At Wayne State, safety a team effort

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

When Heather Doherty was going to give a failing grade to a student, she “felt a little squirrelly” about her safety.

It was about 21/2 years ago, her first year teaching, and Doherty, now 47, was concerned that if the “quite large” student who had “physically intimidated” her caught her alone and was angry about his grade, the situation could become threatening. She called police. More than once.

More than once, an officer from the Wayne State Police Department showed up and walked the clinical psychology Ph.D. student to her car. It turned out not to be necessary; nothing happened. Even so, Doherty says, “it was good to know it was an available service.”

Wayne State officers walked clinical psychology Ph.D. student Heather Doherty to her car.

The Wayne State University Police Department provides an overlapping presence with other policing agencies in Midtown Detroit. The overlap brings what the university’s police chief hopes will raise the comfort level of residents, visitors and students and the collaboration among other agencies can enhance police deployment, crime solving and allows sharing of resources that one department alone might not have, Police Chief Anthony Holt said.

Campus police cover an area that includes many of Detroit’s crown jewels and major employers, including the Detroit Institute of the Arts, Detroit Public Library Main Branch, Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Detroit Medical Center and Henry Ford Hospital.

If Detroit is to become a ‘big thing’ again, Holt understands that comfort level is important.

“At any given time, there could be 150,000 people in Midtown,” Holt said. “We have a very dynamic population,” including some 27,000 Wayne State students.

Further, some 80 percent of Wayne State police patrols take place off Wayne State’s campus. That’s a lot of work for a department with only 65 sworn officers. So deterring crime has become an important part of the job.

DTE Energy places bait cars and bait bikes downtown and in Midtown and police monitor them. The belief is that what affects any corner of Detroit affects every corner of Detroit, and with only a small amount of people committing crimes, any suspect taken off the streets makes the city safer.

On May 14 on Grand River near Elizabeth, a DTE Energy bait car was broken into about 6 a.m. DTE security alerted Wayne State police, who tracked the suspect using a GPS embedded in a laptop inside of the bait car. Wayne State police made the arrest and learned that the thief was a parolee with a history of robberies, said Michael Lynch, head of security for the energy company.

Nour El Harakeh, 26, was witness to this kind of crime around campus when her friend’s bike was stolen in late May. Despite the theft, El Harakeh said she feels safe on campus, largely due to campus police. The Wayne State officer who responded “was very concerned, even though it’s just a bike.”

Wayne State University chemistry student Nour El Harakeh says she feels safe on campus, largely due to campus police.

“Whenever someone knows I live in Detroit, you kind of feel the fear on their face, like, ‘Really, you live there?’ ” El Harakeh said.

“I knew that in the old days, Detroit was really a big thing,” she said. Today, the evacuated buildings she drives past on West Warren Avenue still “break (her) heart.” But on campus, she feels safe. “I don’t find it scary at all,” El Harakeh said.

A flow of information

Detroit’s 3rd precinct covers much of the same area. And the QLine as well as Detroit Department of Transportation buses are protected by transit police. And schools such as Cass Technical High School are patrolled by Detroit Public Schools Community District Police. That overlap is only part of the story; collaboration is another.

At its biweekly Compstat meetings, in which police use computer-generated statistics to address details about crime in precincts, Wayne State police and their community partners, including DTE, the hospitals, community groups and area law enforcement, review safety trends. The numbers are crunched by Wayne State’s Center for Urban Studies.

Holt, 68, was a late arrival at a recent meeting. That, he said later, was purposeful.

“I won’t make 70” as police chief, Holt said after the meeting. Others need to be prepared to lead and comfortable with collaborating when he steps away, he said.

Wayne State Compstat meetings focus on a flow of information and resources.

A community group says it’ll be handing out leaflets; Holt tells the group to contact the department the day before and a car will be detailed to protect the group.

Supervisors are tasked with creating specific plans to cool crime “hot spots.”

With only his 65 sworn officers, Holt was questioned about why he assigned an officer to Detroit’s carjacking task force. Holt views it not as having one less officer around but as a way of leveraging the resources of law enforcement partners.

“When I assign him out, instead of having one guy, I get the whole team,” Holt said. Another is detailed to the FBI’s violent crimes task force. Another is embedded at the Detroit homicide task force. As a result of that collaboration, the task force will work a cold case involving a Wayne State student who was killed off campus.

In 2009, Holt approached the Michigan Department of Corrections about giving a parole officer an office at its headquarters at 6050 Cass; Corrections officials agreed. Since 2015, that office has been staffed by parole agent Ed Parker, a 20-year Corrections veteran who handles about 40 parolees.

Initially, parolees are skittish about meeting at a Police Department, Parker said. But some have come to prefer it.

“A couple of parolees would rather come here than my other office (in Lawton),” Parker said. “Many of them have enemies in the system. And some guys, after prison, have an anxiety about being around a lot of people. They feel more comfortable being here rather than in a crowded lobby.”

Holt and the Corrections Department view the partnership as a way to improve police-parolee relations.

Edward Parker, right, liaison agent, Michigan Department of Corrections, shakes hands with parolee Michael Johnson on Friday.

“When a client walks into a police station, they realize, ‘The officers know who I am,’ ” Holt said. “When they see him walk around, they might say, ‘Hey, don’t forget to report.’ ”

Solving cases quickly

Those relationships between parolees and liaison agents and officers at shared offices, Kramer said, offer a chance at “some of the only positive contact a parolee has had with law enforcement.”

The Corrections collaboration also helps authorities quickly solve cases.

“Let’s say we have a robbery or a car break-in that happened between 7 and 10,” Holt said. “I’ll ask (Parker), can you run everybody who’s on a tether who was in that area between 7 and 10. Not that I’m profiling, but now I have a list of people. We might knock on his door and ask, ‘Did you see anything?’ ”

In January, a man was identified as a nuisance after being filmed pulling on car doors in Midtown, Parker said. When pictures of the suspect were sent through law enforcement networks, Parker immediately recognized the man as a parolee. He passed along the address and Detroit police quickly made the arrest.

The service that Doherty benefited years ago has expanded to reach off campus in recent months, to the Woodbridge neighborhood, where the department has created a safe walk program.

“If you’re coming into your house, or you’re leaving, from 11 p.m. and 5 a.m., and you call us, we will meet you and watch you walk to your car,” Holt said. The pilot started about four months ago after a string of three carjackings in one week.

Now, Woodbridge residents call Wayne State police, give their location and police will respond within minutes.

Callers won’t be escorted on foot — “if I call this an escort service, we’ll be flooded with calls,” Holt said — but a police car will follow behind until the caller is safely behind the wheel.

“Since we started that, we have not had one carjacking,” Holt said. “When it first started, I got about seven, eight calls a week. You know how many we get now? None.”

jdickson@detroitnews.com