Coping with crime: Struggle persists in Detroit neighborhoods
Juana Torres, a former Southeastern High School administrator, tells the story of a graduating student who feared he would be killed and was, in fact, murdered the following summer. She also recalls her the murder of her own son.
Juana Torres packs a pistol when she isn’t teaching preschool.
“I don’t take it to school around the kids, but otherwise if I’m going somewhere, you won’t catch me without it,” said Torres, who has a concealed carry permit. “Lord, I hope I never have to use it — but if I have to, I will.”
Torres, 51, whose son was killed in 2013, lives on Detroit’s east side in one of the nation’s most dangerous communities. She is among the thousands of Detroiters struggling to survive in the culture of crime that grips many neighborhoods.
Torres and other Detroit residents bristle when they hear stories touting the city’s comeback.
Despite new amenities like the QLine and Little Caesars Arena, and the influx of well-heeled young professionals into Midtown and downtown, people who live in many Detroit neighborhoods say they are still afraid to let their children play outside.
“It’s nice to have beautiful things downtown for people to come in and see, but having a stadium or whatever isn’t going to change the mindset of people who are going around robbing and killing people,” Torres said. “It all boils down to people’s mindset.”
‘Serious cultural problem’
Police Chief James Craig said there’s been a double-digit reduction in violent crime since he came to Detroit in 2013, but added the improvement is not always easy for residents to process.
“If you’ve been a victim of a crime, or you have a friend or relative who have been victims, you’re not going to feel safe,” Craig said. “The hard-working, good people in the neighborhoods sometimes feel like there’s nothing happening, when that’s not the case.”
Since 2013, Craig said violent crime is down more than 11 percent. But the city still averages about six killings and 20 shootings per week.
FBI data released last month show violent crime in Detroit surged 15.7 percent last year, an increase that ranked it as the nation’s most violent big city — a distinction that Craig disputed, saying an antiquated software system caused some crimes to be double reported.
“We’ve definitely made progress, but there’s a culture that’s not going to change overnight,” Craig said. “Where there’s poverty, there’s crime, and Detroit is at or near the bottom as far as poverty goes.
“There’s only so much the police can do. There’s a serious cultural problem that needs to be addressed.”
Counting the crime
In many Detroit communities, violence has been ingrained for decades. There have been more than 24,000 homicides in the city since 1967 — greater than the populations of 488 of Michigan’s 533 municipalities, and more than three times the number of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined since the War on Terror was launched in 2001.
In the past 10 years, there have been more than 3,500 homicides and 12,000 nonfatal shootings in Detroit, according to police statistics.
In addition to the violence, property crimes are everyday occurrences in many Detroit neighborhoods. From 2013-16, there were 145,307 reported property crimes in Detroit. Thousands more likely went unreported because residents don’t expect police to respond.
Reported property crimes have dropped 27 percent since 2013, according to police data, but there were 44,692 property offenses logged last year — one for every 15 residents.
In the midst of it all, people like Torres try to live normal lives while guarding against the constant threat of crime and recovering from being victimized by criminals.
“You just do the best you can, but it’s not easy,” she said.
Torres lives in the 9th Precinct in the 48205 ZIP code, which for years has been among the most violent in the United States. Since January, her street, Collingham Drive, has been the site of a homicide, 16 assaults, 16 burglaries, nine motor vehicle thefts and four robberies, according to Detroit police data.
She said she’s done her best to raise her family in a difficult environment and is proud all of her living children attended college and are doing well.
She added while she isn’t currently in a relationship with the kids’ father, he’s been in the picture and helped raise them.
Despite her efforts to “raise a good family,” Torres says crime has infiltrated their lives.
Torres said her 20-year-old son, LaRonn Walker, also was enrolled in college like his four siblings, but he didn’t get the chance to attend — he was shot and killed in December 2013 while visiting a friend. No arrests have been made.
Torres said by the time her son was killed, she had already dealt with several violent deaths during her 12 years as assistant dean of discipline at Southeastern High School.
“We had two or three students killed every year,” she said. “Here I am trying to support families whose children were murdered, and it happens to me.”
Looks that kill
Among the students slain during Torres’ tenure at Southeastern: 17-year-old Je’Rean Blake, whose May 2010 killing prompted the police raid that resulted in the accidental shooting death of 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones.
Je’Rean was killed by Aiyana’s uncle, Chauncey Owens, who reportedly was angry because he didn’t like the way Je’Rean had looked at him. Owens was convicted of the killing and sentenced to life in prison.
Je’Rean was the second member of his family to be killed because of a facial expression: His 18-year-old uncle, Jamall Cargill, was killed in June 1994 after laughing at a drug dealer who had a beef with another man, said Deborah Cargill, Je’Rean’s aunt and Jamall Cargill’s sister.
“That’s why I wear sunglasses when I go out: I don’t want anyone to think I’m looking at them the wrong way,” Cargill said.
Lyvonne Cargill, Je’Rean’s mother, said she knows several people who have been killed in Detroit. She said she sent her 18-year-old son to live with her niece in Chesterfield Township to get him away from the city.
“I just wanted to get him out of the ’hood, because of the type of people he was hanging around with,” she said. “He’s doing good now.”
Torres said she also sent her youngest son to school in the suburbs; he graduated last year from Dakota High School in Macomb Township and is attending Lansing Community College.
“He took LaRonn’s death hard,” Torres said. “We had to put him in counseling. I’d go into his bedroom and he’d be holding LaRonn’s picture, boo-hooing.”
As her family struggles to heal, Torres said she takes precautions as she goes about her daily routine to avoid being further victimized by criminals.
On her way home from work each night, she phones her 17-year-old son to alert him so he can watch her walk from her car to the house, in case a robber — or worse — is lurking nearby.
“You do what you have to,” she said, “to be safe.”
Stephanie Hale, 26, who lives on the city’s east side near Eight Mile and Ryan, said she wants to move out of Detroit because she feels her family is in danger.
“It’s everywhere,” she said. “The guys leave their guns laying out on the sidewalk when they play basketball. My dog got shot for no reason in my yard. That could have been me or my kids. I want to move. It’s not safe here.”
Hale told the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners in September an off-duty Detroit cop shot her Italian mastiff, Drogo. Police officials are investigating the claim. Hale said while the mastiff was recovering from the gunshot, her other dog, a pit bull named Aiko, was stolen from her yard.
“It was daytime; everyone was outside — but nobody’s saying anything,” she said. “They say they didn’t see who did it.”
On Torres’ street, she said four people died of overdoses last year inside an abandoned house near her home. “That was the place where everyone went to get high,” she said. “They finally boarded it up.”
She pointed to a house across the street. “That place is still abandoned,” she said. “I worry who might be staying in there.”
In her pre-K class at Carleton Elementary School, Torres says she regularly encounters what she calls “contact babies.”
“These kids come in smelling like marijuana, and they’re high,” she said. “You can see their eyes are all red. Some of these parents are so trifling. You’d think marijuana was a new perfume or cologne, you smell it on them so much.
“I have to say something to the parents, because if I don’t, I’ll be wrong,” she said. “I asked one dad, ‘why do you have to make your habit your child’s habit?’ He seemed humbled and said he would stop.”
Torres’ daughter and grandchildren moved to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and while she says she wishes they were closer, she’s happy they’re out of Detroit.
“I’d like for them to be here so I could see them more often, but that’s being selfish,” she said.
“They’re in a neighborhood now where they can play outside without worrying someone will steal their bikes or hurt them.”
Deborah Cargill said it’s up to her and other residents to address the crime problem in Detroit.
“I don’t blame the politicians. The healing starts from within,” she said. “We have to fix us first before things get better.
“We have to ask if there’s something wrong in our community,” she said. “When people say ‘black lives matter,’ they have to matter to us, too. We can’t just get mad when someone from the outside does something we don’t like.”
Living in the city
Longtime residents of Detroit’s high-crime areas are forced to learn strategies to avoid becoming crime victims. Members of the Facebook group “Detroit Crime and Homicide” shared these tips:
■After buying a television or computer, never leave the box in front of the house, because it lets thieves know there’s something worth stealing inside.
■If you’re at a fast-food restaurant drive-through and you’re behind another vehicle, leave enough space so that you’re not boxed in and can drive away if someone tries to rob you.
■As you approach a red light, look around for bushes, buildings, or anything else that could make a hiding place for carjackers. Also, leave space between your vehicle and those in front or behind you, so you can’t be boxed in.
■Gas up during the day.
■Carry a “decoy wallet” containing a few dollars and an empty debit card, so if you’re robbed you can hand it over, instead of the real wallet containing credit cards, identification and other important documentation.
■Don’t keep your Christmas tree near a window, because it signals to people outside there are presents that may be worth stealing.
■If possible, when moving into a new home, do so at night, or cover belongings with a blanket, so people won’t see what you’re bringing into the house.
■Change up your daily routine, such as when you leave for work or the routes you take.
■Never post on social media if you’re going to be away from home. Also refrain from bragging on social media about expensive purchases.
■Put your purse in the trunk while driving; or if you have it in your seat, intertwine the strap with the seat belt to make it more difficult to snatch.