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Detroit Homeowners Gun Down Burglars as Police Wait for Cars

By Chris Christoff
April 29, 2014 2:55 PM EDT 277 Comments
The emblem for the Detroit Police Department is seen on the sleeve of an officer.
Photographer: Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg
The emblem for the Detroit Police Department is seen on the sleeve of an officer.

Even as bankrupt Detroit’s residents have resorted to gunning down neighborhood burglars, its police await money for patrol cars, radios, armored vests and modern computers.

Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr last month pledged $36.2 million for police from a $120 million loan from Barclays Plc approved by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Stephen Rhodes. Department officials wouldn’t discuss plans for the money, though Orr’s shopping list includes vehicles, station houses and a training facility for the city, which piled up $18 billion of debt by the time it filed for bankruptcy in July.

The money can’t come soon enough for a shrunken department that patrols 139 square miles (360 square kilometers) scarred by blight and poverty with decade-old cruisers. Although crime is down under new Police Chief James Craig, attacks in recent months have residents on edge and reinforced the city’s image as a danger zone.

“People don’t feel safe,” said Barry Ross, co-founder of Detroit Coalition Against Violence. “The new chief is trying, but the odds seem insurmountable.”

“I’m not saying it’s not possible, but it’s like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro without equipment.”

Neighborhood Mayhem

The loan was obtained this month and will be spent as purchases and bids are processed, said city Chief Financial Officer John Hill in an interview. He said police vehicles must be ordered from manufacturers and outfitted with special equipment. In the meantime, many Detroit residents are fending for themselves.

Craig last month defended citizens’ right to shoot if attacked. Indeed, eight times this year residents killed intruders. In the most recent incident, gunshots from a homeowner April 17 interrupted a break-in and mortally wounded the driver of a getaway SUV that crashed into a house across the street, according to police. Two suspects fled on foot.

The SUV pinned Raymond Bradley’s 29-year-old daughter, Kyle, in the bathroom, though she escaped serious injury.

“It lets you know of your own vulnerability,” said Bradley, 60, a community-college library specialist.

Shortly after 1 a.m. today, a 50-year-old woman shot a 24-year-old man who’d broken into her home through a window, according to Officer Dan Donakowski. The suspect was taken to a hospital and was listed in serious condition, while a 15-year-old girl in a car near the home was arrested, he said.

Nurse’s Aid

On April 2, the day Rhodes approved the city’s loan, a 54-year-old suburbanite was beaten into a coma by a mob after his truck accidentally struck a 10-year-old and he tended to the injured child. The attack was stopped by a retired nurse who lives nearby.

Such headline-grabbing incidents belie a 25 percent drop in crime during the first three months of this year compared with the same period a year ago, according to police. Homicides fell to 45 from 68.

In 2012, Detroit was the third-most-dangerous U.S. city behind Camden, New Jersey and Flint, Michigan, according to an analysis of Federal Bureau of Investigation data by CQ Press.

The uniformed police force fell to about 2,300 from 3,350 in the past five years. Orr reported last year that response time averaged about one hour, though department officials said that counts nonemergency calls.

The laggardly pace was lampooned in a WJBK television segment by reporter Charlie LeDuff, who stayed with a resident as she waited four hours for officers to answer her call about a break-in. He had time to order a carryout meal. He had time for a bubble bath in her tub.

Flagging Fleet

Detroit police have 1,200 vehicles including motorcycles, and many “are held together with tape and chewing gum,” said Chris Gannon, a restructuring consultant to Orr. The city last year received 100 patrol cars as a gift from companies, including General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group LLC, and needs about 800 more, Gannon said.

Replacing decrepit units would improve response times and morale, said Sergeant Michael Woody, a department spokesman. He said vehicles should be replaced every three to five years -- and that the department wants to hire 600 more officers to drive them during the next three years.

Orr said the funds from the loan will make a difference.

“We’re already driving crime down,” he said in an April 9 interview in New York. “The chief is as motivated as anybody to deal with issues in the department that have not been dealt with for a long time.”

Fast Action

Craig has held raids of apartment complexes and neighborhoods infested with drugs, guns and fugitives. His statements about self-defense caused a stir.

“If you’re confronted with an immediate threat to your safety, you’re not going to have time to dial 911,” Craig said in a televised interview on WDIV in March.

His remarks only emphasized that a legally armed citizenry can deter crime, Woody said. Twelve justifiable homicides through mid-April -- including home invasion shootings -- compare with 10 during the same period last year.

“We’re not talking about this big, huge sweeping number,” Woody said. “It’s really a matter of people defending their homes just as they did last year and the year before that, before he got here.”

More than 29,000 Detroiters are legally armed and more are packing every day. The 6,974 concealed-pistol licenses issued to residents in 2013 were more than double those in 2009. Even more -- 7,584 -- were issued in 2012, according to the Michigan State Police. The number of unregistered guns is unknown.

Armed Academic

“I’m very concerned a public official, a police chief, would raise the flag to shoot when you see the whites of their eyes,” said Carl Taylor, a sociology professor at Michigan State University in East Lansing who specializes in violence and gangs.

The 64-year-old Detroit native carries a gun when doing research in the city, though he said what’s really needed is a “Peace Corps-style” intervention. He said he’s watched once-vibrant neighborhoods descend into lawlessness caused by poverty, bad parenting and poor education.

“The badlands are much larger in Detroit than other urban centers,” he said.

Silent Sufferers

Many crimes are not reported, especially rape, nonfatal shootings, domestic assault and child abuse, said Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy.

“A lot of people I know who’ve had their homes broken into don’t report it,” Worthy said in an interview. “Once people gain more trust in the police department, they’ll report what happens to them more frequently. I think that may be beginning to happen.”

At Bradley’s house, a contractor assessed the damage where plywood covered a brick wall smashed by the getaway car. Bradley said he hopes he never has to use his gun, though he said Detroiters are fed up.

“People are taking a stand, they’re just not going to put up with it any longer,” he said. “If you can’t be safe in your own home, where can you be safe?”

To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Christoff in Lansing at cchristoff@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at smerelman@bloomberg.net Mark Schoifet

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