not reality for cops in the U.K.”
Some specialized units in England are armed, and Matthews said he carried a gun while assigned to Heathrow Airport. “We have about 130,000 officers in the U.K., and only 6,000 are trained with firearms,” he said.
Matthews added that British citizens aren’t clamoring for police to be more heavily armed.
“There’s no public appetite for the routine arming of police officers. Having said that, most police don’t want to be armed either. It’s just not in our culture.
“There’s definitely a gun culture in America that doesn’t exist in the U.K. Most people (in England) will go their entire lives without ever seeing a gun, let alone firing one. Even police officers can go their entire careers without handling a gun.”
Assistant Detroit Police Chief Steve Dolunt, who has met Matthews several times, said he can’t imagine an unarmed police department.
“I find it scary and a tad troubling that so few cops are armed over there,” Dolunt said. “They have strict gun control, and they have lower crime, but they still have problems with terrorism. So gun control doesn’t take away all violence. In America, we have the right to bear arms, and I think a law-abiding citizen should be allowed to carry a gun.”
There were 537 homicides in England last year, according to the Office for National Statistics. Most years, there are between 35 and 80 gun-related deaths nationwide.
Although shootings in England are rare, a problem with knife violence in recent years caused the government to launch a program urging people to turn in sharp knives: “Save a life, surrender your knife.”
Matthews said it’s difficult for the British to grasp American “gun culture” — and vice versa.
“We have entire years where the police in the U.K. haven’t shot someone. Entire years will go by where no police officers are killed. I was trying to tell the cops here that, and they’re amazed by that. They ask, ‘how can you be a cop without a gun?’ I tell them the threat of firearms just isn’t there.”
Matthews said he admires Detroit police for their courage under fire.
“I’ve always held that DPD are great cops, and I think that’s because of their environment. They learn quickly how to survive on the streets. The guys aren’t the best paid in the country, and yet they come into work every single day and do their job. They’re some of the best cops I’ve seen in America.”