The Chief’s Third Act

First, he battled crime in Detroit, then he became Farmington Hills’ top cop. Now, as a professional hat trick, Police Commissioner William Dwyer is laying down the law in Warren.

Dwyer KidsCop extraordinaire William Dwyer has come full circle. He left his native Warren as a kid. Now, at age 67, he’s returned to kick off the third incarnation of a long police career.

He’s Warren’s new police commissioner, aka chief. That makes him both grizzled veteran and new kid on the block, learning the ropes of a city infamous for political intrigue.

But Dwyer brings a lot to the table. He recently retired after 23 years as head of the Farmington Hills police. Before that, he was a Detroit cop chasing Mexican drug lords and other thugs for more than two decades. And as a pup, he pulled 24-hour shifts at the Manoogian Mansion providing protection for the late Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh.

Then there’s the time he arranged security for Frank Sinatra and the chairman’s sidekick, Jilly Rizzo, during the crooner’s trip to the 1980 Republican National Convention in Detroit.

“Law enforcement has been my life,” Dwyer says by way of understatement.

Now he’s cranking up again. He joined a reform-minded Warren administration headed by Mayor Jim Fouts, elected last November. The mayor has proposed a number of changes, with Dwyer taking the point against crime. The new chief eyes at least two opening acts: Boost community policing and, on the hard side, roust drug pads that are at the root of many crimes.

“Sometimes the perception of police officers is that they’re always the bad guys writing the tickets, arresting people,” Dwyer says. “Once we get out there and develop these different community policing programs, we’ll be recognized as one of the top police departments in the state, if not the country.”

The programs are expected to include separate efforts for youths, seniors, neighborhoods, and businesses. “Another area I’m looking at is the narcotics problem we’re facing here and all over the country — it doesn’t matter if you’re in Warren, Grosse Pointe, or Farmington Hills,” Dwyer says. “We’re going to serve search warrants on neighborhood narcotics pads. We’re going to be highly visible and tell the dope dealers they’re not going to have a safe haven in Warren.”

By any measure, Dwyer has flunked retirement. When he left Farmington Hills, he toyed with running for state representative. His announcement ignited a political buzz, what with his name recognition and all. “Well, it’s a mess up there in Lansing, to say the least,” he says. “And I felt I had good leadership abilities and could work across the aisle with Democrats as well as Republicans.”

But he hadn’t counted on Mayor Fouts, who persistently wooed Dwyer over several months.

Recalls the chief: “It then became a family decision. My wife, Doris, and I have been married since I was 19. She said, ‘You know, law enforcement has been your life, and you can probably have more of an effect in Warren than you could in Lansing.’”

So Fouts got Dwyer.

“I call him my superstar appointment,” the mayor says. “I was searching for somebody innovative and experienced.”

In becoming mayor, Fouts beat the Warren politcal establishment with more than 60 percent of the vote. “I represent change,” Fouts says. “Everybody endorsed my opponent, and my opponent raised 10 times as much money as I did. Then I ended up with a big upset.

“The police department in a ring city like Warren is really important. I have a vision for Warren — cleaner neighborhoods and safer neighborhoods.
“That’s my focus, and I wanted to see the police do more than what they’re doing. I spoke with various judges, police officials, and attorneys and asked who would be the best person to get. Dwyer’s name kept popping up.”

So Fouts made up his mind to tap Dwyer’s well-stocked mind. “I’m persistent when I want to be,” he says. “I said, ‘Look, you’ve got a choice. You can be No. 1 in the third-largest city in the state. Or you can be one of 110 in the state House, and you know what the state Legislature is like.’”

Yes, Dwyer did know.

The mayor’s approach to reform resembles that of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who in the 1990s polished the Big Apple by making it safer and cleaner. “I was desperate to get somebody with Dwyer’s qualifications, his character, his unimpeachable credentials,” Fouts recalls. “I’m excited to have his years of experience and someone who thinks outside the box, someone open to suggestions. Dwyer’s a little bit like the guy I most admire in politics, Harry Truman. He’s a hands-on police commissioner just like Truman was a hands-on president.”

Example: A Warren resident contacted the mayor about a crime problem in her neighborhood. Fouts called Dwyer, who personally met with the woman the same day. That’s more service than, say, passing the complaint along to a bored desk sergeant.

Fouts notes that Warren has been called Scandal City. So one of his first moves was to set up a code of ethics. He also announced fiscal restraints to counter an expected deficit. And he’s looking at the details of operations (like having city inspectors cross-trained so you don’t waste taxpayers’ money sending two inspectors to the same work site).

Fouts also is collecting data on city operations. With that, he’s going to set goals and benchmarks for city departments. Then he vows to hold departments accountable.

For his part, Dwyer’s crime-fighting fame preceded him to Warren. He’s been involved in many high-profile cases, ranging from murder to prostitution to drug lords running the “Mexican Connection” to Michigan. One of the cases that brought him national note: Nancy Seaman, the Farmington Hills schoolteacher convicted of murdering her husband with a Home Depot ax and stashing the body in the family’s Ford Explorer in 2004.

Cable-TV networks ran with the story big. And Dwyer is prominently mentioned in Internal Combustion, a bestselling book on the murder by Joyce Maynard. A popular author of several works, Maynard is also feted in literary circles as the one-time teenage mistress of J.D. Salinger, the reclusive author of Catcher in the Rye.

With that literary pedigree, Maynard included this line about Dwyer: “Tall and tan — even in winter — with his white hair forming a perfect wave over his chiseled face, he stepped out from behind a desk piled high with paperwork and file folders with the unmistakable air of a man born to be on television.”

And it’s true; Dwyer has had his share of controversial cases that attracted the national press. He chuckles at Maynard’s description of him and says, “Yeah, that’s kind of me, I guess.”

Warren scored a population of 138,000 in the 2000 census, a community with both industry and Ozzie-and-Harriet neighborhoods. But blight has crept in here and there. And the crime rate is about the same as any city of its size.

Dwyer, who collected a drawer of awards over the years, signed on with Warren in March. He quickly dug in, getting to work by 6 a.m. His workday typically runs until 6 p.m., not including night meetings. He set a goal to parley with each of the approximately 280 employees in the police department. In his first month on the job, he was about a third of the way through. And Fouts couldn’t be happier, saying he wanted a proactive chief.
As an aside, the chief’s Frank Sinatra connection meshes nicely with Mayor Fouts’ passion for the late crooner. In fact, if you call city hall and are put on hold, Sinatra’s lilting voice keeps you company. Chalk it up as one of Fouts’ reforms: No elevator music.

Chief Dwyer sees some symmetry in returning to Warren after leaving decades ago. And he figures this will be his last law-enforcement gig. “I have ties in Warren,” he says. “It’s like coming home.”