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Police chief: '2021 has got to be better' in regard to violent crime

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — Violent crime was up in Detroit in 2020, including homicides, amid a pandemic and "stay at home" orders that covered most of the year, but Detroit's police chief believes better days are ahead. 

Chief James Craig offered Wednesday afternoon a final review of 2020 year-end crime numbers for Detroit.

"I'm glad we closed the door on 2020," Craig said. "Because 2021 has got to be better."

Year in Review:Violent crime surged in Detroit in 2020; here's why chief, experts say it happened

Detroit recorded 327 criminal homicides in 2020, up 19% from 274 the previous year.

Craig noted that homicides were up 29% overall in America in 2019, including a 51% increase in Chicago and a 41% increase in New York City. 

Nonfatal shootings in Detroit increased 53% from 2019, to 1,173 shootings.

"COVID was the primary factor behind these numbers," Craig told The News previously. "The pandemic is having a direct impact on the rise in violence in Detroit and other cities."

Other violent crimes, though, such as sexual assaults, robberies and carjackings, were down. Those numbers were affected by the pandemic too, Craig said. 

Sexual assaults fell 36%, to 609 from 952. Robberies fell 21%, to 1,084 from 2,300-plus in 2019, and carjackings were down 9%, 221 compared with 243.

Property crime fell 24%, with vehicle thefts declining 17% and burglaries down 35%.

"Absolutely, stay-at-home made a difference," Craig said. "Clearly there were fewer burglaries."

But he also noted the "increased emotional strain" brought by the COVID crisis. He cited pandemic-related frustration as a factor that fueled spikes in alcohol and drug abuse, which he said led to more disputes being settled with guns.

Other experts said crime developments often are influenced by a host of factors, and one expert identified the protests against police brutality as possibly contributing to the increase.

Oakland University criminal justice professor Daniel Kennedy said previously there likely are multiple factors explaining the 2020 crime trends.

"There's never one answer; I've got a bookshelf full of books written by people trying to explain why crime goes up or down, and there's never a magic answer," Kennedy said.

"COVID could be one factor why there were more murders last year," he said. "Another factor could be the protests, and the number of officers it took to patrol those."

Craig said the protests, which started late in May and went on near-nightly for more than 100 days, required a "clear redeployment of police officers from our neighborhoods."

2020:Read our coverage for the first night of protests on May 29

In July, Detroit Will Breathe, the group that organized the protests, put Detroit Police Department "on trial" at a tribunal at Hart Plaza, airing several hours of grievances of how protesters were treated while in police custody.

Since then, protesters and the police department have engaged in dueling litigation regarding police conduct at the protests.

While the manpower shift affected crime numbers, Craig said, he also cited the relationship between police department and the people of Detroit as a reason the city wasn't looted or burned, despite some tough exchanges between police and protesters.