In a city with long memories of racial torment, Detroit’s police chief seeks to turn a corner

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Detroit Police Chief James Craig, shown here during a press conference, says he deliberately courts the media to put a public face on what his police force is doing in the community. (Bridge photo by Brian Widdis)

By Bill McGraw | Bridge Magazine

The Black Lives Matter movement was peaking a year ago when protesters took to the streets of Baltimore over the death of a black man in police custody. On the same day, an angry crowd gathered on Evergreen Road on Detroit’s west side.

The situation on Evergreen quickly grew tense. An agent from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on a task force with Detroit police had shot and killed a 20-year-old black Detroiter, Terrance Kellom, a parole absconder who was wanted for armed robbery.

“Huge crowd. We were surrounded,” Assistant Chief Steven Dolunt recalled in late March. “They were calling for the chief. I called him. I said, ‘you need to get here right away. Now.’’’

The chief of police is James Craig, The crowd knew him because in nearly three years at the top of the Detroit Police Department, he has become such a familiar figure on city streets and media outlets that some people, both friends and foes, call him “Hollywood.” Craig’s style is low-key and controlled, more Woodward Avenue than Sunset Strip, but he doesn’t mind the nickname. He says his visibility is part of a deliberate strategy to communicate with Detroiters.

On that afternoon, Craig walked into the crowd and simply talked to people in a calm voice. Some made references to the previous deaths of black men across the nation, but Craig assured them that detectives would conduct a fair investigation, and promised to meet the community in a public forum within 48 hours, which he did.

“Any time a parent loses their child, it’s a tragedy,” Craig told reporters and bystanders at the time. “I’m committed that the investigation will be thorough, and I will have a conversation with the prosecutor’s office.”

That day, Craig revealed Kellom was wanted on a felony warrant and had brandished a hammer at the agent, an African American whom Craig said was retreating during the confrontation. Craig also met with Kellom’s family members. Kellom’s father had an outstanding warrant for a non-violent fraud accusation, but Craig said officers would let him grieve and deal with that matter later.

By nightfall, Baltimore was burning.

Detroit was calm.

Turning a corner

Three years into his job as Detroit’s police chief, James Craig said the department is turning a corner in gaining trust among city residents. (Bridge photo by Brian Widdis)

The chief’s deft defusing of emotions on Evergreen last April 27 possibly saved Detroit from joining a growing list of cities divided over police clashes with the black community. Detroit has it’s own long, painful history of disastrous encounters and mistrust between cops and African Americans, notably the 1967 raid on a 12th Street blind pig that ignited one of the worst civil disorders in U.S. history, an uprising largely fueled by decades of blatant abuse of black Detroiters by an overwhelmingly white police force. Just last month, the city emerged from 13 years of oversight by the U.S. Justice Department over the shootings of suspects, unconstitutional investigative techniques and mistreatment of prisoners.

Was the crowd’s reaction a sign of growing trust between police and Detroit’s majority African-American community?

Craig, 59, contends the department is turning a corner. He cites a variety of statistics as well as the improvements the department made under federal supervision. And he says the afternoon on Evergreen illustrates the transparency and public engagement that he has attempted to employ since July 2013. That’s when Craig assumed the unforgiving position of chief in a city has had one of the nation’s highest crime rates for decades, running a department that is short of manpower and lacking the resources to adequately attack crime.

The situation on Evergreen “had the makings of a problem,” Craig recalled in interviews with the Detroit Journalism Cooperative this spring. “But we have relationships with people in the community. I made promises that I kept.”

Some critics attacked Craig for quickly disclosing Kellom’s record and a description of his hammer attack. Craig said he did not make the revelations lightly.

“We have a responsibility to our community to say as much as we can about what’s going on because the media will go out and find someone in the neighborhood, and they will give an account,” he said. “It probably won’t be the right one, but it will be the only account that’s out there.”

Sometimes the facts in such incidents, as initially put out by officials in Detroit and elsewhere, have turned out to be inaccurate, as the original police narrative on the shooting of Laquan McDonald in Chicago notably showed. But in the Kellom case, Craig’s early account held up. In August, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy announced there would be no charges against the federal agent, saying he had acted in lawful self-defense.

Craig is the 17th person to run the Detroit Police Department since the 1967 civil unrest. Almost all of his predecessors were insiders, products of the culture they were tasked with reforming once they reached the top job.

Craig was the seventh chief in the previous seven years, a chaotic period that included the Kwame Kilpatrick saga and its collateral corruption, municipal bankruptcy and two chiefs who left the job after their sexual relationships with the same female underling came to light.

Craig was an unusual find: an insider and an outsider with broad experience. He is a Detroiter who began his career as a Detroit cop in 1977 but left 2 ½ years later after being laid off. He went west, spending 28 years rising to the upper ranks of the Los Angeles Police Department before going on to run departments in Portland, Maine and Cincinnati.

When Craig returned to Detroit after 34 years away, he found a financially devastated city, the Justice Department poking around and rampant pessimism among police and residents.

“I said, ‘This is interesting. The police department has low morale. The community has low morale. Some of it intersected. Police stations that were closed. Police officers felt disconnected. The community felt disconnected. Response times above one hour – that’s even if the call is handled. A lot of things just didn’t work.’”

Craig also found crime. More crime per capita than Los Angeles, Portland and Cincinnati, cities where he worked before Detroit. More crime than virtually any big city in America. In 2014, for example, Los Angeles, with three million more people than Detroit, had 39 fewer homicides.

In the nearly 50 years since the police raid on the blind pig, much has changed in Detroit. Mayors and police chiefs have come and gone. “No Crime Days,” crackdowns on crack, rape summits and the DPD’s feared STRESS unit have come and gone. One thing remains ‒ crime, fueled by the city’s increasing job loss and poverty. The 1967 riot ‒ or rebellion, as many people call it ‒ coincided with a spike in murder, arson and other serious criminal offenses, and the violence, while reduced, continues today, plaguing residents, bedeviling city leaders, tarnishing Detroit’s reputation and giving the city a severe look of razor wire, barred windows and plexiglass shields. Crime fluctuates, but never goes away.

Celebrating gun owners

As of early April, 23,495 people have been murdered in Detroit since 1967 ‒ roughly the population of Romulus. But the city’s annual number of homicides peaked at 714 in 1974, when the Motor City became known internationally as the Murder City. That number has dropped to the 300 level in the recent past, along with the reduction in the number of Detroit residents.

Under Craig, homicides and much other crime are down. But Detroit’s ratio of homicides to population remains almost 10 times the national average, and its violent crime rate is more than five times the national average, according to Forbes Magazine, which in October ranked Detroit as the most dangerous city in the United States.

The chief speaks of the crime problem in a composed manner, without drama. Craig projects authority, but he is smaller in person than he seems on TV, and he is slender, with delicate hands. He can be unpredictable.

Craig frequently has talked about how he believes Detroiters have become desensitized, accepting high levels of violence as part of life, and he has said residents must stand up and basically say they aren’t going to take it anymore. Contrary to the policies of many big-city chiefs and mayors, he also has advocated citizens arming themselves, and in June 2014 he appeared on the cover of the National Rifle Association’s monthly magazine, America’s 1st Freedom, next to his own words, “We’re not advocating violence, we’re advocates for not being victims.”

He has called gunmen who fired into a crowd “urban terrorists” but displayed empathy with the conditions that spawn lawlessness in Detroit, the nation’s poorest big city. In a report on Detroit for Yahoo! News in March, Katie Couric asked Craig, “What is the link, in your view, between poverty, a sub-par education system, unemployment and crime?”

He answered: “Direct.”

Craig’s overall approach in his nearly three years as chief has won him many admirers. In a scientific poll of city residents published in the Detroit Free Press in December, Craig had an approval rating of 75 percent, an unusually high number for a public figure in a demanding job. Mayor Mike Duggan, whose approval rating was 60 percent, extended Craig’s contract for two years last May. Craig, who was hired by Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, earns $225,000 a year.

Even the head of the Detroit Police Officers Association has positive things to say about Craig. The union is often at odds with whoever is chief and mayor. But DPOA President Mark Diaz said while there is a range of opinions about Craig among DPOA members, the chief has been receptive to rank-and-file needs.

“Our officers recognize that the chief has an open ear,” Diaz said. “He’ll show up at a roll call to hear about things on the street. That was unheard of in the past. He actually goes to them to hear what their concerns are. That’s never happened in my 22 years as a police officer.”

Detroit Police Chief James Craig laughs as he finishes the department’s National Walking Day fitness event. The police union chief says Craig has lifted morale among officers by listening to the concerns of rank-and-file cops. (Bridge photo by Brian Widdis)

Dolunt, the assistant chief, a 30-year veteran, said: “There’s no scandals with this chief. Chiefs in the past we’ve had scandals. Chiefs in the past who didn’t have a clue, but they were political puppets. Some chiefs really thought they had it together and didn’t.

“He’s willing to accept it when he’s done something wrong. Always looks for input. Big on social media. He’s really in the 21st Century.”

Phillis Judkins, an organizer of the citizen patrol in the North End neighborhood south of Highland Park, praised Craig’s M.O.

“I think Chief Craig is doing a pretty good job,” she said. “He shows up – that’s what I like about him. He goes out and sees what’s going on. I appreciate that.”

Changing the culture

Assistant Chief Steven Dolunt

Driving down Vermont Street, a few blocks south of the Motown Museum on Detroit’s west side, Neighborhood Police Officer Dale Dorsey spots a large pile of broken furniture and trash bags in front of a house. He stops his car and knocks on the door of the home next door.

“I’m Officer Dorsey of the Third Precinct,” he tells the man who answers. “I’m wondering about this trash over here. That looks like a dump site.”

The man explains that the neighbor had died, and people have been inside, working on the house. Dorsey asks what time they are usually arrive, and thanks the man.

“If we don’t address the small problems fast, they turn into big problems,” Dorsey says as he walks back to his scout car.

Dorsey’s rank, neighborhood police officer, is new. It was created by Craig to better connect police to the community, almost like suburban cops in the middle of Detroit.

There are four NPOs in each of the city’s 12 precincts. They don’t answer radio runs, like other street officers, but are expected to be proactive, visiting businesses, introducing themselves to residents and giving out their phone numbers. Dorsey’s photo, cell number and email address are displayed online, and Craig has been known to drop in on businesses and ask if the owner knows the local NPO.

chief-timeline

“My phone rings seven days week,” Dorsey said. “I get texts seven days a week.”

Dorsey even teaches a daily law enforcement class to 16 high school students at University Preparatory Academy, a charter school in Midtown.

Neighborhood police officers are one of several changes Craig has brought to the department.

He also instituted the ranks of captain, corporal and detective, and started the practice of placing bars on officers’ uniform sleeves to denote every five years of service. “The officers love it,” Dolunt said.

Craig quickly ended the “virtual precinct” program in which some stations were closed at night, and took front-line cops off the 12-hour shifts that many despised. He established a liaison to the LGBT community. He has revived CompStat meetings, in which department executives flyspeck crime patterns, quiz precinct captains about how they are responding and examine use-of-force statistics, even questioning superiors when their force numbers seem low. He also created partnerships with some of Detroit’s protest leaders.

After hearing officers raise questions about possible discrimination in hiring and promotions, Craig established a Committee on Race and Equality to come up with solutions. (In a city that is about 80 percent black, the department is 62 percent African American; 33 percent white and five percent Hispanic, Asian and Native American; women make up 25 percent of the force.)

“I have to give him credit,” said Officer John Bennett, the co-leader of the committee and the officer behind a website that was highly critical of Jerry Oliver when he served as chief a decade ago in the early Kilpatrick years. “We have some problems in the department as it relates to race. It was his idea” to explore the issues.

When he returned to Detroit as chief, Craig said he talked first to the lowest-ranking members of the department and found they were afraid of being disciplined because of the Justice Department supervision and they were disillusioned because they were losing pay and benefits during the city’s bankruptcy.

“My interpretation of that is that many of the POs didn’t feel supported,” Craig said. “There was no leadership in many ways. That’s why they said, ‘We want new bosses.’

“The first thing they told me was, ‘Fire everybody above the rank of inspector. Get rid of them all. They’re worthless.’

“I did that. Everybody has been changed out.”

As part of a strategy to confront the widespread sense among residents that criminals had free reign in Detroit, Craig began staging massive raids with hundreds of officers on neighborhoods troubled by crime or even, in one case, a notorious apartment building on E. Jefferson that is a short walk from the mayor’s residence in the Manoogian Mansion. The media was invited to cover the raids, which make for vivid TV.

Some critics questioned the raids’ impact, writing that few of the arrests result in prosecutions and concluding that the operations are largely for show.

Craig defends the operations, saying that residents are finally receiving what they want ‒ police in their neighborhoods.

The raids signal, he said: “The police are here to serve you. To the criminals, we’re not messing around.”

Craig’s most recent innovation is Project Green Light, a partnership with gas stations, party stores and fast-food restaurants that have installed high-definition cameras to stream live video to the department’s Real Time Crime Center, where they are monitored. The cameras and their feeds are designed to act as a deterrent and, if they capture a crime, evidence. Craig said 25 percent of violent crime in Detroit takes place within 500 yards of a gas station, which serves in some neighborhoods as a corner store.

A major success came in March, when cameras caught a wild scene at a west-side station in which a woman wearing a short, fringed skirt and red boots pulled a gun out of her underwear and began firing into a car. The video was so clear viewers could see cartridges ejecting from her weapon, and police arrested the woman within two hours. The video went viral, and departments across the country are calling to ask about Detroit’s high-definition crime-fighting tool.

Despite the improvements under Craig, the department continues to face a serious test in manpower, which affects police response times, which remain a major citizen complaint. The total force has shrunk to about 2,200 ‒ from 6,500 in the early 1970s ‒ of which some 1,560 are police officers who patrol the streets and raid dope houses. Two or three serious incidents in one precinct can tie up enough personnel to strain resources and lengthen response, which appear to have improved in the past three years through streamlining dispatch processes and putting more cops in patrol jobs.

“Our manpower is (at) a critical level right now,” said Diaz, the union president. “Our officers go from run to run, and they have to work doubles” – two successive shifts – “just to compensate for our lack of manpower on the street.”

The department is trying to start a new academy class for recruits every month, but the attrition doesn’t let up because up to 200 department members at all ranks leave every year, nearly half of them going to other departments.

Detroit officers’ pay starts at $36,000, and they earn around $53,000 after five years. Local and national agencies seek out Detroit cops because they are well trained and battled-hardened, and the salary can be $15,000 or more a year higher in suburban departments, where the workload generally is lighter and less dangerous. In 1968, Detroit police pay ranked third in the nation, behind Los Angeles and Chicago.

“Our biggest challenge is retention,” said Craig.

‘Just sit there and be black’

Craig said he never had a bad experience with police as a child, but heard stories from his father about the DPD in the 1960s – and earlier – when the force was notorious for its mistreatment of the black community.

For three quarters of 20th Century, black Detroiters complained both of police brutality and the lack of police protection, as University of Michigan historian Sidney Fine noted in his book on the 1967 riot, “Violence in the Model City.” Mistreatment ranged from racial slurs to fatal force. Many older black Detroiters have wrenching stories of harassment, such as from the so-called Big Four units – three plainclothes officers with a uniformed driver that cruised the city in hulking Buicks and Chryslers with a box of long guns in the trunk.

“My job was to teach the police they didn’t have the constitutional right to beat up Negroes on arrest,” said the late George Edwards, a former mayoral candidate and state Supreme Court Justice, whom Mayor Jerome Cavanagh appointed to run the department in 1962.

Before the riot, the local branch of the NAACP reported black residents were subjected to unreasonable and illegal arrests; indiscriminate searching on public streets, disrespectful language and violent reactions by the police to protests about the treatment.

Ray Girardin, who ran the department before, during and after the riot, once said cops believed the way to treat blacks was “to hit them on the side of the head.”

In numerous polls and interviews at the time, black Detroiters cited police brutality as the No. 1 cause of the 1967 disorder.

Only about five percent of the force was black in 1967, when African Americans made up about 40 percent of Detroit’s population. The number of black officers increased gradually over the next several years, but Coleman Young, elected Detroit’s first African American mayor in 1973, instituted an affirmative action program that began integrating the department at a rapid rate, to the dismay of many white veterans.

Craig was part of Young’s initiative. In 1977, when he was a 19-year-old rookie, his first partner was a white cop with about 20 years of service.

“He just simply said to me, ‘You’re not going to drive this vehicle. You’re not going to touch the radio. And don’t talk to me. Just sit there and be black.’”

Craig said he decided to join the LAPD when he was laid off in Detroit because it was a storied force in a global city that he had seen positively portrayed on such television shows as “Adam 12” and “Dragnet.” He received numerous promotions under legendary chiefs Bernard Parks and William Bratton, and said he learned the importance of using the media in police work, which was second nature to police executives there, surrounded by TV, film studios and, yes, Hollywood. He said while the LAPD was a sophisticated organization, Detroit by the 1980s was far ahead in community policing and hiring of minorities.

While Craig was in California, crime flourished in Detroit, but the growing number of black officers, as well as women, made an impression on the increasingly black city. A 1987 poll showed only 20 percent of black Detroiters thought police treated blacks worse than whites. Twenty years earlier, that figure was 82 percent.

Mayor Young, who had been roughed up by white cops while growing up before World War II ‒ he once said police of that era “used to shoot black kids for fun” ‒ took great pride in the integrated force, calling it the nation’s “foremost example of a civil rights department.”

But something went wrong along the way.

In 1992 alone, former Police Chief William Hart, convicted embezzling $2.34 million in taxpayers’ money while he led the department, was sentenced to a maximum 10 years in federal prison.

And the death of an unarmed black motorist, Malice Green, after an encounter with two white cops, Larry Nevers and Walter Budzyn, created a furor that lasted for months, coming not long after after Los Angeles cops were acquitted in the videotaped beating of an uncooperative but unarmed black motorist, Rodney King.

In 2000, after Young had left office and died, another blow to the DPD’s reputation: The Free Press revealed that Detroit Police lead the nation’s largest cities in per capita fatal shootings of civilians – a rate 2 ½ times higher than that of New York City. The paper also found the department was failing to conduct thorough investigations or hold officers accountable.

In 2003, after a federal investigation, the city entered into agreements ‒ known as consent decrees ‒ with the U.S. Justice Department that imposed a number of requirements on the DPD, including how it reports such incidents, the manner in which the department holds pretrial detainees and how it conducts investigations.

After 13 years of scrutiny, which cost taxpayers about $50 million in salary to monitors and costs for new processes, the city was finally released from federal oversight March 31. The two sides agree the department has made significant progress: It has halved payouts in civil litigation, cut civilian complaints and increased the rate at which its detectives solve homicide cases from 47 percent in 1998 to 70 percent in 2014.

The DPD also reduced holding-cell deaths from 19 between 1994-2000 to one between 2008-20014, and dropped fatal shootings from 47 between 1995-2000 to 18 from 2009-20014.

Ken Reed, spokesman for the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, a citizens’ group, said the DPD in some ways appears to operating differently than a decade ago.

“Detroit has made some strides, but I think the jury is still out,” he said.

“I think the chief’s head is in the right place,” Reed continued. With Craig’s age and experience, “he could have very easily rode off into the sunset. To come back here takes a lot of guts.”

Bishop Edgar Vann Jr., a member of the Board of Police Commissioners, which has broad supervisory power over the department, said Craig has changed the department’s culture so it won’t backslide into its old ways even after he is gone. He praised Craig for holding people accountable and restructuring the department.

“Any city can be a powder keg,” Vann said. “But we’ve been able to avoid that with good community relations. This is another thing that the chief has done a great job with. At a very critical time nationally, he’s been able to build even more bridges with the community.”

Requiem for a 3-year-old

On a bright, chilly evening in early April, about 75 people show up at the House of Help Church, located inside an old elementary school on Clarita in northwest Detroit. They plan to walk through the neighborhood in a regularly scheduled peace march that on this night will honor Anaiya Montgomery, a 3-year-old girl who was killed five days earlier, on Easter Sunday, when a gunman burst into her nearby home and began firing. Anaiya died of multiple gunshot wounds; two adults were wounded.

Before starting out, the marchers gather inside a small auditorium to pray and listen to pep talks from organizers. Around the back are more than a dozen members of the Detroit Police Gang Intelligence Unit, led by Sgt. Edward Brannock. The cops – mostly young men and women who are black, white and brown ‒ wear casual clothes, but their guns and handcuffs are in plain view, and they look like they mean business.

Brannock is invited to address the crowd, which occupies about half of the seats.

“We are here for you,” he tells them. “There is a 3-year-old girl in the city of Detroit who has been killed. Every seat in this auditorium should be filled.”

The crowd applauds.

Walking behind a banner emblazoned with the word “Ceasefire Detroit,” a non-violence program, the marchers stop periodically on Appleton and Riverview streets to pray with residents who come out of their homes, curious why a chanting crowd is passing by. The cops follow in cars and on foot, and their presence is appreciated.

“The police are doing their job. You can’t do nothing but appreciate that,” said Polarius Crawford, 21. Asked how the police treat young people in Detroit, Crawford said: “It depends on what you’re doing.”

On Riverview, one of the organizers, the Rev. Cory Chavis, spotted a woman watching from behind her glass door and called out to her. “Would you pray with us, baby?”

Marchers on Grand River Avenue as they walk between Appleton and Riverview streets on a recent Friday evening peace march. (Bridge photo by Bill McGraw)

Kim Day, 59, joined the crowd. Afterward, Day told of two recent close calls with criminals. Her 22-year-old nephew escaped a gunman who had demanded his cell phone, and she emerged unscathed from an encounter with a would-be stick-up artist, who ended up walking away.

“I gave the young man an option to leave me alone,” Day said sardonically. She patted her hip as she told of the incident, assuming she was carrying her gun, but it turned out to be inside the house. “I thought I had it on,” she said.

Chavis said he has met Chief Craig, and believes he is doing an excellent job.

“The chief doesn’t patrol the streets, though,” Chavis added. “Law enforcement can’t be everywhere at the same time. The community must get involved.”

Back at 1301 Third Street, Detroit’s gleaming new public safety headquarters that replaced the mold-infested structure at 1300 Beaubien, Craig was attending at a weekly meeting of the Board of Police Commissioners, which is open to the public. The mood was upbeat because it was announced federal supervision of the police department had officially ended.

Still, a couple of crime categories had inched up in the past week, a red flag in a data-driven organization.

During public comment, one of Craig’s fans stood up and praised the chief for his light-hearted appearance on a TV show that morning, promoting physical fitness.

“Nice and loose,” said the man. “I’ve never seen him so loose. He should get a license to be a comedian.”

Craig, looking weary, laughed.

“I’ve always wanted to be a comedian,” he said. “But as chief of the Detroit police, I don’t often have the opportunity to tell a joke.”

Chief James Craig talks with city residents and business owners during a Saturday visit to Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church. Craig contends that trust is built by communicating clearly and often with city residents. (Bridge photo by Brian Widdis)

 

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