Detroit on pace for fewest homicides since ’66

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — As 2017 draws to a close, the city is on pace to record sharp decreases in most violent and nonviolent crime categories, including the fewest criminal homicides since 1966, Detroit police officials say.

As of Thursday, there were 267 criminal homicides in Detroit this year. That’s the fewest since 1966, when there were 214 homicides. It’s also down from 300 during the same period in 2016, when the city recorded 305 for the entire year, according to police statistics.

The number of people killed in Detroit per capita also dropped in 2017, with the homicide rate of 39.5 homicides per 100,000 residents down from 44.8 last year. It’s the lowest per capita homicide rate since 2008, when it was 37.4.

The statistics show Detroit joining other big U.S. cities, such as New York and Chicago, with falling murder rates.

Police said other violent crimes fell in Detroit in 2017, including nonfatal shootings from 948 to 831; aggravated assaults from 8,844 to 8,498; robberies from 3,035 to 2,582; and carjackings from 374 to 302. Arsons dropped from 934 to 897.

There have been 11,920 violent crimes reported in Detroit so far this year, down from 13,705 reported in September in the FBI’s 2016 Uniform Crime Report.

That FBI data for 2016 ranked Detroit as the nation’s most violent big city — a distinction that city police officials disputed because they say the crimes were tallied by an outdated computer system.

Regardless, some Detroit residents say they feel safer than in years past.

“This neighborhood is holding its own,” said George Kaleniecki, who lives in the Warrendale district. “You’ll hear occasional gunfire, but things have definitely gotten better than they used to be. There’s no question about it.”

Others lament their communities are still too dangerous.

“Sometimes, it seems like things are better, and sometimes, it doesn’t,” west-side resident Karen Campbell said. “I can only go by my neighborhood, and there were a lot of bad things this year. A couple people got murdered on the playground near my house.”

Detroit Police Chief James Craig said he understands why some residents feel there’s been no change.

“People see what immediately affects them, or they react to horrific incidents that get a lot of media attention,” he said. “For instance, when the Vietnam vet was killed at the O’Reilly (auto parts store), that creates the perception that nobody is safe. Or if someone hears shots fired outside their house, of course, they’re going to say they don’t feel safe.

“But if you look at the overall picture, things are getting better. I’m excited we’re moving in the right direction, but I want fewer crimes, and if we keep doing what we did this year, I’m thinking we’ll have fewer next year.

Craig added that despite what his critics say, there is a plan to deal with crime, citing weekly CompStat meetings where command staff discuss crime trends and how to address them.

“With CompStat, we’re putting more rigor into that process, with more things being audited,” he said.

Craig said neighborhood police officers, who deal with residents and business owners to address nonemergency quality-of-life issues, have also helped establish trust between police and residents, leading to tips that have helped keep crime down.

“What impact does that have? If you’re working closely with the community, you build relationships and predictably, residents tell the officers what’s going on in their neighborhoods,” he said.

Chief points to initiatives

Craig also credited the lower crime numbers in part to Project Green Light, the program in which businesses pay to have high-definition cameras installed. The cameras are monitored by officers and civilians in the police department’s Real Time Crime Center, in what Craig calls “virtual patrols.”

Craig said the city has 232 Green Light locations, and the goal is to have 400 by the end of next year.

“I think that’s had a major impact on robberies and carjackings,” Craig said. “Suspects know there’s a higher probability they’ll be arrested if they commit a crime in or around a Green Light location. We do what’s called ‘virtual patrols’ in areas that have been identified as having high crime, and that has had an effect.”

The Rev. Horace Sheffield noted crime has plummeted around a “problem gas station,” a Marathon location at the corner of Grand River and Wyoming.

In April, Sheffield’s community group, the Detroit Association of Black Organizations, which is headquartered across the street from the Marathon, helped pay for the station to join the Green Light program, after residents complained about rampant crime outside the business.

“That’s made a big difference,” Sheffield said. “I can’t think of a single incident since they put in the cameras, and this was an area where there were all kinds of problems.”

The owner of the gas station did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Another factor Craig said has helped drive down crime is the expansion of Operation Ceasefire, a program in which police partner with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and Wayne County prosecutors to identify gang members and others who are likely to commit crimes or be victims.

“When we identify those groups, we give them the ‘promise speech,’ ” Craig said. “We tell them: This is a second opportunity. If you engage in one shooting incident, law enforcement will give full attention to the entire group you’re with.

“On the flip side of Ceasefire, there are social service people there to give people opportunities: If they need a driver’s license or job training, they’ll help,” the chief said. “It’s a balanced approach, which is yielding results.”

Craig said he expects to roll out Operation Ceasefire citywide by March. It’s currently operating on the east side and in the 6th Precinct on the west side.

Murder by numbers

In 2015, Detroit recorded 295 homicides, the first time since 1967 there were fewer than 300 people killed in the city. This year’s total so far is 14 fewer than the 281 killings in 1967.

During the 1970s through 1990s, Detroit routinely topped 500 homicides annually, with a high of 714 in 1974, when the city became known as “the murder capital of the world.”

In recent years, advances in medicine have driven down homicide numbers nationwide, Craig said.

“That’s something that doesn’t get talked about, but emergency room doctors do a phenomenal job of saving lives,” he said. “A lot of those cases would be homicides in years past.”

Other big U.S. cities also are reporting fewer homicides. Chicago’s number is down from 792 last year to 664 this year, according to the Chicago Tribune, while in New York, 286 slayings had occurred in 2017 as of Wednesday — the lowest number on records, reported the New York Times.

Detroit, meanwhile, has recorded 14 justifiable homicides in 2017, slightly down from 15 last year, police said. Like most police departments, including the FBI, Detroit doesn’t count justifiable homicides in crime statistics.

Police officials say since justifiable homicides are not crimes, it makes no sense to include them in crime statistics — but if they were included, the city this year is still on pace to log the fewest killings in 50 years.

Arsons also down

Another crime that’s seen a decrease this year is arson, which fell to 897 from 934 in 2016. Fire Department 2nd Deputy Commissioner Charles Simms, who was chief of arson from 2014 to 2016, said while much of the department’s work is done after-the-fact, there are measures that can help reduce intentional fires.

“When I was chief of arson, I instituted quadrants, where investigators had their own areas,” Simms said. “That made residents and businesses familiar with that investigator, which makes them more comfortable to talk about who they think is starting fires. That has helped.

“We also created a tip line which went straight to us, instead of the state. People feel more comfortable calling in the 313 area code; plus, we now get the calls immediately, so we can start investigations faster.”

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN