Violent crime up in some of Detroit's biggest suburbs
Clinton Township — Gina Sacca sits behind bulletproof glass at the Moon Light Party Store, waiting on a customer. The sliding window is open, nullifying the barrier.
"I'm not afraid," she said. "We have great relationships with our customers. After what happened, people stopped coming here for a while, but they're coming back."
Sacca's family bought the store in 2015, a year after the murder of former owner Basil Sulaka, who was shot during a robbery March 28, 2014. Sacca said Sulaka's wife put up the bulletproof glass after the shooting.
"She hung on for a few months, but then she wanted to sell the store," Sacca said. "I don't blame her. It would be hard to come here every day after that."
Clinton Township is one of eight Metro Detroit communities with populations over 50,000 where violent crime has increased over the past five years, according to FBI statistics.
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Violent crime wasn't up in all of the larger suburbs. Eight communities with 50,000 or more residents saw declines, led by Royal Oak and Southfield, which each had drops of more than 40 percent.
Of those larger communities in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, the sharpest increases in violent crime since 2013 were in Clinton Township and Farmington Hills, which each recorded 29 percent jumps.
Clinton Township Capt. Richard Maierle, who oversees the police department's investigations unit and serves as the department's spokesman, said his records don't show a spike in violent offenses in the Macomb County suburb.
"I'm not seeing it," he said. "We're not seeing a big increase in violent crime."
Maierle said he took charge of the investigations unit in January 2007, and it has handled 41 homicides and has an 87 percent closure rate since then. The township's homicide rate is about 3 per 100,000 people, he said.
"Violent crimes is a wide category that includes criminal sexual conduct, armed robbery, murder, assault. To say violent crime is up 29 percent, you've got to break those statistics down."
Clinton Township Treasurer Paul Gieleghem cited one reason for the uptick in crime: there are 15 percent fewer police officers in the township than in the early 2000s.
"We had 110 officers, and then the global economic downturn came (in 2007-08), and the police force fell down into the 80s," he said. "We had to go to our voters in 2013 to ask for an additional mill increase to help pay for more officers; now, we're up to 93."
In the communities with lower crime, officials cite a variety of factors for the declines.
Southfield acting police chief Nick Loussia said strengthening community relations has helped lower violent crime in the city by 42 percent since 2013.
"Armed robberies are down significantly, and a large part of that is because of a program we created for people buying things online," Loussia said. "We were having issues with people getting robbed; they would order something from Craigslist, and when they showed up to pay, they'd get robbed.
"We created a safe space in our parking lot; it's well-lit and we have video cameras," he said. "We publicized our program, asking people if they were going to buy something online, to do the transaction either in the parking lot or the police station lobby. That's made a significant dent in our robberies."
FBI crime stats show Southfield dropped from 121 robberies in 2013 to 37 last year.
Another large suburb where crime dropped is Dearborn, which has seen a 26 percent reduction in violent crime over the past five years. Police Chief Ronald Haddad said there are "a number of things driving that."
"We have a predictive analysis tool we use, which picks up crime trends," he said. "We've also stepped up our investigative methods with high-end technology, although I don't want to give too many details about that. But it's helped us identify serial suspects sooner rather than later.
"We've also been very fortunate because citizens are reporting crime and being good witnesses when we need them," Haddad said. "Also, the men and women of this department have been catching a lot of felons with warrants during traffic stops."
Haddad said last year Dearborn traffic officers arrested more than 300 felons with outstanding warrants, and more than 500 this year.
"These are people who were arrested before they got a chance to commit crimes in our city," Haddad said.
In Clinton Township, robberies also dropped during that period, from 60 to 40, although aggravated assaults were largely responsible for the violent crime increase, jumping from 164 to 275.
Maierle said if those numbers are accurate, the increase in aggravated assaults are likely domestic violence incidents.
Those could be up because of a number of reasons, he said. One is changes to the state's domestic violence laws in 2013, which has resulted in more arrests and warrants for the crime, Maierle said.
"We're doing a better job of enforcing the laws on domestic violence," he said. "That, along with additional resources available to victims, people are more apt to report the crime.
"Domestic violence isn't just a police issue, it's a societal issue, a family issue, a relationship issue."
Another reason, he said, is the department switched from one crime-reporting computer system to another.
Lisa Smith, who lives across the street from the Moon Light Party Store, said she hasn't seen a noticeable difference in her community, although she said the neighbors are still reeling from Sulaka's killing by Clinton Grayson, Darius Diaz-Gaskin, Jomar Robinson and Kenneth Hill.
All four men were convicted of the murder and sentenced to life in prison. They wore masks and emptied the store's cash register before one of them shot Sulaka in the back with a handgun.
"Basil was a great guy," Smith said. "The new owners are nice, too, but Basil was one of a kind. I wish he’d had the bulletproof glass up before this happened.
"I haven't seen any issues with crime; not around here. But you don't always hear everything that happens."
In August, Clinton Township was rocked again by murder, this time a double homicide. Police say 24-year-old Robert Marzejka Jr. killed his sister, Danielle Marzejka, 18, and her boyfriend, Seren Bryan, 19, before fleeing to Ohio. He was captured days later and is awaiting trial on murder charges.
Among smaller communities in Metro Detroit, notable increases in violent crime occurred in Melvindale (88 percent), Clawson (80 percent) and Wixom (70 percent).
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Among suburbs with populations above 50,000, Warren had the highest violent crime rate of 503 per 100,000 — an increase of just 0.3 percent over five years.
Two Metro Detroit communities with populations over 50,000 — Shelby Township and St. Clair Shores — did not report statistics to the FBI in 2013, while Rochester Hills and Pontiac did not report statistics for 2013 or 2014.
From 2015 to 2017, violent crime rose 35.9 percent in Rochester Hills and dropped 15 percent in Pontiac, while from 2014 to 2017, violent crime rose 15.8 percent in Shelby Township and fell 1.7 percent in St. Clair Shores.
The violent crime rates in the region's biggest communities remain far below that of Detroit, which recorded 2,057 violent crimes per 100,000 people in 2017.
Robert Stevenson, director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police, said crime statistics should be taken with a grain of salt when small numbers are involved.
"I think before any conclusions are drawn, people have to study what those stats really mean," Stevenson said. "Often, just a couple more instances of a violent crime can appear to make a large percentage increase."
Staff Writer Charles E. Ramirez contributed.