Detroit police board, officials discuss COVID's impact on crime

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — Domestic violence-related homicides in Wayne County have have skyrocketed during the coronavirus pandemic, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said Thursday during a virtual forum of law enforcement officials and other stakeholders.

Wayne County prosecutors usually handle 8 to 10 domestic violence-related homicides annually, but last year there were 24 — "and we're on track this year to go even higher than that," Worthy said during the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners' "Roundtable on Criminal Homicide and Nonfatal Shootings.”

Criminal justice officials and members of the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners discuss shootings during a roundtable Thursday, March 4, 2021.

Multiple topics were covered during the virtual meeting, which lasted almost two hours, including a year-long backlog of court cases because of the pandemic, early jail releases and cash bail reform. The discussion's central theme was how the COVID emergency has impacted crime and law enforcement.

In addition to Worthy, the panel consisted of Chief Wayne Circuit Judge Timothy Kenny, Wayne County Sheriff Raphael Washington, Detroit police chief James Craig, Sgt. Kyla Williams of the DPD Domestic Violence Unit, the Rev. Louis Forsythe of Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, and Toson Knight, dean of students for Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Moderating the roundtable was Bishop Darryl Harris, co-founder of Total Life Christian Ministries, and faith-based coordinator for Operation Ceasefire, a joint DPD-U.S. Attorney's Office initiative that offers gang members job training and other opportunities.

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Worthy said the domestic violence during the pandemic is among the most concerning trends she's seen. 

"Our office usually sees anywhere from 6,000 to 8,000 domestic violence cases," she said. "In 2019, there were 8,810. In 2020, that jumped to over 10,000, and right now, in the first week of March, we're on track to hit more than that.

"We expected to see higher numbers," Worthy said. "The victims are forced to stay in the home 24/7 with their abusers. You have children who cannot report abuse in the normal way; they'd normally report it to a school teacher."

The Wayne County court docket is backed up with more than a year's worth of cases because of the pandemic, and during the wait, Worthy said 40% of the domestic violence victims in cases being handled by her office have changed their minds and decided not to cooperate with authorities.

"We haven't done a trial docket in almost a year," she said. "We have all the trials from the previous year, all the cases that came in the previous year, and we're at or near an all-time high for most crimes now," Worthy said.

"Defendants are playing the waiting game," Worthy said. "They figure since the courts aren't open, they'll drag it out and hope they can wait out the victim."

Harris said his congregation and the police helped out a fellow worshiper at her church who was dealing with domestic violence. He said police from the 9th Precinct responded to his call and arrested the abuser.

"This was a member of our church, and so our church was able to fold around them," Harris said. "But think about so many others who don't get that fold-around."

COVID-related Wayne County Jail inmates releases also were discussed Thursday. Kenny said he, Worthy and representatives from the jail released 205 inmates from March 16-Sept. 30, adding: "Only three were returned to the jail because ... they went out and committed other offenses. Those were nonviolent offenses."

But county records released to The Detroit News show as of September, five of the inmates who'd been released because of COVID had been charged with new crimes they allegedly committed after they got out of jail — including Tyler Cole, who was charged with criminal sexual conduct following his release from jail, after prosecutors say he held three females at knifepoint and assaulted them.

Craig criticized Kenny and Worthy for releasing inmates accused of sexual assault.

"I appreciate the direction we're going in now, relative to compassionate releases ... but when we talk about compassion, what about the victims?" Craig said.

Worthy insisted the only inmate to be released after being charged with criminal sexual assault was a 65-year-old man who suffered from serious medical issues. The man, whose case was among the 11,000 unattended rape kits found in a Detroit police property room in 2009, was awaiting trial on first-degree criminal sexual assault charges. He was released April 2 because of his advanced age and health problems.

However, according to records the county released to The News, three inmates who'd been convicted of sexual assault also were freed as part of the COVID releases: Brandan Prather, who was released April 24, after a conviction for fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct; Jameel Bradley, released April 29 following his CSC 3 conviction; and Kaylin Drewery, who was released May 12 after being convicted of CSC 3.

Kenny said because jail staff have become adept at stopping the virus's spread, COVID releases have "dropped off astronomically."

The infection rate in the jail as of two weeks ago was 0.2% — "in other words, you're more likely to catch COVID at Meijer than at the jail," Kenny said. "That's enabled us to take a much tougher stance on those emergency releases."

The panel also discussed bail reform. Craig expressed concern that people he's arresting for carrying concealed weapons are being released with low or no bail

"Roughly 75% of those arrested while illegally carrying firearms, (prosecutors) are issuing warrants —  but then it goes to arraignment, and no bond or low bond, and these individuals are back into our community," Craig said. "That's not working ... if we can't get illegal weapons off the street, what are we doing?"

Kenny said the issue of bail reform is often misrepresented.

"Sometimes the buzzword of no cash bail when it gets thrown out there in the media or talk radio leads people to believe someone who's charged with carjacking isn't going to have any bail," Kenny said.

Kenny said the Wayne County Jail is full of poor, nonviolent criminals who'd benefit from bail reform.

"Back in 2018, with the assistance of the Wayne County Sheriffs, we took a look at who was in the jail," Kenny said. "Interestingly enough, the number one offense that brought people to the Wayne County Jail was driving while license was suspended. That means, to a great extent, if you're poor, you're going to jail," Kenny said.

"You shouldn't be in jail because you're poor; but by the same token, there should certainly be the opportunity for judges to set bail ... if a judge has reason to believe the person isn't going to come back or poses a danger to the community," Kenny said. "We're trying to reach that happy medium."

Washington, who worked for years on the Detroit Police traffic detail, said he doesn't have exact statistics, but said most of the people in jail for driving with suspended licenses likely were not arrested in Detroit, because he said Detroit police often don't take license violators into custody.

"I think those are more out-county than in the city," Washington said. "Having done that in Detroit for 14 years ... unless there was some kind of warrant  attached to it, and that person needed to be arrested, we were very sensitive in the city of Detroit to not put poor people in jail unnecessarily."

Harris said a discussion at a 2019 family reunion revealed that 37 people in his family "were jeopardizing and risking jail time because they had jobs and continued to drive, even though their licenses were not valid."