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Pontiac reels from spike in homicides; 15 so far in ’16

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Pontiac — While crime is dropping in most of Oakland County, police and officials in Pontiac are concerned by a spike in homicides that threatens to double last year’s number of deaths.

Fifteen deaths have been reported this year, compared with nine in all of 2015. Six women and nine men have died, with 11 of the cases still open investigations, according to the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office.

The killings include several drive-by shootings; a woman dumped in a field; a woman hit over the head with a chair; and, recently, a man shot while watching a soccer game. They and other killings have a commonality: no one wants to talk about them.

The city has been rebounding from its economic woes, drawing in new residents and commercial investments. Its bloody recent history of violent crime appeared to be shrinking before this year.

Now, officials are calling for public forums and citizen input in hopes of getting leads on unsolved cases and details on suspected crimes and criminals to try to prevent killings.

“Just one homicide is one too many,” Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said. “Statistics can change from year to year and there could be many reasons they have gone up.

“But I’m sick of standing on someone’s front lawn trying to comfort them for the loss of a family member, which was preventable.”

Bouchard said in two recent incidents, young women have been videotaped fist-fighting on Pontiac streets for the entertainment of onlookers, many of whom videotaped the bloody battles with phones. But no one calls the police.

“We later learn of it and are asked why we didn’t do anything about it,” he said. “How can we do anything about it if no one is saying anything?”

Bouchard said violent crime essentially thrives because of “a lack of community involvement.”

“People know a crime was committed but for some reason won’t call us with information to help us prevent or solve it. It could be young people playing with a gun. A street fight. A drug deal or a homicide.”

This year’s killings have been all over the city, so police aren’t targeting any one area for increased attention. Deputies said at least two of the deaths — the woman found dead in a field and a stabbing death — are expected to be classified as crimes other than homicides once the investigations are closed.

Bouchard said he believes several of the killings involve 20-somethings or younger who have illegal guns. So, he’s urging people to report suspected illegal gun use so the police can get offenders off the streets.

People not wanting to talk to police is an old lament from law enforcement, but it’s one also being repeated these days by religious and community leaders in Pontiac.

“We have made some great strides in Pontiac, especially since the sheriff’s office took over police work,” said Douglas Jones, a pastor who leads the Welcome Missionary Baptist Church, one of the city’s largest congregations with 2,000 active members.

“But there is still much to be done, including gaining trust within the community.”

Help to spread word

The sheriff’s office took over patrols under contract in August 2011 as the cash-strapped city of 59,000 shut down its own police force in an effort to save money under an emergency financial manager.

Jones said he can preach to his congregation but members have to spread the word to friends and neighbors and shed the ingrained “don’t snitch” mentality.

“There is a code of silence bringing neighborhoods and a city down,” Jones said. “A woman said she knew her next-door neighbor was dealing drugs but she didn’t care because he made her feel safer because he watched her house.

“Imagine that. Here he was bringing who knows what into her neighborhood, and she felt safer.”

Jones noted community outreach by deputies — such as attending neighborhood forums and churches and surprising residents with pizzas or coupons — are helpful gestures.

Most welcome, he said, was the influx of more uniformed officers and patrol cars on city streets and a speedy 911 response after years of frustration by residents, some of whom had stopped calling for help because it never came.

Crime down, fear up

“Overall, crime is down 37 percent,” said Pontiac City Council president pro-tem Mary Petillo. “I remember the days back in the ’80s when it was not unusual to have 20 or more homicides a year.

“Some people now say we have seen worse and tell each other not to panic because we have only 15 homicides, but I hate that attitude and don’t want to go back to the days of the unbelievable.”

Petillo said Pontiac is still a small enough community that “people know what is going on.”

“A couple dozen people witness or have heard of a crime before deputies can arrive, but they just disappear,” she said. “You can have all the forums you want but they aren’t going to do any good as long as people won’t talk.”

Capt. Gary Miller, who heads the Pontiac substation, is grateful to citizens who are calling in tips but noted information often dries up when it comes to recent violent incidents.

Killings are spread out across the city, he said. Some are believed to be the work of career criminals who have been in prison, and others committed by young offenders starting their lives in crime.

“We know a large number of these are retaliatory for what someone did to someone else,” Miller said. “But innocent people are getting caught in the crossfire of disputes. Like a 19-year-old girl who was standing with a group of people. A man sitting in the bleachers watching a soccer game.

“People are frightened, I get that. But they can call in tips anonymously. We don’t need to know who they are — we don’t want to know unless they want to tell us.”

Heather Hinkle, 50, a 17-year resident, said she tries to maintain her routine among the madness.

“I take the bus five minutes to my job at a fast-food restaurant, and if I’m riding at night, I’m on my cellphone the entire time — letting someone know where I am should something happen,” she said. “If something is going to happen, it’s going to happen. But I have to live my life.”

Hinkle, who has been robbed and been the victim of a home break-in, believes drugs and gang activity are to blame for the deaths.

‘No silver bullet’

Pontiac Mayor Deirdre Waterman said she and other officials are saddened by the surge in deaths.

Waterman pointed to economic conditions, homelessness, mental health deficiencies and drugs as generating the violence in the city. But those factors aren’t excuses, she said.

Waterman said reports indicate deaths this year are occurring between “people who know each other” who act out in anger rather than resolving their disputes.

“People in all civilized society see that as a threat to society in general,” she said.

Waterman said dozens of residents were drawn to a recent rally against violence at City Hall, where people “commiserated together and strategized together on how to take back our community” from people who threaten it.

“This is a community problem that affects all of us,” she said. “ A city as a whole has to be cooperative with our sheriff’s office and report crimes they see. As a community, we have to get miscreants brought to justice and collectively say, ‘This is not something we will tolerate.’ ”

Anonymous tips can be made and cash rewards are available through CrimeStoppers by calling (800) SPEAK-UP.

(248) 338-0319