Detroit police to try body cams again, chief says

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit police will try out body cameras for a second test run, Police Chief James Craig said Tuesday.

In April, 18 police officers and two supervisors in the 2nd Precinct took part in a 30-day body camera pilot program, which Craig called a success. He and Mayor Mike Duggan are in the early stages of putting together another test trial, he told The Detroit News editorial board during an interview Tuesday.

"With the new initiative, 30 officers would volunteer to wear them," Craig said. "The mayor is committed, as I am committed, to using them to enhance officer safety and have a positive impact on mitigating allegations of misconduct. Body cameras can also enhance transparency with the community."

The program is in the early stages, said Duggan's spokesman, John Roach.

"The mayor has indicated he's interested in exploring using them, but wants to see how they'll work first," Roach said. Funding options are being explored.

"It's still very early," Roach said. "We have no timeline as far as when we'll get this up and running."

The issue of body cameras came to the forefront nationwide after Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown in August. Had Wilson been wearing a camera, details of what led to the incident might have shed light on what happened, and stemmed some of the anger that resulted in protests and riots. The Ferguson incident and several others nationwide have elevated safety concerns for law enforcement officers; some are alleging police brutality, especially against minorities.

During last year's trial use of body cameras in Detroit, one of the devices captured an incident in which an officer used force to restrain a citizen; it showed the officer's actions were justified, department officials said.

"There's certainly a heightened concern for officer safety," said Craig, who is warning his officers to be careful. "I've not seen anything like this nationally going back to before I even got into law enforcement" 38 years ago.

Craig said Detroit police investigated two recent vague threats made on social media. "These were made against police in general, not against anyone specific," he said. "But given the current environment, it's important to take these things seriously, but to not overreact."

There was some encouraging news coming out of police headquarters on Craig's watch: Crime fell sharply in most categories in 2014, according to final statistics released Tuesday.

The drop exceeded the goal. At the beginning of the year, Craig set a goal of reducing by 10 percent what law enforcement officials call Part 1 crime: criminal homicides, sexual assault, robbery, larceny, aggravated assault, burglary, vehicle theft and arson. There was a 16 percent drop in those crimes in 2014.

Even with the downward trend in crime, however, Detroit still ranks among the most violent cities in the United States, according to FBI statistics released in November.

Homicides dropped from 332 in 2013 to 300; non-fatal shootings from 1,161 to 1,054; robberies from 2,888 to 1,928; carjackings, a subtotal of robberies, from 782 to 545; burglaries from 13,277 to 10,725; vehicle theft from 12,594 to 10,564; and larceny from 18,324 to 14,603. The only Part 1 crime that increased last year was aggravated assault, which rose from 8,854 cases to 9,302.

The 300 homicides were the fewest in Detroit since 1967. The next-lowest total during that time was in 2010, when there were 308.

"We're a safer city, but crime stats only show one part of the picture," Craig said. "Another gauge is what people say, and I hear people in the city and the suburbs say they can see a difference."

James Jackson, a 66-year-old east-side resident who is part of a citizen patrol group, said he feels safer in his neighborhood than he did in previous years.

"People are doing what they can to help," said Jackson, who lives in the Jefferson-Chalmers area.