5 years in, Detroit top cop Craig cites progress, admits challenges

George Hunter
The Detroit News
Detroit Police Chief James Craig talks at a department-wide meeting of police officials to discuss the week's crime stats and trends.

The day James Craig was introduced as Detroit's fifth police chief in five years, he got a stark preview of the challenges he'd be facing. 

There were 13 shootings on May 15, 2013, including an incident that left five people wounded, and the homicide of a 60-year-old woman who was gunned down after an argument.

Craig officially assumed command on July 1, 2013. Five years later, Detroit remains among the nation's most violent cities — but there have also been significant drops in crime during Craig's tenure.

Last year, Detroit recorded the lowest number of homicides since 1966, according to police statistics, while the homicide rate of 39.7 per 100,000 residents was the city's lowest since 1979. In 2012, the year before Craig became chief, there were 55 killings per 100,000 Detroit residents.

Other crimes, including nonfatal shootings, robberies and carjackings, also have seen double-digit drops since 2013.

"I feel really good about our accomplishments so far, but our work is far from over," Craig said. "I always say, I'm not going to wave a flag of success. At the same time, I think this is a better police department than it was five years ago. When I first got here, the department was on life support."

Craig, 61, has lasted longer than any uniformed Detroit police chief other than William Hart, who held the seat for more than 14 years. Hart left his job dogged by scandal, as have many other Detroit chiefs since the 1974 City Charter mandated that the police department be headed by a sworn officer rather than a civilian police commissioner.

Craig is the 13th chief since the charter mandate, and the 42nd person to lead the Detroit Police Department since it was founded in 1865. Prior to 1901, the department was headed by a four-member commission.

Since 1901, only four chiefs or commissioners have lasted longer than Craig: Hart; and commissioners John Ballenger, who served from 1944-50; Heinrich Pickert, police commissioner from 1934-40; and Frank Croul, who served two separate terms from 1909-13 and 1923-26.

When Craig assumed command, the department was reeling from a string of problems that included the forced resignations of two police chiefs in three years, Ralph Godbee and Warren Evans, following sex scandals.

Craig's first week on the job was marked by more controversy, with some City Council members decrying his $225,000 annual salary — $84,500 more than what had been advertised for the position.

Also during Craig's first week, the department's communications dispatch system crashed, forcing officers and firefighters to use telephones to respond to emergency calls.

Stability but violence

Despite the early bumps, some observers say Craig has brought stability to a police force that  had operated under a federal consent decree for 10 years, in large part because of the department's pattern of whitewashing incidents of police brutality. The federal oversight, which began in 2003, ended in March 2016.

Craig's critics complain he hasn't done enough to fight crime, pointing out that Detroit is still plagued by violence, both in the city's neighborhoods and downtown.

Mayor Mike Duggan said he's happy with Craig, whom he appointed deputy mayor in 2016.

"I think he's been an outstanding police chief," Duggan said. "Before him, we had five chiefs in five years."

The year before Craig got to Detroit, Duggan said, there were more than 400 homicides in the city -- 411  killings, 386 of which were criminal homicides. That's dropped significantly, Duggan noted -- 282 killings last year, 267 of them criminal homicides.

Duggan in 2015 extended Craig's contract for two years, with automatic one-year renewals kicking in after that unless either the city or Craig gives 12 months' notice to opt out of the deal. At the time, Duggan called it one of the "easiest contract negotiations" he'd ever handled.

"When he took over, there were police precincts closed, 12-hour shifts, and a demoralized police department," Duggan told The Detroit News recently. "That's all changed."

Duggan was referring to some of Craig's first moves after assuming the chief's job. He rescinded former Mayor Dave Bing's cost-cutting efforts of imposing 12-hour officer shifts, and "virtual precincts," in which precincts were closed from from 4 p.m.-8 a.m. 

Craig also got rid of police districts, a model implemented in 2005 by former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, in which multiple precincts were combined to cut costs.

A Cass Technical High School graduate who grew up in northwest Detroit, Craig started his career in 1977 as an officer in Detroit's 10th Precinct. He was laid off a few years later and served in the Los Angeles and Portland, Maine, police departments. Craig was top cop in Portland and Cincinnati before assuming command of Detroit's police force. 

Detroit was under state control when Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr hired Craig. Orr gave his new chief the power to make unilateral decisions about policy and the department's organizational structure, rather than being subject to approval by the Board of Police Commissioners as mandated by the City Charter. The board's power was restored in 2015.

During Craig's tenure, the department's manpower has increased slightly, even as its budget has shrunk. The police force has 2,415 sworn officers, compared with 2,386 in 2013, while the department's budget has dropped from $372.6 million five years ago to $312.8 million this year. 


What's the strategy?

Longtime Detroit civil rights leader Horace Sheffield said he's impressed with Craig's job performance, giving him a grade of A-minus.

"He's an outgoing chief; he's visible and you feel like he's part of the community, rather than being high above the people in a militaristic manner," Sheffield said. "I think he's done a lot to improve the image of the Detroit Police Department, and to strengthen relations with the community."

But Kenneth Reed, director of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, said Craig's "shelf life has expired."

"When he first started I thought he was promising; he was the hometown guy who came back," Reed said. "But that eroded. Crime is still a major issue. I don't see a marked improvement since he's been chief. People are still getting shot downtown. You've got all the violence in Greektown. There's violence in the neighborhoods. I don't see a real strategy for getting rid of all this crime." 

Craig rejected the idea he doesn't have a crime-fighting strategy. Among his early initiatives were high-profile raids, dubbed "Operation Restore Order," which he said were designed to arrest wanted criminals, while sending a message that crime won't be tolerated.

One of the actions was the December 2013 raid at the Martin Luther King Apartments on Lafayette and Chene, just east of downtown. The apartments were long known as a hotbed of crime, with drug dealers openly hawking their wares.

Resident Elder Sandrew King, 44, said that's changed since the raid.

"The dope dealers aren't out there like they used to be," he said. "There are still dealers around, but they're not operating out in the open the way they did. There's just not a strong presence of them anymore.

"I've been seeing a lot more police around here, too," said King, who moved into the apartments in 1986. "I would say the King homes are as good as they've ever been since I got here."

In addition to the raids, Craig said he has strongly emphasized building ties with the community.

"When people trust you, you're able to solve more crimes because the citizens tell you what's happening, and you get tips," he said. "You also nip potential problems in the bud before they happen because you have already opened a dialogue with community leaders."

During Craig's tenure, there have been a few instances of potential civil unrest, including a flareup following the April 2015 shooting of west side resident Terrance Kellom by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Mitchell Quinn. 

Hours after the shooting, Craig walked into the middle of an irate crowd and promised he'd hold a community meeting within 48 hours to answer citizens' questions. The meeting was held, and further problems were quelled.

Quinn was later cleared of wrongdoing by Wayne County prosecutors, who deemed the shooting justified because Kellom had lurched at Quinn with a hammer.

Willie Bell, chairman of the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners, said he gives Craig high marks for his work with the community.

"We have had our moments, our challenges, but I have to give credit where it’s due," said Bell, a longtime Detroit police officer. "When I look at his leadership, and his efforts to reach out to the community, I have to applaud that."

Bell said Craig's initiating the Neighborhood Police Officer rank has helped strengthen police-community relations.

"John or Bill or Harry can now reach out and talk to an NPO, or even the captain of their precinct," Bell said. "That's very important."

But Bell said Craig is often too quick to lambaste officers accused of wrongdoing. 

"Sometimes that's not fair to the officers," he said. "At some moment, you need to be more patient with your media response."

Craig stressed he wants to be transparent when officers are accused of breaking the rules.

"It's a balance," he said. "You have to keep the public informed, while understanding that police officers have due process like everyone else."

Detroit Police Officers Association union president Mark Diaz gave Craig high marks.

"Chief Craig has done a great job being visible to Detroiters and though his detractors have accused him of loving the camera too much, it's far better to have our police chief answering questions in the open as opposed to not commenting on matters.

"Though he hasn't been perfect all the time, he has been a great partner to the DPOA ... as an advocate for Tasers for our officers," Diaz said.

Mark Young, president of the Lieutenants and Sergeants Association union, said Craig has done a good job in a tough situation.

"I think his leadership has been innovative," Young said. "He's dealt with many challenges, including working while the city was in bankruptcy, but he's done a lot to build relationships and trust with the community and his officers."

Breaking down the stats

Shortly after Craig became chief, emergency manager Orr wrote a report to creditors in which he said only 11 percent of homicides in 2012 were cleared, meaning a suspect had been identified and charges sought.

The department now clears about 60 percent of its homicides, close to the national average of 62 percent, Craig said. One of the tweaks he made was to instruct homicide detectives to investigate nonfatal shootings. That allows investigators to track animosities between people, so when someone is killed, detectives often know who may have had a motive.

Craig added that Project Green Light, in which participating businesses allow police to monitor live video feeds in and around their establishments, has been a major reason why carjackings have dropped 43 percent over the past two years.

"Green Light is a national model," he said. "I recently spoke with other police chiefs about it, and they were intrigued by it."

Reed insisted the statistics released by the police department don't match reality.

"If we just look at carjackings: A lot of times people don’t even report those because they don’t have insurance," he said. "I question some of the statistics they release. They say crime is way down, but tell that to the woman who lives on the east side. There's a fear of crime out there that is very real."

Southwest Detroit resident Janet Nicoletti, 65, complained that violence is still rampant in her neighborhood, but she didn't lay that at Craig's feet.

"I haven't seen much of a change," she said. "There's still a lot of crime. But I don't know if that's necessarily Chief Craig's fault. I'd say he hasn't done any better or worse than anyone else would've done. I don't think any chief could fix Detroit."

Kwame Yamoah, 68, who lives in the Boston-Edison neighborhood, agreed that many of Detroit's crime problems stem from issues that have nothing to do with policing.

"There's a lot of juvenile delinquency because these kids have nothing to do," Yamoah said. "The city closed down so many of the rec centers and other places years ago, so kids don't have any outlets for positive activity. But that's not really something the police chief can change."

Craig said he wants to emphasize programs he initiated that aim to help kids address social issues that lead to crime.

"Young people need to learn how to resolve disputes without violence," he said. "We've got a program called 'Brotherhood,' which focuses on mentoring young men. We'll soon do the same with young women, as well. That program is showing a lot of promise.

"Another program aimed at young people is City Camp, which helps kids deal with trauma," Craig said. "There are a lot of kids in Detroit who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. When you're exposed to violence, it has a direct impact on you.

"There are so many things that contribute to crime, such as untreated mental illness, and poverty-related issues," he said. "Those are areas where a police department can only have so much impact."

Craig said he's proud of the work he's done during his five years as Detroit's top cop.

"There's no question things are better than they were five years ago," he said. "Are they perfect? Of course not. But I'm always trying to find solutions, and I will continue to look for solutions. We're constantly tweaking."

(313) 222-2134
Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN


Parade of chiefs

Since the 1974 City Charter mandated that uniformed chiefs run the police department instead of civilian police commissioners, there have been 13 top cops in Detroit, only one of who lasted more than five years:

• Phillip Tannian : July 1974- September 1976
• William Hart: September 1976 – February 1991
• Stanley Knox: February 1991 – December 1993
• Isaiah McKinnon: December 1993 – July 1998
• Benny Napoleon: July 1998 – July 2001
• Charles Wilson: July 2001 – January 2002
• Jerry Oliver: February 2002 – October 2003
• Ella Bully-Cummings: November 2003 – September 2008
• James Barren: October 2008 – July 2009
• Warren Evans: July 2009 – July 2010
• Ralph Godbee: August 2010 – October 2012
• Chester Logan (Interim): October 2012 – July 2013
• James Craig: July 2013 – present