Detroit must stop arson epidemic

The Detroit News

A landscape of burned-out homes is a Detroit trademark. It should surprise no one that the city tops nationwide lists for the most suspicious fires and arsons, creating a huge cost for both residents and the city.

As a recent Detroit News series revealed, 17 people died from intentionally set fires last year, and the city spent $3.5 million to demolish almost 250 homes damaged by fire over the past five years.

Mayor Mike Duggan promises to make necessary changes to how crimes involving fires are investigated and dealt with. That’s essential to not only making the city safer, but also driving down costs for the city and insurance rates for residents.

Detroit’s inability to investigate and prosecute arsonists over the past two decades has meant homes and buildings have been rampantly destroyed by scofflaws who know there’s little fear of being caught.

The mayor is considering assigning police officers to help the Detroit Arson Squad investigate arsons and suspicious fires. With current staffing, the squad can handle only about a third of the suspected arsons.

The city also plans to add four new fire investigators to its current 10.

Upping manpower will help solve cases, and hopefully put some arsonists behind bars.

The number of arson investigators for both Detroit and Michigan has declined. As few as seven investigators were assigned to 5,500 Detroit fires from 2010 to 2013. By comparison, New York had more than 9,000 fires during the same time and 100 investigators.

Detroit arson chief Charles Simms is also reprioritizing how investigators approach fires by focusing on cases that have witnesses and are more likely to produce arrests. And he’s assigning investigators to specific parts of the city, to improve relationships with neighborhoods and encourage residents to be more open.

That approach is starting to work for the police department, and it should for Simms as well.

But solving the crimes is only part of the problem. Preventing them in the first place is perhaps more critical.

The Insurance Institute of Michigan is working with Simms on a campaign to increase awareness in neighborhoods with high arson rates, and he’s also lobbying to require homeowners to speak with police before collecting insurance claims on a destroyed home.

Insurance fraud accounted for nearly one-third of recorded fires with known motives in 2013, and two-thirds of suspicious fires occurred in occupied homes from 2010 to mid-2013.

The rampant fraud makes homeowners insurance policy costs in Detroit an issue for all residents, not just those affected by fires. Insurance costs in Detroit are at least double the state average.

The Legislature should extend a 2001 law that requires owners of cars that have fires to talk to police before collecting claims. Weekly incidents of car fires have dropped to 13 from 100 since the law was passed, and the same might be possible for home fires.

As Detroit encourages its residents to value their property and take better care of the city, it’s critical arsons are stopped. Add this to Duggan’s long must-do list.