Detroit Citizens Protect Themselves After Police Force Decimated

As crime hobbles Detroit’s attempts to revive itself, the city is bolstering its police department by having unarmed citizens patrol the streets in a program that costs less than annual salaries and benefits for three officers.

Volunteers given radios and matching T-shirts help officers protect neighborhoods where burglaries, thefts and thugs drive away people who can’t rely on a police force that lost a quarter of its strength since 2009. With 25 patrols on the streets, the city hopes to add three each year. Meanwhile, the homicide rate continues rising.

Kevyn Orr, the Detroit emergency manager appointed by the state to supersede the mayor and city council, has called public safety crucial as he reorganizes a city running a $380 million deficit, teetering on a record municipal bankruptcy and struggling to provide services. Orr has said Detroit’s turnaround depends on reversing a population loss of more than 25 percent since 2000.

“Nobody’s going to move back to Detroit as long as people don’t have a sense of security,” said volunteer Lorenzo Blount during his morning rounds in the west-side Grandmont area. “That’s what we’re trying to add in our neighborhood in our little way.”

Detroit once was an economic powerhouse fueled by the auto industry with 1.8 million residents in the 1950s. Now, its 701,000 residents live amid a landscape of blight, poverty, unemployment and crime. Viable neighborhoods are surrounded by deserted tracts with 40 percent of the city’s lots vacant or unused within its 139 square miles (360 kilometers) -- a vastness that makes it difficult to provide basic services and control the streets.

Finding Bodies

Police ranks there fell to about 2,500 from 3,350 in 2009. Interim Chief Chester Logan said in April the city must hire to replenish a force losing 25 officers a month to retirement.

In 2011, the dwindling department took over the 30-year-old neighborhood volunteer program to forge a more direct relationship and institute tighter standards, said Second Deputy Melvin Turner, who oversees the groups. Members, who now must pass criminal background checks, are paid from a $270,000 annual fund for mileage and incidental costs such as vehicle signs.

Thugless Life

Community groups are campaigning for the city to allow them to levy assessments on homeowners to pay for more patrols. A majority of homeowners would have to approve the flat fee, which would be mandatory.

“Police can’t be on every corner,” said Karen Moore, community security manager for the Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation, a non-profit group of five neighborhoods spearheading the push for the special patrol levy. “You should be able to walk your dog, push kids in a stroller or use the parks. We don’t want a handful of knuckleheads to take away our quality of life.”

Data show crime diminishes in areas with active patrols, Turner said.

While homicides in Detroit rose last year to 411 from 344 the year before, other crimes were down 2.6 percent, according to Mayor Dave Bing.

Still, the 16,000 burglaries in 2011 compare with only 12,000 in Philadelphia, a city with more than double Detroit’s population, according to an FBI report. For all property crimes, Detroit ranked sixth -- 6,144 per 100,000 residents -- among U.S. cities with populations of 300,000 or more.

Retiree Posse

The city now looks to its residents to help themselves.

“It’s very important for people to get involved,” said Muhsin “Coach” Muhammad I, a patrol organizer in Grandmont. “In order for evil people to succeed, good people need to do absolutely nothing.”

Muhammad, who rode in a marked van with Blount, credited aggressive surveillance for cutting crime in the enclave of 800 mostly well-kept brick homes. Both men wore bright yellow vests, as did a trainee, Will Smith, 60 a retired teacher.

On Grandmont Street, their suspicion was aroused by a lone teen with a backpack strolling on a weekday morning, prime time for burglary.

“He should be in school,” Muhammad said. Blount drove slowly to make sure the boy saw them, making two passes.

“We may have prevented a crime today,” said Muhammad, a General Motors Co. retiree.

Eyes and Ears

Turner said neighborhood patrols document break-ins, vandalism, suspected drug dens and “strippers” who rip metal from homes to sell as scrap. They’re to call 911 if they see a crime in progress.

“We teach them to stay at a safe distance, get what information you can without putting yourself in jeopardy,” Turner said.

One group last year recorded a band of thieves stealing catalytic converters from cars, which led to arrests, Turner said.

To be certified, neighborhood patrols must have 12 volunteers who receive police-approved training, Turner said. Vehicles must have at least two volunteers who may not carry firearms or other weapons.

They fill in the city’s empty spaces. Detroit has 3.5 police officers per 1,000 residents, compared to Cleveland’s 3.70, according to an analysis by the International Union of Police Associations, AFL-CIO based in Sarasota, Florida. However, Detroit police must cover an area nearly twice Cleveland’s 77 square miles.

Company Charity

Citizen patrols aren’t the only effort to bolster the force.

Eight area companies, including GM, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group LLC, agreed to donate $8 million for 100 new patrol cars and 23 ambulances.

One business district this year will pay about $200,000 to hire off-duty officers, armed and using city cruisers, to guard a main thoroughfare. Wayne County sheriff’s deputies patrol some streets. And a joint city, state and federal program seeks to get repeat offenders off the streets.

The new police chief, James Craig, said he plans to move officers from desk jobs to the streets and to improve morale eroded by pay and manpower cuts. Craig, 56, a Detroit native, begins June 22 after two years as chief in Cincinnati.

“Police can’t do it alone,” Craig said in a phone interview. “We have to have vibrant, effective partnerships.”

Jim Ward, 75, is head of Greenacres neighborhood patrol. Ward, a Ford Motor Co. retiree, said when the group began in 1986, the neighborhood had 130 break-ins among its 1,000 homes. That number dropped to 39 the following year, he said.

In the past two years, the patrol has doubled to more than 100 members, Ward said, thanks to door-to-door recruiting. Each member patrols at least two hours each month, and the group meets regularly with police. They use an e-mail network to spread the word of crimes and descriptions of suspects.

“We have an expression here: We don’t plan to take Greenacres back,” Ward said. “We’re not going to give it up in the first place.”