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Despite positive crime stats, some Detroiters feel unsafe

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — Tina Wright says she doesn't feel safe in her west side neighborhood, despite police department statistics that show crime is going down in Detroit.

"It seems the same to me — still dangerous," said Wright, 50. "I stay in the house, so I'm not trying to see any crime. I hear it, though, especially behind me; those people are shooting all the time. If someone's saying the city's safer, it don't look that way to me."

Wright's opinion is echoed throughout Detroit's neighborhoods and on social media by people who refuse to believe the positive numbers released by Detroit police because they say the city still is crime-ridden.

Others, however, say they have noticed a change, insisting there isn't as much crime in their neighborhoods.

Rita Chapman, 44, says she doesn't feel safer in her Detroit neighborhood, despite what newly released crime statistics say.

Detroit police announced homicides in 2018 had dipped to 261, the lowest number in 50 years, and the third straight year the city recorded the fewest number of killings since the 1960s, when the city's population was much higher. Violent crime dropped 2 percent in 2018, Chief James Craig said.

The chief attributed the improvements in part to Operation CeaseFire, a partnership between multiple law enforcement agencies and the community that aims to help gang members abandon the criminal lifestyle, and Project Green Light, in which police and civilians monitor real-time video footage from participating businesses.

Craig said he understands the disconnect between the statistics and everyday life in some communities.

"I know if someone lives in one of the high-crime neighborhoods where they might not feel safe," he said. "If you live on a block where there are several shootings a month, even if the crime is better citywide, or even if it’s better in that neighborhood, it might not seem so to the people living there.

"That's why every time I bring up numbers, I say the same thing: While there may be an improvement, I'm not waving a flag of success," Craig said. "Even though there's no question we're headed in the right direction, crime is still a problem, so we're not patting ourselves on the back.

"I mean, yeah, we just recorded the lowest homicides in 50 years — but if I tell that to a mother whose son was just killed, what's that going to mean to her?"

The homicide figures touted by Detroit police at the beginning of the year are different from those released by the Wayne County Medical Examiner's Office, although Detroit police and county officials say there are valid reasons for the discrepancy.

The county's report shows there were 289 homicides in Detroit in 2018, although the county lists all homicides, whereas Detroit, like most cities, doesn't include justifiable homicides in its report because those aren't crimes.

Assistant Detroit Police Chief David LeValley said there were 18 justifiable homicides in the city last year. Including those in the city's count raises the number of homicides to 279 — 10 fewer than the county reported.

However, 10 cases in the county report list causes of death such as pulmonary embolism, soot/smoke inhalation and hypertensive cardiovascular disease.

Medical examiner's spokeswoman Charli Rose said there are several reasons why those names could have wound up on the homicide list, even if they weren't necessarily crime victims.

"By clinical definition homicide is defined as the killing of one person by another," she said. "(Medical examiners) and the police do not have the same set of criteria to consider a case a homicide, which can account for the difference.

"For example, at the time of an autopsy, it is possible that a manner be determined as an accident while, at the same time, police are investigating the matter as a possible homicide and listed as such," Rose said. "This would cause a difference in numbers. Also at a later date, police may uncover evidence that proves the case to be a homicide, then the manner of death would be updated by (medical examiners)."

Rita Chapman, 44, with her kids, Wayne, 6 and Stephanie, 4. Chapman says she doesn't feel safer in her Detroit neighborhood, despite what newly-released crime statistics say

West side resident Rita Chapman said the positive statistics released by the police department don't match her reality.

"I still feel nervous because of all the crime," she said while her two children played at the Gorham playground at Pembroke and Murray Hill. "There are still a lot of break-ins. New Year's Eve was off the chain, with people shooting until 2-3 in the morning. I just moved here from another neighborhood, and I don't feel safe."

However, Cynthia O'Neil, who lives in the same west side community as Chapman, said the area has gotten "much better than it used to be."

"This neighborhood, I believe, is pretty safe," she said. "You see a lot more parents with their families coming to the (playground), people playing basketball and guys throwing horseshoes at the back of the park. This is a family-type neighborhood, and you don't see much crime here."

In 2018, there were 13 aggravated assaults, nine assaults and one robbery reported within a block of Gorham playground, according to Detroit police figures. In 2017, there were five aggravated assaults, 13 assaults and two robberies reported in the area — so some violent crimes dropped in the area, while others rose.

Are crime statistics reliable? "It depends who you ask, and how they're being looked at," said Daniel Kennedy, a criminal justice professor at Oakland University.

"When it comes to crime statistics, you always need to take them with a grain of salt," Kennedy said. "In many instances, people don't report crimes, so there's automatically a disconnect there. Also, sometimes mistakes are made by the reporting agency, whether intentionally or unintentionally."

Some have accused Detroit police of manipulating statistics to make it appear the city is safer — an accusation Craig denies.

"I hear people say that, and they don't know what they're talking about," Craig said. "I'm certainly not playing with the numbers, and if I ever hear of anyone in this department doing that, I will immediately move to have them terminated."

The discussion about the chasm between statistics and the perception of crime — and whether crime figures released by Detroit police are accurate — isn't new.

In 1988, the Department of Justice released a paper, "Policing and the Fear of Crime," which suggested people's concerns about crime are often driven by factors other than criminal activity. The publication cited studies showing elderly women are most fearful of crime, followed by women of any age.

"Although levels of fear are related to levels of criminal victimization, fear is influenced by other factors, such as a general sense of vulnerability, signs of physical and social decay, and inter-group conflict," the publication said.

Kennedy added: "The fear of crime often does not match the reality. Elderly people tend to be more fearful, even though young men are far more likely to be victims of crime. Or someone who is new to a neighborhood will be more afraid, since they don't know anyone, even if that neighborhood is relatively safe.

"So basing decisions on the fear of crime is problematic — but it's still something government officials need to respond to, because for many people, perception is reality." 

Craig said high-profile crimes tend to make things seem worse than they really are. "Certain crimes shock the consciousness," he said. "When you get those kinds of crime, it alters perception, and people question if we're really getting better.

"Also, you've got the news that now runs 24 hours, and social media, which also plays into it," Craig said. "When you constantly see stories about crime, it can give the impression there hasn't been an improvement."

Sometimes, the statistics released by police are inaccurate. A Detroit News investigation in 1984 revealed crimes across Michigan did not match the numbers that were reported to the FBI.

In 2009, The News reported Detroit police had been under-reporting homicides to the FBI for years. After The News investigation showed several 2008 homicides had not been counted, former police chief Warren Evans adjusted the official homicide count from 306 to 368.

That adjustment didn't help Detroit's reputation, as it pushed the city's murder rate to 40.7 per 100,000 residents, above the previously reported rate of 33.8. The change meant Detroit's murder rate leapfrogged Baltimore's rate of 36.9, and into the lead for highest rate in cities with more than 500,000 residents that year.

The News in 2008 determined the Detroit police homicide figures were inaccurate by comparing the numbers released by the police department to the number of homicides recorded at the Wayne County Medical Examiner's Office.

Each year since then, The News has compared Detroit's homicide numbers against the medical examiner's body count and found no major discrepancies. 

The issue of whether Detroit's crime numbers were accurate again came up in 2017, when Detroit police officials disputed the FBI statistics, insisting Detroit police data indicated there was a 5 percent drop in violent crime in Detroit from 2015 to 2016, as opposed to the 15.7 percent increase the FBI statistics showed.

Craig and LeValley said the inaccuracies were in large part due to the old CRISNET computer system, which had long been complained about by police officials who said the system didn't work properly. 

LeValley said Detroit officials in 2017 told Michigan State Police, which handles crime stats each year before forwarding them to the FBI, that the 2015-16 aggravated assaults were not properly being logged because the software didn't flag potential input errors by officers. He said CRISNET had recorded fewer aggravated assaults, including shootings, than the true number.

When the inaccurate lower 2015 aggravated assault number was compared to the next year, it appeared there had been a jump in those assaults, when if the higher number had been used, the stats would have shown a drop in 2016, LeValley said.

State police spokesman Lt. Mike Shaw acknowledged to The News at the time that Detroit police officials told them there were more aggravated assaults than the CRISNET system was counting.

"So if we're cooking the books, why would we report that there were actually more aggravated assaults than the computer system was counting? That doesn't even make sense," Craig said recently. "If we were lying to make the city seem safer, why would we tell the reporting agency there was more crime?"

Detroit police officials since 2017 have been using a $9.1 million computer system, Superion, which officials say is more accurate.

"We stand behind our numbers," Craig said. "The new system works a lot better."

Kennedy said people tend to use crime statistics the wrong way.

"When you look at crime stats, you need to do it calmly and with a little reflection," he said. "There's a tendency to look at crime stats in the short term, which is a mistake. I don't respond to short-term spurts; it's like the stock market. You have to look at long-term trends and even then, you proceed with caution.

"Criminals tend to not want to deal with police, so if they're the victim of a crime, they often won't tell police about it — they deal with it themselves," Kennedy said. "So you're not getting a true picture of crime in the community, because not all crimes are reported.

"The caution that should be used in interpreting these stats is often not as emphasized as the emotional impact of the stats," Kennedy said. "That can lead to a gap between what people think is happening, and what's really happening."
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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN