Turning the Tide?

Detroit Police Chief James Craig is reopening precincts — and community dialogue — as part of his crime-fighting initiatives
Illustrations by Pablo Iglesias

Murder city. It’s a nickname Detroit has been saddled with for decades. Even if the stats show some other city has displaced Detroit at the top of that infamous list, when anyone discusses dangerous cities, Detroit is likely the first one mentioned. That reputation impacts the entire region, affecting everything from property values to economic development opportunities.

While violent crime rates have dropped in cities in recent years, Detroit still struggles. The numbers don’t lie. According to the FBI, in 2012, Detroit had 2,123 violent crimes (murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault) per 100,000 residents. Compare that to New York, where the rate was 639 per 100,000 the same year.

Detroit had 411 homicides that year. New York, with 11 times the population, came in at 419.

Clearly, we don’t have a handle on the problem. So what’s the answer? Can metro Detroit ever fully rebound without a safe Detroit at its core? We asked James Craig, who returned to his hometown to become the Detroit police chief last July. In his relatively short time here, he has taken steps to reshape the department’s image and turn the tide in the fight against crime. Some of those steps — and some of his positions — are controversial. There has been a lot of tough talk from the chief. He says he’s not going to back down.

CF: There has been a reduction in crime, albeit not as much as you would like. What do you think is responsible for that?

JC: Well, as I like to say, it’s no accident. We pay attention to crime. Weekly, we have our CompStat (a computer- and data-based crime mapping program) sessions. We evaluate our various areas throughout the city to see where the crime trends are. … We’ve made a number of arrests, hitting those areas where we see the crime trends. … Certainly we ended the year on a high note. Seven percent reduction in overall… the first quarter of this year and we’re already seeing a 28 percent reduction in overall crime, including violent and property crime. …That said, we still have a volume of activity that’s not acceptable.

CF: Tell me about CompStat. Does it allow you to zero in on hot spots?

JC: It does. It’s a little more than that. … If we see a robbery trend in the 10th Precinct along the Dexter Corridor, we look at time of day, we look for suspects, similar descriptions, and then we place focus. We look into time of day, we place resources in the area, and we — in a very strategic way, in a very precise way — identify those responsible. And so when we identify that, we solve the problem basically. It’s just that simple. If we have a series of community complaints about drug houses and then in addition to that we see shootings… So we overlay also…it could be quality-of-life issues. But also, with quality of life we might see a nexus to violence. So there’s a number of ways we do it. We do open our CompStat sessions on occasion to the community so they can see how we place focus on crime and how we hold managers accountable to abate the crime.

CF: One of the big problems you have to address is the relationship between the community and the police — everything from trust to more basic things like customer service.

JC: Precincts were closed. We opened them back up. But in addition…we’ve placed investigators back at the precinct. I’m about neighborhoods and about that relationship — that direct connection to the neighborhoods. … We’re [also] placing detectives in those precincts, so at least the community, when they report a crime, there’s someone they can talk to who can do a follow-up or give them some information. Unlike in the past, when people felt like they weren’t being served. I oftentimes talk about the Ritz-Carlton. I don’t care what Ritz-Carlton you go to, and what part of the hotel you’re in, service is impeccable. From just a vision of what the Detroit Police Department should become, I would love for us to rise to that level of service. Compared to what it was when I got here in July, trust has increased. There’s more dialogue. … Having gone to a number of community meetings… I’m getting a different view of the world. Not to say that we can’t improve. … But let’s talk about the under-investment or lack of investment in this police agency that predates me: the fact that someone made the decision to close the precinct, the fact the detectives were centralized, the fact that this department had an 11 percent clearance rate to homicides. Right now year-to-date, we’re sitting on a 100 percent clearance rate. This is not the same police department that it was eight months ago.

CF: Residents tell me that there is a feeling that you can get away with just about anything in Detroit. What does it take to break through that mindset?

JC: It’s happening now. Have you been watching the news on our Operation Restore Order? Does it appear that we just got our feet up on the desk and we’re just going to allow people to come in and ravage neighborhoods? I would say to you that those days are over. Now, I’m not saying that the work is done. We still got more work to do. But in addition to what I would consider our aggressive posture on this… that’s the message I’m sending. … We recognize there is a staffing shortage. We’re sensitive to that, but that’s not going to slow us down. [There is] a sense of urgency; I am not backing off.

Here’s a point: When I first got here I spoke with a number of police officers across the department. I said, “What do you want?” Now, of course, no one wants to see their pay taken. They work in the most challenging environment to police in America. I believe it, now that I’ve worked in different places. But you know what they wanted? They wanted to be police officers. They wanted to go out because they’re committed to making Detroit a safer place. … They wanted to be able to go out [and] make arrests, [they wanted to] identify those who are more likely to commit these violent acts.

CF: You made headlines recently when you said Detroit might be better off if more citizens carried legal firearms. This ruffled some feathers, especially among law enforcement types.

JC: I would be the person that made that statement, and I believe it. But I didn’t say just “more guns” for the sake of saying “more guns.”… I said that good Americans, good Detroiters who are responsible, who have concealed weapons permits, can be a deterrent to violent crime. In fact, it’s just not this police chief that believes it, but the Department of Justice did research on it. The research bore out that it’s viewed as one of the single-most deterrents to violent crimes. … Nobody wants to address the issue of the criminals with guns. Is that OK? Should we have a city where we have an inordinate number of felons… possessing illegal firearms? Something is wrong with that. … A research entity interviewed ex-felons who said they’re more fearful of armed, good Americans, not necessarily in those words, than they are of police officers. … We’re trying to change the culture. We’re trying to create a safe city for all who visit, play, and work in the city of Detroit.