Detroit Crime Commission is helping to improve safety and security in the city.

city under seige discussion at Wayne State

Should you feel safe in Detroit? It’s a question asked for years, if not decades, by Southeast Michigan’s suburban dwellers, and the answer may finally be changing.

“I think we’re heading in a positive direction,” said Andy Arena, executive director of the relatively new Detroit Crime Commission. “I feel good about our new Police Chief James Craig. I know his assistant chief, and they’re two of the brightest people I’ve ever met in law enforcement.

“The Detroit Police Department is looking at ways to bring violent crime down and address the city’s problems, and it’s different than the approach we’ve seen in the past. This isn’t 1980’s policing. It’s innovative, modern law enforcement, and this will take that department in the right direction and get more people wanting to move back to the city.”

Arena is no stranger to crime in the Motor City. The former special agent in charge of the FBI’s Detroit Division retired last year to take a job with the nonprofit agency that serves as a support system for local law enforcement agencies. It began a few years ago when some local businessmen and attorneys got together to decide how to help public safety and make Detroit a safer, better place.

Crime commissions are nothing new. New Orleans has had a crime commission for 60 years and Chicago for more than a century. The development team behind the Detroit Crime Commission realized that could be the way to help, so they set up the agency, reached out to law enforcement, local and community leaders, and worked to set the parameters and ground rules for how they should operate.

2nusiance abatement“What these organizations do is help out. In Chicago, they do analysis and research on gang activity. We decided, in Detroit, we would look at public safety and quality of life as they go together, and we’re exploring the gap areas that law enforcement and community groups cannot and are not addressing,” Arena said.

The Detroit Crime Commission (DCC) helps with the investigation of criminal activity, picking up issues Arena believes might otherwise fall under the radar — things he says law enforcement would never get to. At the logical point, they turn their work over to the appropriate agency.

“Today we’ve turned in excess of 40 investigations over to the Detroit Police Department, FBI, Secret Service or Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office,” Arena said.

Investigations, however, are just one facet of his team’s agenda.

More Than Investigations

The organization handles nuisance abatement claims, focusing on so-called slumlords that, according to Arena, “own properties but don’t take proper care of them.”

Civil nuisance abatement lawsuits are filed against them, with local law firms providing the pro bono legal work.

rape kitsThe Detroit Crime Commission is also acting as a fiduciary for Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy’s rape kit initiative, handling the money and making sure all bills are paid. Worthy and the DCC will test more than 11,000 rape kits found in a Detroit Police Department storage facility but never tested, dating back a quarter century.

“We’re getting these old kits tested, and we’re finding serial rapists, but the dilemma is what we do when the results are in,” Arena said. “We’re looking at a two-prong problem — we need money to test the kits, both private sector funds and public sector grants that will help us investigate and prosecute. We’re also finding the money to do something with the results, and hopefully we can help fund the prosecutorial and investigative staffing needs in her department.”

Despite the positive indicators, staffing remains a concern.

“I think what Chief Craig is doing is great, but that’s where we come in to help with analyses of crimes to identify where they need to place resources,” Arena said. “That’s the only way to get this under control. That or hire 10,000 cops, and that isn’t happening.”

Prosecutor Worthy’s office is also “woefully understaffed,” according to Arena. Worthy is in an ongoing, public dispute with Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano over her budget.

“I’ve talked to Kym about it, and she’s facing the same shortages as the police department,” Arena said. “They’re being asked to do more with less and that’s difficult. It compounds a violent crime problem, makes it more difficult to address. This is a two-headed monster. We have a lack of law enforcement resources and a lack of prosecutorial resources. That’s a double whammy.”

FormanArena identified another stumbling point for the police and prosecutors: an abundance of cold cases.

“If you don’t have the resources to investigate the crime happening now, how do you go back and investigate what happened years or decades ago? A few years ago, the Detroit Police Department got a federal grant from the Department of Justice to address cold case homicides and then lost it, and now we’re trying to help them get it back.”

Feeling Safe in the City

Despite its identifiable problems, however, Detroit is seeing an increase in the number of young Jewish adults moving back into the city.

“I’m maybe more cautious and aware of my surroundings, but it would be a mistake not to be alert,” explained Tara Forman, an outreach and engagement associate with the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit’s NEXTGen team. The 27-year-old moved back to Michigan from Manhattan last year, and into Midtown’s Park Shelton, across from the Detroit Institute of Arts on Woodward.

“I love it! I love living Downtown. It’s one of the best parts about moving back home,” said the Bloomfield Hills native, who says she’s never been the victim of crime in the city. “I have just as much ‘fear’ as I would in any urban environment. Crazy things happen everywhere. I’m not delusional. I understand I live in a unique area, but I’m not outrageously fearful of anything.

hack“The difference between New York and Detroit is the critical mass of people, so in Detroit I’m more uncomfortable in a place with few people around, and I try to avoid those situations. I would say I’m alert because it’s my responsibility to be so as a person in the world,” Forman said.

Jay Hack, a financial adviser at Raymond James in Farmington Hills, also says he feels safe, “for the most part.” The 37-year-old lives in Broderick Tower, off Grand Circus Park, and “loves living Downtown.”

“I do feel a need to be somewhat more cautious than when I was living in the suburbs, but not so much so that it’s paralyzing,” said Hack, who moved to Detroit from Royal Oak just over a year ago. Hack has doubled down on the move, having recently renewed his lease in the iconic residential skyscraper.

Ryan Landau, 25, lives just a few blocks down Woodward, in Village Green’s Detroit City Apartments. After moving back to Michigan from Chicago 18 months ago, the co-founder says he loves the city, calling it the “best place to live for young professionals.” Like Forman and Hack, Landau says he has not been the victim of a single crime in the city.

“I feel safe, but it’s like any big city,” Landau said. “You just need to be smart. I think I’m as cautious or alert as I am in the suburbs. It’s about the same.”

It seems no matter where you live there is a need to be vigilant and self-protective.

“I live in Northville, and it’s Mayberry out there, but you have to be aware of where you are. That’s just the world we live in,” Arena said. “There are crazy people out there, people who resort to violence at the drop of a hat, and you have to be aware of your surroundings no matter where you are.

“I spend a lot of time Downtown,” Arena added.” I go to a lot of ball games, and I bring my kids down to skate at Campus Martius. There are a ton of restaurants I love in the city, and personally, my family spends a great deal of time down here. I’m aware of my surroundings, but I don’t have fear. I think most people are operating that way; if you’re down here you should be OK.”

landauSecurity in the Neighborhoods

In Downtown’s Central Business District, Arena believes it’s safe, thanks in large part to added private security, law enforcement and community watch groups like the Downtown Detroit Partnership’s Project Lighthouse, which brings together the Detroit Police Department and more than 30 local businesses to provide shelter, aid, safety, information and potential lodging for those in need of temporary assistance.

When it comes to the city’s neighborhoods like Corktown and Indian Village — now popular for suburban relocation — Arena says people “watch out for each other.”

“They have hired private security. They have neighborhood watch groups, and we work with a number of them at the DCC,” Arena said. “We are ‘of counsel’ to these groups, advising them on how to deal with crime and violent crime issues. To a certain extent, we tell the neighborhood groups they have to help themselves until the cavalry can get here, and they have to be the ones to watch their own neighborhoods. The University District, Rosedale Park, Corktown … these are strong and active neighborhoods with community organizations and neighborhood watches that work very hard.”

Response Times

One struggle for Chief Craig will be bringing down 9-1-1 response times, Arena said.

There’s an argument about what to measure: when the call comes in, or when it goes to dispatch, how backed up the calls are, when they go to the call center, what’s done when they’re received.

“It’s something they’re looking very hard at right now,” Arena said.

“That’s a big issue internally. It’s part of what their restructuring is all about, but first you have to get that innovative, aggressive command team in place,” he said. “The next stage is then reorganizing the department, getting the people where you need them. You don’t need trained officers doing pay roll, per se. You need them on the street, and we need our officers to be proactive, working to fight crime as it happens or before it happens. If you run around continually responding, it’s a catch-22, a dog chasing its tail.”

So does Detroit have the potential for a Times Square-esque turnaround? Arena certainly thinks so.

“That’s the focus right now, and that’s the hope. What they did in New York was driven by the ‘broken windows’ theory of policing. You don’t allow even the smallest crime; you don’t accept anything. You deal with it, deal with it quickly, use data, hold people accountable, identify problem areas and what’s driving crime, look at the metrics, and then hold commanders responsible. That’s what New York did, and obviously they were very, very successful,” said Arena. “Detroit is moving in that direction.”