The Detroit Blues

A force of 2,419 Detroit Police officers now provides law enforcement services to the shrinking city of just over 706,000 residents. Between 1990 and 2011, the city lost a third of its residents. Since 2003, the agency has lost a third of its officers.

Paul Clinton Web Headshot

Photo courtesy of courtesy of Detroit Officer Carrie Livingston patrols the neighborhood where she grew up during the 1970s. Known as Copper Canyon, it was named for the law enforcement officers who settled there to raise their families.

Back then it was a close-knit community, and little Carrie could rattle off the names and occupations of most of the people who lived in the homes. At the time, residents rarely used realtors; homes were sold by word of mouth.

Livingston's mother planted a small two-foot oak tree in the front yard that she fenced off and protected like a prize. Today, that tree is thriving and taller than the house. Around it, the once well-attended landscaping has fallen prey to weedy overgrowth. Neighboring properties ravaged by fire now display boarded-up windows. Stripped vehicles lay in the streets to die.

Livingston, 43, and her younger sister Tammy made careers of protecting and serving with the Detroit Police Department, while living in the northwest Detroit neighborhood. Because their family and friends became officers, they answered the call to duty. Tammy retired after 13 years with the department. Livingston herself stayed in the home until eight years ago. When the agency lifted its residency requirement, the home was sold and Livingston moved to the suburbs.

As a Sixth Precinct patrol officer working out of a station that also serves the Eighth Precinct, Livingston drives by her childhood home in a patrol vehicle that may or may not have a working computer to run names and license plates. The 13-year veteran remembers its earlier days.

"I used to be able to walk down those streets as a child, but now I respond there for burglaries and violent crimes," Livingston says.

Copper Canyon's deterioration serves as a touchstone for Detroit's own fall from a once-vital hub of American automotive ingenuity to a decaying, crime-plagued city that's losing police officers faster than its populace, at least on a per-capita basis. The city's Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing in July seemed to punctuate the decades-long descent.

A force of 2,419 officers now provides law enforcement services to the shrinking city of just over 706,000 residents. Between 1990 and 2011, the city lost a third of its residents. Since 2003, the agency has lost a third of its officers. Detroit has 3.5 officers per 1,000 residents compared to Cleveland's 3.7, according to FBI data. However, Detroit officers must cover an area nearly twice the size.

Chief James Craig, the city's seventh police chief in eight years, has acknowledged he must restore patrol morale to reverse the outflow of officers to early retirements, suburban Michigan agencies, or out-of-state agencies.

"Policing the city of Detroit is one of the most challenging police jobs in America right now," Craig says.

Craig's Dream Job

As grim as the situation may seem, Detroit officers have reason for optimism. Craig has begun restructuring the department since taking over July 1. To the surprise of many jaded patrol officers, Craig, who previously served as a captain on the Los Angeles Police Department, calls command of the Detroit PD his "dream job" and has promised lots of changes to raise morale and lower violent crime rates. So far, he's fired two deputy chiefs and a lieutenant that ran afoul of agency policy, asked the city for TASERs and on-body video systems, and reassigned sworn officers from administrative roles to patrol.

Since arriving, Craig has uncovered myriad layers of agency mismanagement, telling local media at an Aug. 8 press conference, "I wish I could make this stuff up."

In one instance, the city received a $400,000 federal grant to purchase a Lenco BearCat armored rescue vehicle. The grant lay unclaimed until it lapsed, allowing another local police agency swoop in and claim it. Craig also discovered 53 unused Dodge Chargers in a warehouse collecting dust as they languished for police equipment.

And the department has been wildly overpaying for some of its leased undercover and surveillance cars—a mistake estimated to have caused $4 million in waste. The department failed to return the vehicles before the expiration of the leases.

Twice this summer the city's fragile emergency communications system that operates on 10 Land Mobile Radio towers crashed, blacking out police radios. In July, the system was down for 15 hours. The second failure occurred during an upgrade by Motorola Solutions. Communication failures are so prevalent in Detroit that radios have been known to produce dead air even inside several police stations.

Giving Him Latitude

Detroit's patrol union is backing Craig for now. Mark Diaz, president of the Detroit Police Officers Association, calls the chief "a cop's cop" and says he's optimistic the department can be fixed.

"He definitely has a big job ahead of him," Diaz says. "He has to make a great deal of changes that are necessary for the proper management of the police department. He has set the groundwork for these changes that have yet to take place. I want to give him the latitude to make them."

Craig has begun reversing a series of unpopular initiatives put in place by former Chief Ralph Goodbee, Jr., including mandatory 12-hour shifts as an attempt to bring additional manpower to bear on violent crime. Goodbee's experiment has mostly failed to achieve its goal, and further drained an already overwhelmed force, several officers said.

"It kind of hurt the manpower because people are so overwhelmed from fatigue that a lot of officers started calling in sick," says Officer Gayle Bowden, a 13-year veteran who works in the administrative office for the Sixth and Eighth districts. "They're going to have to hire more officers because we're losing so many. The younger officers are retiring to other agencies."

30 Priority Calls

Livingston works the overnight shift—7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Her schedule requires three back-to-back 12-hour shifts that usually extend beyond 7 a.m. for paperwork or court appearances. She arrives for a 6:45 p.m. roll call to find more than 100 9-1-1 calls waiting for a response. Detroit officers handle an average of 30 priority one calls per shift.

"When the weather is nice, and usually on weekends, I have started my shift with 120 9-1-1 runs holding on the board for the Sixth and Eighth precincts," she says. "Maybe on a good day only 12 of those will be priority one runs ... You're pretty much spent after day two, then you have to squeeze in a third day and that's rough."

To keep her energy level up, Livingston usually downs a handful of supplements and keeps a Mountain Dew and coffee at the ready. Before heading out to the streets to handle calls, Livingston picks up her patrol unit for a vehicle inspection. Getting a fully operational vehicle is no sure bet.

"When I get a vehicle for inspection, hopefully I'll have a bumper," she says. "Some of the cars don't even have radiator shields. I've had to change a flat tire before I went on shift."

If the agency issues her a Crown Vic black-and-white from a pre-2010 model year, the vehicle's rugged computer probably won't work. That means traffic stops in the middle of the night become much more perilous. "If I can't run a plate or a name, I'm not going out of my way to do a traffic stop," she adds.

Detroit officers are being asked to work these grueling shifts under the duress of a 10% pay cut that went into effect a year ago with the 12-hour shifts. In late 2012, veteran officers also lost their longevity pay, a bonus check given out at the end of each calendar year based on years of service. An arbitrator has ordered it reinstituted, but the issue remains tied up in the bankruptcy situation and will not likely be resolved soon.

$18.5 Billion Problems

When Gov. Rick Snyder authorized Emergency Manager Kevin Orr's bankruptcy filing and bailout plan for Detroit's $18.5 billion in debt and other liabilities, the city's financial situation entered a new phase—a pitched battle with the city unions over pensions and other benefits. Patrol officers now worry that their retirements and medical benefits may not be secure.

So far, Craig hasn't felt handcuffed by the bankruptcy mess. Snyder and Orr have pledged their support and made funding available for equipment deemed crucial for the job, he says.

Debt is only part of Detroit's woes. Parts of the city have become a ghost town.

Patrol officers working in the city now confront an urban landscape ravaged by violent crime, a housing crisis, and a population exodus that has left pockets of vacant buildings presenting plenty of officer-safety hazards.

Officers think twice before chasing suspects on foot into a vacant home out of fear of plunging through rotting floorboards. Black mold, cockroaches, and wild animals have moved in to buildings families once called home.

Livingston once stepped through a rotting porch, and has pulled clusters of nails from her duty boots. She's grown to accept minor cuts and scrapes from broken glass and slivered wood as part of the job.

Wildlife has made its way into Detroit's neighborhoods. Livingston says it's not uncommon to see deer grazing in overgrown areas residents once called lawns. Squatters have moved into the vacant properties, and thieves routinely strip the buildings of fixtures, copper, and other scrap items that can be resold.

Detroit patrol officers dread abandoned-house calls. Spending 20 minutes removing squatters can expose an officer's respiratory system to a variety of contaminates. Weird smells usually lead officers to dead bodies or animal corpses. Livingston once found a gas line cut by copper thieves on a recent abandoned house call.

"Let's just say after locating the source of the problem, I was seeing pink elephants after inhaling all that gas," she says.

23 Recruits

Addressing the manpower shortage seems to be Chief Craig's top priority. He has identified 300 positions where sworn officers performing administrative or clerical duties could be returned to patrol, including a sworn officer working in the chief's office whose job was to clean and refuel Craig's vehicle.

This summer, the department gained authorization to hire 60 officers, but a class of only 23 police recruits entered the academy. This came at a time when the agency is losing 25 officers a month through attrition. At a job fair in mid-August, more than 650 people applied for 40 open positions. Upon successful completion of the academy, a Detroit officer earns slightly more than $30,000 in starting pay.

Craig has tapped private donors, law enforcement consultants, and neighboring agencies for better equipment, expertise, and cooperation.

New vehicles have begun to arrive in each of the nine precincts. In March, corporate donors provided 100 new patrol cars—a blend of Chevrolet Caprice PPV, Dodge Charger Pursuit, and Ford Police Interceptor sedans.

Also in March, Mayor Dave Bing announced the Detroit One crime initiative, a regional approach he said would better connect local and federal law enforcement and prosecutorial efforts modeled on an approach that helped Washington D.C. shed its 1990s image as the nation's homicide capital. Washington recorded 88 murders in 2012, down from a high of 479. Last year, Detroit recorded 411 homicides.

Craig has turned for help to William Bratton, the former top cop in Boston, New York, and Los Angeles. Bratton praised his former captain, who also left the LAPD in 2009. Bratton has begun guiding the implementation of CompStat in Detroit.

"We're putting it back in," Bratton says. "The last chief took it out. I'm optimistic about Detroit."

Craig has said he hopes to give his officers TASERs and roll out on-body video systems in the coming months. Seven years ago, community groups submarined TASERs after the department received 200 of the stun guns through a grant. The TASERs were packed into storage.

Age of Consent

For more than a decade the Detroit PD has labored under a pair of federal consent decrees imposed by the U.S. Department of Justice governing police procedures and jail confinement. The decrees followed a three-year audit that found the department liable for using excessive force on prisoners. The city now spends $2 million annually on federal monitoring.

In 2011, federal officials deemed the agency 24 percent in compliance with the confinement decree. Today, the agency sits at 91 percent. The Aug. 1 opening of the Detroit Detention Center centralized five city jail facilities and freed up 41 officers to return to patrol. "I'm optimistic that by early next year we will be in compliance," Craig says.

Officers hardened by broken promises from past chiefs and a grueling workload cautiously express optimism about the future.

"Right now, to be a Detroit officer means no sleep, premature gray hair, relationship problems, and money problems," says Livingston. "There will be some changes, but it's going to take [Chief Craig] a lot of time. More power to him."

Livingston soldiers on, mostly because police work is encoded in her DNA. Her sister retired in the mid-2000s. Her father Lyn retired from the agency in the 1990s. Many of her former Copper Canyon neighbors have also left the department, but their sons and daughters now arrive for patrol shifts.

"Unless it's genetic, I can't see how anyone in their right mind would want to do what we do," Livingston says with a chuckle.

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