Reforms may douse blazes, advocates say
Detroit — Legal changes, public pressure and new investigation tactics could help begin to turn the tide of a decades-long struggle with arson that destroys neighborhoods and challenges the city's comeback, advocates said.
Arson is tied to many entrenched Detroit problems — from foreclosure and abandonment to scrapping and blight — so making a serious impact could take years, acknowledged Lori Conarton of the Insurance Institute of Michigan, an industry group that is working with Detroit arson investigators on a series of proposed changes.
The effort must start with changing attitudes, so a series of billboards and other awareness campaigns are planned in neighborhoods with high arson rates, she said.
"For so long, people have thought this is just hurting the insurance industry," Conarton said. "It affects everyone. It's not going to happen overnight. But over time, people will get the drift this is a serious crime."
Detroit Arson Chief Charles Simms is working closely with Conarton's group on the campaign. He's changed priorities for his investigators, encouraging them to focus on cases that have witnesses and can produce arrests.
Simms also has assigned investigators to specific parts of the city to improve neighbor relations and make witnesses more likely to come forward.
"This is all about changing the mindset," Simms said. "The mindset was you can get away with arson in Detroit."
Guy E. "Sandy" Burnette Jr., a Florida attorney and arson expert, said "cherry picking" cases that result in charges and increasing staffing "certainly is going to help" in Detroit.
"Anything you can do to help show the crime is going to be arrested and prosecuted is going to serve as a deterrent," said Burnette, who has written guides on prosecuting arson cases.
The effort comes as budget cuts have reduced those investigating and prosecuting arson in Detroit. Over the past 15 years, Detroit's arson squad fell from 20 to seven investigators.
The decline is the same at the state police, which now has seven officers to investigate arson throughout Michigan, down from 20 about 15 years ago.
"People know that with less and less investigators, the greater the chance they'll get away with it," Conarton said. "In desperate times, people do things they normally wouldn't do."
Since 2001, her group has trained 95 prosecutors statewide in handling arson cases, which are harder to prosecute because they typically are circumstantial and rely on scientific evidence. For the past five years, the insurance group also has paid part of the salary of Louisa Papalas, an assistant Wayne County prosecutor assigned to arson cases full time.
Another county assistant prosecutor handled arson cases for a few years, until her duties were reassigned last year because of budget cuts.
Private arson investigator Robert Trenkle said real change won't come until the fire department dramatically increases the number of investigators.
"Without the manpower, they are screwed," said Trenkle, a retired city arson investigator who owns the Redford-based Certified Investigations International.
"I don't know how they can get beyond triage."
Simms also is lobbying to change state law to require homeowners filing claims to speak to police before they collect insurance from house fires.
In 2001, state lawmakers passed a similar law with car fires. Before the law change, Detroit averaged 100 car fires per week. Now the city averages 13 per week. Simms predicted a similar decline if the law was extended.
Jon Bozich, a retired Detroit chief of the arson squad, said changing the law about car fires had an immediate effect and continues to serve as a deterrent. It would have a similar effect on house fires, he predicted.
"When they came in (to talk about car fires), they didn't know what to do when we started questioning them. They would confess all over themselves," Bozich said. "This new law wouldn't solve the problem of vacant fires, but it would cut down dramatically on fraud fires."
Fraud is the top motive for suspicious fires in Detroit, accounting for nearly a third of recorded fires with known motives in 2013, according to fire department records. Two-thirds of all suspicious house fires were in occupied homes from 2010 to mid-2013, according to a Detroit News analysis of fire department records.
No legislation has been drafted to change the law and the idea is still in the talking stages. Neither the Insurance Institute of Michigan nor Wayne County prosecutors has taken a position about the proposal.
Peter Henning, a former federal prosecutor and law professor at Wayne State University, said the proposed change is probably constitutional but "I couldn't say I like it."
"It's part of an (insurance) contract, so it's not the police compelling you to testify," he said. "But there is a Big Brother aspect of it. Do you really want to push people who haven't been accused of anything to have to speak to police?"
With its current staffing, the Detroit Arson Squad can investigate only a third of suspicious fires.
Simms said staffing wouldn't be a problem if the law was changed. He wants to contract with insurance companies to hire retired investigators to speak with homeowners.
Trenkle wants the fire department to sell arson investigation reports to insurance companies and use the proceeds to hire more investigators. The plan went nowhere because of the city's bankruptcy, but Trenkle said he plans to pitch it to fire officials soon.
The last major change to arson laws came in 2013 in Michigan, when maximum penalties were increased. They now allow judges to sentence arsonists to up to life for fires that cause injury or are set at multi-unit dwellings.
email@example.com | (313) 222-2513 | Staff Writer Louis Aguilar contributed.