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Detroit Police Chief James Craig Talks Crime, Corruption

The chief of the Detroit Police Department opens about the history of his position and his plans for lowering crime in the Motor City

Sure, there have been plenty of Detroit police chiefs before James Craig—40 men and one woman, to be exact—that have been brave enough to take on the job in the Detroit Police Department's 150-year history. But let's be forthright about this. And let's figuratively decree that anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law as you ponder this question: In Detroit's time as a majority Black city, can you recall any police chief more chiefly than James Craig?

Of course, the perception of Craig's above-and-beyond "chiefly-ness" compared to his predecessors could all be an optical illusion, a rose-tinted exaggeration as he begins another two years with an untarnished reputation, making him one of the few DPD leaders to take part in nothing "extra" than his job. When considering the track record of DPD's past leaders—the resignation amid sex scandal of chief Ralph Godbee Jr. in 2012, resignation of Ella Bully-Cummings in 2008 at the height of the Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick scandal, resignation of chief Jerry Oliver after misdemeanor gun charges in 2003 and the conviction of William Hart, Detroit's first African-American police chief, in 1992 for stealing a reported $2.6 million in taxpayer money—no news was good news when it came to how the next leader of the DPD would perform.

But since being appointed police chief in 2013, Craig has been making plenty of news for all the right reasons. For the first time in a long time, crime is on a steady decline in the city. Morale in the DPD is up. Police response time is down. And Detroit's neighborhoods are feeling safer—all credited to Craig's leadership in uplifting the Detroit police.

"You will have your critics. And you know, I expect it and understand it," he tells me calmly, sitting at ease in one of the many conference rooms of the new Detroit Public Safety Headquarters. In between a day packed with meetings and engagements, he has a little time to start into his lunch—a grilled chicken salad with balsamic dressing and a sugar-free Monster to wash it down. "When things are well you will have your critics, and when things are not so well you're going to have your critics. But at the end of the day, the thing that has really driven me in my time in Detroit has been the support I receive from the community and the police officers. Any time a person from the outside goes in to facilitate change, it's not always easy. In fact, in most instances it is rejected, resisted and is painful. But the key to overcoming the pain: You have to empower those who do the work."

Craig was hired as police chief in the thick of Detroit's bankruptcy and heightened worries of past incompetence and cronyism. A Detroit native, his resume boasts time as the police chief of the Cincinnati, Ohio police department (where he was the first outside appointed and African-American police chief in the department's history) and the Portland, Maine police department (where he was the first Black police chief in the state)—all following a 28-year career in the Los Angeles Police Department. But he never stopped keeping tabs on his hometown.

"As I see it, the problem in Detroit was a couple of things in old administrations: underinvestment in the police department (and) the constant changing of police chiefs. In the last 10 years, I think this department has had seven police chiefs. So there is no stability," says Craig. Fun fact: Craig applied for the police chief position before and was passed up for Godbee. "Certainly, I think all the police chiefs that came before me worked hard and wanted to have a positive impact, so I don't get into all the other reasons. But it just wasn't healthy to change police chiefs every year or two. To me it is not a good practice anywhere, and it certainly didn't do well for the city."

But since his takeover, he's received rave reviews. It's all a part of a simple strategy he simply calls: Tell the public what you are doing.

"I talk to the media because I know that I am talking to the community that we are sworn to serve. And to me, that's important," Craig says. In fact, his relationship with the media has been criticized as being too "Hollywood-ish" for Detroit. But his officers affectionately call him "Hollywood Chief." Not one to read into critics, Craig says keeping good media relations is all about transparency and trust.

"If you look at some police departments that really struggle in the area of their relationships with their communities, I would offer that they probably have very little to say to the media. They have very little to say to the community, and that becomes a challenge. But when the community knows that you are out, you are transparent and you are not afraid to have that conversation, it goes a long way in sustaining this circle of trust," he explains.

It's a strategy of connecting with the community he learned in LA and carried over to Portland, Cincinnati and now Detroit. "I believe and embrace transparency. I feel obligated and committed to making sure the community that we are serving knows what's going on—good or bad news."

He regularly stays at the forefront of any police news, updating the public firsthand about what is happening in the department. And his critics hang on to every word, hoping he will slip up and say something un-chiefly. So far, he's been accused of saying it's not safe to pump gas in Detroit at 3 a.m.—which he doesn't recommend doing in any city—and almost falling victim to carjacking.

"That was an inflated Detroit News story, as I like to say," he explains of the situation. "I think that there was a young man running in the street, running toward my car. Yes, I had a concern. But to call him or say that he was getting ready to carjack me would be a stretch." News outlets eventually backed off the story, but Craig says the damage was already done. Still, in cases when the chief does openly speak his mind, he's unapologetic. Recently, he called the missing perpetrators of a mass Father's Day weekend shooting on Detroit' west side "urban terrorists," drawing criticism that the label may have been insensitive.

Speaking about his critics and media portrayal, Craig says, "That's the risk you have when you are transparent and you feel like you have a good relationship with the media and they take what you say totally out of context."

But there have been numerous occasions in Craig's career where his relationship with the community by way of media has helped diffuse tense situations between the neighborhoods and the police. One was the Rodney King incident in LA, which he had to address as the president of the National Black Police Association.

"The King incident really exposed some historic problems in the city of Los Angeles, primarily between the Black community and the LA police department," he remembers. "So I was there to see the evolution of the LAPD from where it was then and what it became in terms of building effective working relationships in neighborhoods and communities."

Another time was in Cincinnati when, after pointing a gun, a 16-year-old boy was shot and killed by one of Craig's officers. "A couple of things happened in that case. There was a video. The media showed a portion of it. But it really didn't tell the full story. It was clear that there was a struggle and that the young man was pointing a gun at the officer. And the officer was left with no choice." As chief, he explains, it was his job to take giving the boy's family closure a step further.

"I then made the decision, probably one of the tougher decisions I have had to make in my police career, to meet with the mother," says Craig, himself a father to a grown son and daughter. "Because how do you go to a mom and talk to a mom about her son who was shot and died as a result of a decision made by one of your police officers? How do you have a conversation with that mother? I did that because I knew it was the right thing to do."

He reflects candidly, "It is tough. I mean, police officers are faced with split-second decisions. And they, like anyone else, want to go home to their families. Looking back, I think part of the reason why there was no outcry or outbreak is going back to this circle of trust that was established. The fact that they knew the police chief was going to tell the truth."

In many ways says Craig, his role as chief functions a lot like a customer service representative. When the community isn't happy with the service, they look to him for answers.

"It's exactly that. It is very much customer service. The community comes and rightfully expects a response, so I take that to heart. I believe that Detroiters should get exactly what someone should get in Beverly Hills in terms of service. But again, if you talk to police officers about what drives them to this, (it's) because they really want to give back and they want to be a part of a solution. So it's a noble profession. And no, it's not for everyone. And when I look back over 38 years, I am as excited today as I was when I started."

Craig entered the police academy around 20 years old in 1977. "I had probably just had a birthday," he says, trying to remember. It was 10 years after the Detroit riots and one year after the appointment of the Detroit Police Department's first Black police chief (Hart) in 1976 during an early period of racially integrating the police department to reflect the community it serves.

"Coming in at that early time when that was occurring … my partner and training officer, who probably wasn't very fond of the integration of the police department, said, 'You know I really don't want you here. All you need to do is just sit there, be Black. You won't touch the mic. You won't drive the car.' And that was my welcome," remembers Craig. "I never forgot that, because it really reminded me of why I was there. I remember it as if it was yesterday. But it resides in me as a reminder of why I chose the profession and why the profession chose me. So when I hear the narrative today across the country, I say to young people who maybe feel that policing needs to change in some communities, they should opt to become involved in it. They should be part of change like I was in the '70s."

Craig comes from a background of public service. His dad, retired from the city's transportation department, started as a military police officer and a police reserve working out of the 10th Precinct. "I grew up in the 10th Precinct, so there was an influence there," he says. His mother, also retired, was a social worker at Herman Keifer Health Complex.

But then, he was laid off. After leaving Detroit for the Los Angeles Police Department in 1981, Craig says the plan was always to return home. "I always wanted to come back here one day as police chief," he says. At 58 years young, Craig is still sharp as the day he entered the academy, though he may have slowed down a bit after 38 years in the force. "All of us have bad backs," he says, with a grin. He's been injured but never shot. And he does what he can to fight back the body of a bureaucrat, working out every day, mostly cardio and resistance—all part of staying healthy in a high-stress job, he says. And it couldn't hurt if the time comes where he has to administer a habeas grabus on a perp.

"I've never become jaded. I am fortunate in that sense," says Craig. "I am a big believer that police officers—especially when you're a police executive, a police chief—that we set the tone for the organization. And we have an obligation to serve two factions: We serve the community, but we also serve the men and women who work in the police department, who wear a uniform and some who are civilian. So it's really a high level of service orientation and it's not for everybody."

Everything stays with you when you're a police officer, says Craig—and you'd be hard-pressed to find a separation between the man and the badge. "It stays with me. I mean, being a police chief is not a 9-to-5 job," he explains. "So it's certainly a core part of who I am. I live it every day, every hour. And it's exciting to me still."

With his memories of the victories, Craig says the tragedies still weigh heavily on his mind. One case he recalls is the CVS security guard who was murdered who wanted to be a Detroit police officer. And then, tragedy hit home with the death of his best friend, LAPD SWAT officer Randy Simmons—who was killed going into an active shooter situation with a mentally ill man who had just murdered three of his family members. "He, along with several of his other SWAT officers, made entry into this location, and he was immediately fired upon and he died instantly after being hit with gun fire. That was probably the toughest part of my career."

But he's always embraced the complexities and the challenge of law enforcement. It was challenge that attracted him to the police chief position in Detroit.

"I am wired a little different than most, because I look for challenges," he says. "And I knew when the job was presented here in Detroit that there were a number of challenges that I would be faced with, from police officers that are paid much lower than their counterparts in other places, faced with morale issues, and faced with a community that at the time had lost confidence in the police department."

Craig says he wants this time in the DPD's history to be marked by the department's return to world-class status for the next 150 years.

"I know that the lineage of the DPD is one that is rich and that, as I pointed out when I started the DPD in the late '70s, other major cities used to look to Detroit particularly in the area of relationships in the community," says Craig. "The Detroit Police Department will once again regain its rightful place as a world-class police department. I say that the change has been dramatic compared to what it was when I arrived here. And I say we are now."

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