Grand Rapids revels in its low murder rate
Grand Rapids — It was a wacky year, crime-wise, for this western Michigan city.
The city of 188,000 had only one bank robbery, no murders involving a gun, and just six homicides overall, a rate of 3.2 per 100,000 residents.
Detroit had that many murders during an average week in 2014. And that was a slow year.
"It was a weird year, a year of oddities," said Lt. Pat Merrill, commander of detectives for the Grand Rapids Police Department.
Pols, police and prosecutors were at a loss to explain the dearth of deaths. The city had 17 murders in 2013, which is its yearly average.
Some attributed the drop in fatalities to bad aim by the bad guys.
The number of aggravated assaults rose in 2014, so people were still getting shot, said police. They just weren't dying from their wounds.
Besides the Gang-That-Couldn't-Shoot-Straight theory, others said it may have been just dumb luck.
Either way, law enforcement agencies were reluctant to take credit.
Longtime Kent County Prosecutor William Forsyth joked that, if he took a bow for the low number, he would have to take the blame if it skyrocketed.
"If I had the answer, you could take that on the road and tell other cities how to do it," he said.
The low number gave Grand Rapids something new to crow about. Not that its polite citizenry would ever do so.
The city has a resilient economy that laughs at recessions and enjoys a bustling downtown of clean streets and tidy office buildings.
Police scurried through their records to see if they ever had a lower number of homicides. They stopped looking after 60 years.
By contrast, Detroit, with about 700,000 residents, had 300 murders in 2014, a down year. The city's murder rate was 42.9 per 100,000 residents.
Other Michigan cities with higher murder rates in 2013, the last year available from FBI statistics: Saginaw (56.8), Flint (48), Jackson (11.9), Port Huron (10.1), Muskegon (8.18) and Lansing (7).
Homicide rates were lower in Ann Arbor (2.56), Warren (2.24), and Bay City, Mount Pleasant and Sterling Heights (all zero).
"If you mind your business and not into those kinds of activities, it's safe," said Willie Patterson, a community liaison with LINC Community Revitalization, a Kent County community development corporation.
Forsyth recalled living in Detroit's Midtown in the early 1970s while attending the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.
After spending Christmas break in his tiny northern Michigan hometown of Standish, law student Forsyth had just returned to his Midtown apartment when he heard someone on the street scream "Stop!"
He looked outside to spy a fishtailing truck with a passenger leaning out the window shooting at a trailing vehicle, with that driver returning fire.
"I can tell you all kinds of stories," he said.
Grand Rapids doesn't have many tales like that.
Instead it has downtown residents emerging from newly built homes, walking past newly built shops and entering newly built restaurants.
A decade ago, those buildings were long-vacant factories and warehouses.
"It's awesome," said Julie Niemchick, director of a neighborhood association just south of downtown. "There's more freedom to walk downtown."
She also likes the city's use of downtown "safety ambassadors" who provide directions to visitors.
The teal-shirted ambassadors, who travel by foot, bicycle and Segway, make Niemchick feel safer just by their presence.
At La Familia Stop-N-Shop in southwestern Grand Rapids, owner Jose Flores said he likes seeing the rejuvenation of downtown, although he would like to see more non-white faces moving into new lofts.
He also would like to see more diversity in the police department, but he credits officers with doing a good job fighting crime.
"It's great," he said about the low number of murders. "There's a little more sanity in the community."
Flores, 61, who was recently elected to the Grand Rapids school board, has lived in the city since moving from Texas at age 4.
Kemal Hamulic also feels safe living in Grand Rapids.
The father of three, who moved here 17 years ago, said the city's smaller size makes it easier to manage than a city like Chicago.
"We're one of those cities large enough where we have enough to do but not too big where things can get out of hand," he said.
Hamulic, 38, who was chairman of the city's Community Relations Council for six years, said the area offers plentiful art, food and culture.
And very little murder.