Detroit citizens, cops seek common ground to halt crime

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Gunshot victims, convicted felons and Detroit cops plan to educate police recruits in the school of hard knocks.

A group of officers, most of whom grew up in Detroit, met recently with ex-cons and victims of violence to discuss how to strengthen police-community relations. They talked about being raised in a culture of lawlessness, where friends and family were victims and criminals.

During the three-hour meeting Nov. 18 at Sinai-Grace Hospital in Detroit, the citizens also talked about how it feels to be disrespected by officers, and why many in the city see police as the enemy. The officers, in turn, explained how they can sometimes become cynical when residents refuse to cooperate.

The conversation will continue. Police chief James Craig said some of the meeting participants will teach classes to recruits in the Police Academy, so prospective cops who aren’t from Detroit can learn about life in the city.

Craig was one of eight Detroit cops who met with members and coordinators of Detroit Life is Valuable Everyday (D-LIVE), a program that provides services for gunshot victims. He said those officers understand what it’s like to grow up in a high-crime neighborhood.

“These officers have had a lot of similar life experiences as you, so they have empathy,” Craig told the group. “But if I sat here and tried to make you believe that’s how all are, you’d look at me and say, ‘Chief, you’re asleep.’ And those are the folks I need to have in the room. The more the other officers get exposed to this ... the better they’ll understand what you’re going through.”

Throughout the meeting, the participants admitted their brushes with Detroit cops and crime have influenced the way they view the world — and they agreed those outlooks often need adjusting on both sides.

“I grew up (at) Seven Mile and Gratiot,” said India Perry, an officer at the 3rd Precinct. “I didn’t like the police. I know what you feel like. But it’s not about every single police officer that may have done you wrong. I was done wrong as a kid; I was criminalized. But I also met officers who were nice.

“You say you don’t like the police? Change it,” Perry said. “Become the police.”

Ray Winans, who began mentoring street kids after spending 18 years in prison for various offenses, added: “You got some guys that are so embedded in criminal activity ... their job is to not like the police. I was one of those guys. I hated the officers that could catch me.

“It’s all about being in that lifestyle. Once I went legit ... I realized I’m on the same side as the police. I don’t want violence in my neighborhood, and neither do they.”

Winans, a D-LIVE violence intervention specialist, asked the group: “Has anyone in here been traumatized by something in the city of Detroit before?”

Almost everyone in the room raised a hand.

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‘The lifestyle they glorify’

Quida Brownfield attended her first D-LIVE meeting Saturday. She was released from prison two days earlier after serving two years for drug possession. Her adult daughter has been a member of D-LIVE since being shot last year.

“My daughter ... was shot six times while I was in prison,” said Brownfield, 54. “Me as a parent, living that lifestyle that my children had glorified, I was accountable for their behavior.

“As a mother, her being shot while I was in (prison) was my greatest fear,” Brownfield said. “The lifestyle they glorify. I have five children, and they all have been in the lifestyle, because that’s all they knew ... that’s all I showed them. It’s my fault. I had to go to prison to learn that.”

Detroit police Cpl. Renee Stanley said she knows what it’s like having criminals in the family.

“I had a rough childhood,” she said. “We grew up in southwest Detroit (in a) single-parent household. I have a lot of people in my family who aren’t doing the right thing: Slinging drugs, home invasions, doing things they shouldn’t be doing. And I’ve seen that; I was exposed to that as a child.

“When I was in high school, I wasn’t always the best kid,” Stanley said. “I ended up having two children by the time I was 18. (I was) a single parent. So at that point, I said if I don’t do something to break that cycle, I’m going to be doing the same things that the rest of everybody in my family is doing.

“So I had one choice: Get it together. Figure out what you want to do, because you have two people who are looking up to you, and seeing what you are going to make of them. So I joined the police department.

“Twenty years later, unfortunately, I don’t deal with a lot of people in my family for obvious reasons, because you kind of have to separate yourself at some point,” Stanley said.

It’s not hard for cops to get jaded, said Officer David Mays, the star of a viral YouTube video that showed him break-dancing while in uniform at the 2015 Movement Festival in Hart Plaza.

“I only have three years on the job, but from my point of view it is extremely easy to get desensitized to stuff,” Mays said. He cited a recent domestic violence incident at a house where there had been several earlier complaints. Mays said the woman consistently refused to press charges against her abuser.

“She finally had taken the steps ... to (press charges),” Mays said. “And (I was) sitting there in the courtroom thinking, ‘She finally did it. I’m happy for her.’

“And her name’s called, and I look back, and she’s not in there,” he said. “It feels like, ‘Why did you call us in the first place?’

“But we don’t want to have that mentality when we pull up. (We should) always try to clear our minds, have a fresh start (and ask), ‘OK, what do you want us to do?’ But having that repetitiveness, it is easy to get desensitized sometimes. So we have to check ourselves.”

Bedside manner

Several D-LIVE members complained about cops barraging them with questions as they were being treated for gunshot wounds. The discussion gave rise to an idea Craig said he will explore: deploying officers to hospitals to act as liaisons between patients and investigators.

Denny Campbell said officers were insensitive and accusatory after he was shot earlier this year.

“(The officers who) came into my (hospital) room ... accused me of doing the shooting,” he said. “I was shocked. I was begging for my life. They came in there and said me and my friend were shooting at somebody.

“Have a little respect,” Campbell said. “I got shot going to see a girl. ... It was on my 21st birthday. I wasn’t doing nothing crazy; I was just doing what a normal guy would do.”

Craig said he would like to have liaison officers be the first contact patients have with police. He told Winans there may be grants available to fund the initiative through D-LIVE, and said he’ll look into allocating personnel for a pilot Officer Liaison program.

“I’m excited about the idea,” Craig said. “If officers talk to victims the right way, they’re probably going to get more information than if they immediately start demanding things. So a liaison officer would be the first one to talk to a patient before the detectives.”

Despite the community outreach efforts, Craig said changing the city’s culture of crime won’t be easy.

“There is so much other stuff going on that’s beyond police,” he said. “We have an inordinate number of people in our community suffering from mental illness. And part of the mental illness is because of — guess what? — being exposed to violence.

“It is not normal to be exposed to violence, whether you’re a cop out on the street seeing it every day, or you’re growing up in a neighborhood,” Craig said. “That’s not normal, and it has an impact.

“We work with middle school-aged kids in a program called City Camp,” he said. “These middle school-aged children have been exposed to violence, and because of that they act out and they become violent. It’s a vicious cycle.

“But this isn’t just your problem,” Craig said. “You’ve got family members being shot, and shot at ... and then you’ve got police officers that deal with this every single day. So the officers are going through the same kind of trauma as you are.”

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