Shot at Detroit fireworks last year, grandma faces fears
The bullet is still lodged in her back. The memory is still fresh. Fear still grips her heart, but she's facing it.
Chiquita Keen-Johnston of Detroit was shot during last year's Ford Fireworks show on June 26, 2017, and despite great apprehension, she plans to return downtown next week for this year’s event.
"The closer it gets, the more nervous I am," said Keen-Johnston, 48, who was shot in the upper right hip in the Spirit of Detroit Plaza last year while her three grandchildren, ages 4, 5 and 8, looked on.
"I'm going down there to the fireworks, but I'm going to a rooftop party," she said. "The whole family is going, including the grandkids. They were part of what happened last year. They were there.
"I still get nervous when I see lot of people hanging around in groups, especially teenagers," the nursing assistant said. "So I don't think I could handle being in the (fireworks) crowd again so soon.
"But I feel obligated to go down to the party for the grandkids," she said. "If I can't do what I used to do and go into the crowd, I can at least get as close to it as I can, so they can still enjoy the fireworks."
Keen-Johnston was one of three people shot in two separate incidents during last year's fireworks show. No arrests have been made in either case.
At this year’s show on Monday, the Spirit of Detroit Plaza will be cordoned off, as police officials tweak their fireworks security plan, Detroit Police Chief James Craig said.
"It'll be a secure area, and people entering will be checked for weapons (with a metal-detecting wand)," Craig said. "We do that with Hart Plaza, and we'll do the same with Spirit Plaza this year."
Craig said it's challenging to police the huge fireworks crowd -- expected to number up to 1 million -- while maintaining officer presence away from downtown.
"We still have to protect the rest of the city," he said. "We can't take manpower away from the neighborhoods, but we've also got all those thousands of people coming downtown who need protecting. So we have a 'no days off' policy that allows us to have maximum deployment downtown and in the neighborhoods."
As in years past, other law enforcement agencies, including the Wayne County Sheriff's Office, will assist with fireworks patrols.
For the first time, the Detroit police Real-Time Crime Center will be part of the event's security detail, with officers and civilians monitoring live video feeds from downtown surveillance cameras, Craig said.
"We’ll be using the Real-Time Crime Center for command operations," Craig said. "In the past, we've used MDOT cameras. But our center is more sophisticated, and using it will allow us to respond to situations as they happen in a more effective and timely manner."
Since the Windsor-Detroit International Freedom Festival began in 1959, most of the downtown fireworks shows have been free of major violence, although through the years high-profile incidents have marred some events.
In 2011, a 16-year-old girl was shot in the leg while walking with friends near the Renaissance Center, while in 2004, at least two gunmen opened fire in Hart Plaza, wounding eight people and killing 47-year-old Donald Murphy, who died weeks after the shooting.
In the 2004 case, officers arrested Daron Caldwell, who was jailed for three months before Wayne County prosecutors dismissed the charges because his DNA didn't match items found at the crime scene; and because ballistics tests determined more than one gun was used in the carnage.
Caldwell sued the city for $100 million in federal court, claiming his rights had been violated, although the lawsuit was dismissed in 2007. The shooters were never arrested and the case remains open.
In 1991, sisters Cassandra and Cossandra Rutherford were among six black women charged with beating Joanne Was of Farmington Hills, a white woman, during that year's fireworks. The beating was captured on videotape — a rarity in the days before ubiquitous cellphone videos — stoking racial tensions and animosity between the city and suburbs.
Cassandra Rutherford was acquitted of wrongdoing, although Cossandra Rutherford, 17, and Tangela McLemore, 19, were convicted of robbery and assault and sentenced to up to 15 years in prison.
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said despite sporadic problems, the fireworks show remains popular.
"You can tell by the large crowds that people feel safe," he said. "Even last year, the vast majority of people didn't even know there was an issue until they saw it on the news later.
"Each year, the police department learns more about how to keep the event safe," Duggan said. "They make better use of cameras and helicopters, and this year there are more precautions being taken."
Keen-Johnston said she's still recovering from her gunshot wound — physically and psychologically.
"The bullet is still in my back," she said. "It's in a delicate spot, just a hair off the nerve. The doctors said if they try to get it out, they might do more damage.
"Every so often, my grandkids will see me in pain, and they’ll say, 'Grandma, I still remember when you got shot.' I tell them: 'That’s not a memory Grandma wants you to keep.'"