Victim recalls pain, fear after being shot at fireworks

Candice Williams, George Hunter, and Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News

Detroiter Chiquita Keen-Johnston was excited to attend the city’s fireworks show with her three young grandchildren for the first time.

That anticipation turned to panic five minutes before the fireworks launched Monday night when Keen-Johnston was shot in the hip after an argument erupted near her between two groups of youths at the Spirit of Detroit Plaza.

“Some young men a few steps away from me were arguing and it wasn’t diffusing,” she said. “I grabbed my grandkids and tapped my mom. I said, ‘Come on. We’ve got to go ahead and move.’ ”

As Keen-Johnston, her husband, mother and grandchildren hurried to walk away, she heard, then felt, a gunshot.

“It felt like somebody had punched me in the back,” she said.

Keen-Johnston, 47, was among three people shot in two shootings downtown Monday during the city’s fireworks show. In the wake of the incidents, Detroit Police Chief James Craig said he’s assessing how to patrol large events.

The victims had non-life-threatening injuries. Keen-Johnston was shot in the hip after the argument between the groups of youths. The victim was not part of either group, Craig said Tuesday during a news conference at police headquarters.

A few blocks north, at Fort and Cass, two teens were shot while sitting in a parked car following an argument, Craig said. The victims then drove into the fireworks area and flagged down a squad car, Craig said. In that incident, a 17-year-old boy was shot in the stomach, and a 17-year-old girl was grazed by a bullet, police said.

All of the victims were in stable condition, Craig said.

Keen-Johnston said from her room at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit on Tuesday that she was in a lot of pain, but doing OK.

She calls her 8-year-old grandson her hero for flagging a police officer after she was shot.

“My husband was like, ‘Come on. What’d you do? Did you fall?’ I said ‘No. I got shot. I got hit.’ My grandson, he’s my hero. He heard. He took off running and grabbed the police and brought him to me.”

Following the shooting, there was chaos, she said.

She credits the police and emergency medical technicians for keeping her calm.

“I want everybody to know Detroit Police Department did an excellent job at keeping me as comfortable and calm as they possibly could,” she said. “One (EMT) — I wish I knew his name — stuck with me from the time they picked me up off the ground. He wouldn’t let me go. I kept telling him, ‘I’m so scared.’ He said, ‘It’s OK. You hold on to me.’”

The Spirit of Detroit park shooting happened near a group of police officers, the chief said. “It’s brazen when, in addition to engaging in conflict when there’s police around, to take out a gun and fire it,” he said. “Why would one do that?”

Police recovered a pistol near the Spirit of Detroit park shooting, “but we can’t conclusively say (it was the gun used in the shooting),” Craig said.

Two people were arrested in connection with the woman’s shooting, and later released, Craig said. There was only one other arrest made during the fireworks, in contrast to dozens arrested in previous years, mostly for curfew violations.

Keen-Johnston said she likely won’t attend a fireworks show again.

“I wish these young men, and women too, they would learn to respect everybody that’s around them,” she said. “I’ve come to the realization they have no regard for anybody else’s life. It’s got to get better.”

Craig said he’s looking at whether to beef up curfew enforcement, as was done in previous years.

“I’m not suggesting Detroit police are going to go around arresting minors, but we did relax curfew enforcement this year,” he said. “We think it’s important to hold parents responsible, but we don’t want to criminalize our youth.”

Fewer officers were deployed downtown during Monday’s fireworks, Craig said. There were 874 Detroit officers downtown, while other police departments loaned Detroit 150 cops this year, as opposed to the normal 200 to 300 in other years.

The Detroit police presence was lower because Craig months ago instituted minimum staffing levels in the precincts.

“We’ve set a formula of running (precinct) staffing levels, and we didn’t want to take from the neighborhoods,” Craig said. “Also, we had gang intel (working on cases) ... and we didn’t want to take those resources away from their work.”

Some violence can’t be prevented by police, Craig said. “What often happens: There’s a dispute between two groups, and someone makes the dumb decision to take out a firearm and use it, and someone gets caught in the crossfire,” he said.

Despite the fireworks incidents, and other recent high-profile crimes, Craig insisted downtown is safe.

“Whenever there’s a shooting incident it does create fear,” he said. “That’s not in dispute. But overall when you look at the number of large-scale events we have every weekend, it’s safe.”

The shootings at this year’s fireworks, now in its 59th year, follow several years of relative peace at an event that draws hundreds of thousands to Detroit’s downtown and riverfront.

Last year, police reported they didn’t make a single arrest related to the fireworks show — a repeat of 2015.

During 2014’s show, police arrested 54 minors who were not accompanied by an adult and violated a 6 p.m. curfew.

The previous year, a group of teens tossed firecrackers among spectators, sparking chaos and causing a stampede. There also were several brawls, one of which ended when a man about a mile east of downtown pulled out a gun and accidentally shot himself in the leg. Also that year, police rounded up more than 200 youths who violated the city curfew.

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Twitter: @CWilliams_DN