Book details British cop's impressions of Detroit crime

George Hunter
The Detroit News
British police officer Michael Matthews

Michael Matthews, who spent more than 20 years as police officer in England, said the crime problem in Detroit is far worse than anything he experienced in his homeland.

Matthews, 45, came to Detroit in 2016 to research his recently-released book "American Ruin: Life and Death on the Streets of Detroit — America's Deadliest City." Matthews has been touring cities across the United States for years, talking to cops and citizens

He said he was often shocked by what he saw in Detroit.

"I understand people might be offended by the book title, but I'm talking about the ruin Detroiters, especially the children, have to deal with," Matthews told The Detroit News. "It's just so sad, what these kids go through; the things that are considered normal."

In his book's preface, Matthews wrote: "The issues (Detroiters) face are not just a Detroit problem — nor just an American problem, for that matter — but they are bigger in Detroit than any other place I visited."

The 323-page book, published by Silvertail Books, gives an overview of Detroit's history, and problems with blight and other issues, but most of the focus is on crime. Matthews rode around with Detroit police's Gang Intelligence Unit and narcotics units during his previous visits, and said he got an eyeful.

"When I rode with Detroit officers, it was the most extreme policing I'd ever seen," he said. "I've been to south Chicago and Los Angeles, but Detroit has an edge. As a cop, you want to be involved in real policing, and that's what you get in Detroit. So I kept coming back.

"I always wanted to be an American police officer," he said. "At 17, I called the American Embassy, and asked, 'Can I be an NYPD cop?' They told me no."

One of the differences between American and British police officers: U.S. cops carry guns, whereas most officers in the UK don't, although Matthews was one of the few firearm-equipped cops in his country. Another difference: Police officers in the UK work for the Crown, not the British government.

"That frees us up from politics," he said. "I work for the Queen, not the city of London. I don't think it's a good idea for politics and law enforcement to mix, but that's how it's set up in America."

In the year ending March 2018, the UK, with a population of about 66 million, recorded 726 homicides — rate of about 1.1 per 100,000 residents — according to British government statistics. Detroit, with a population of 673,000, recorded 261 homicides last year, a rate of about 39 per 100,000 residents.

Matthews, a former Scotland Yard investigator, said he first visited Detroit about 15 years ago, "when I was in the middle of a three-month tour of America from the back of police cars."  

It was an eye-opening experience.

"Detroit was like nowhere else I'd ever seen," he said. "The obvious stuff was the blight; downtown was all boarded up back then, and I couldn't believe how bad it looked.

"Downtown is a completely different place now — from a ghost town to this vibrant, clean downtown," he said. "It was shocking. But since I spent most of my time in the neighborhoods, those seem to be still having issues. There still seems to be a major discrepancy between the neighborhoods and downtown."

Matthews said he got a thrill during previous Detroit visits hanging out with crews from the former police Narcotics Section, which was disbanded in 2014 amid corruption and other issues, and reformed as the Major Violators Section.

"I would show up, get posted with one of the teams, and away we would go, driving off in some beaten-up black "A Team"-style van," Matthews wrote. "We would then roll up outside some decrepit-looking house in a gang neighborhood, the sliding door at the side of the van would be pulled open and we would all charge out toward the house.

"Incidentally, this usually took place in the middle of the day, in broad daylight, not in some dark, quiet, early-morning raid," Matthews wrote. "The Narcs would run toward the front door with their guns aimed at the building, and then quickly smash their way in. The whole time I would be with them, snapping away with my camera and making hastily written notes."

During his research, Matthews spent a lot of time in the infamous 48205 ZIP code, one of the most dangerous in the United States — which the cops in his book refer to as "4820-die."

Matthews said he was given "tremendous access" to Detroit officers while researching his book. 

"They spoke openly to me because I'm a fellow cop," he said. "There's a level of trust there.

"I went to a homicide scene where a kid was shot in the street, and the officers were angry," he said. "They open up to me about how they feel about what's happening. You hear of one kid getting killed; a 4-year-old is shot the other day. It's just constant."

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN