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Safety in the City

Detroit’s top cop lays out his plan to control crime. Will it work?

Cynthia Wilkins expected to take her young grandson for summer strolls, giving him licks of ice cream and scooping up the big baby who loved wearing baseball caps for hugs.

He had a smile that could light up a house, and he loved his toy, Clifford the Big Red Dog. Wilkins looked forward to special moments with Delric Miller IV: Hearing him utter his first words, watching him take his first steps, and beaming on his first day of school.

That all became a shattered dream when someone fired a barrage of bullets from an AK-47 into a friend’s home on Detroit’s west side, killing the 9-month-old boy as he lay on the couch. Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee said more than 30 shots were fired into the house.

The incident has left the infant’s sister, 2-year-old Cassidy Miller, constantly asking where her baby brother is. His mother is unable to speak about the incident, and Wilkins, 39, feels lonely, extremely angry and fatalistic.

“There are no morals,” said Wilkins, whose mother and daughter also were fatally shot in 2001 in separate incidences in Detroit. “If people think you can just hide in your home, they are wrong. (Thugs) will come up inside there and kill you anyways.”

Baby Delric’s death was among a spate of 70 slayings through the first three months of this year that caused Detroit’s homicide rate to jump 37 percent over the same time period last year.

During those months, other high profile cases include 12-year-old Kadijah Davis, who was shot inside her home when the house was sprayed with bullet following a disagreement over a cell phone in late January.

Michael Haynes, 24, was shot and killed at a BP gas station over the price of a box of condoms, and police said a 14-year-old boy shot his mother 10 times while she slept in her bed, killing her. These incidents and others left many Detroiters feeling vulnerable and unsafe, wondering what would happen next.

By early April, the slayings slowed to a total of 85, or a 9.2 percent increase over the same timeframe last year, according to Detroit Police Department data.

 

 

Looking for Justice

No arrests have been made in Delric’s murder case, and Godbee said information from those who might know something has been slow to help investigators. The baby’s relatives said they have no idea who shot into the house or why it happened.

At times, Wilkins has felt out of control since the baby was murdered and she is, understandably, overwhelmed with grief. At a March protest on Hart Plaza, where 2,000 people gathered to call for justice in the murder of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old Florida boy who was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch patrolman, Wilkins was hysterical, yelling “What about our kids?” repeatedly.

She is pleading for change, even if it means President Barack Obama sending in the National Guard to help police control the violence before the number of murders continue to rise with summer heat.

“This is baby Iraq,” Wilkins said, her body trembling as she spoke. “Where are our troops?”

Godbee said Federal intervention isn’t warranted, but he is concerned about summer violence. The chief wants to radically change how afternoon and midnight patrol shifts are organized to combat crime.

Police officers, who have just been asked to take a 10 percent pay cut, would work 12-hour shifts for 14 days a month, but the change would require union approval. Godbee also is working to reestablish police precincts from the department’s current district office model. Geographically, a district covers the area of two or more precincts.

Godbee said the summer shift plan wouldn’t require overtime pay and would result in 150 officers available during 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., peak crime hours.

“I anticipate a long, hot summer,” he said.

A Man with A Plan

But the murder spike may have had an unexpected benefit to police, Godbee said. Cold weather months have a cabin fever effect, and some criminals wait until it gets warm to act. But since March felt like summer, they may have gotten that out of their systems with the unseasonably warm temperatures, he said.

“The weather has been so moderate,” he said. “I don't expect that same spike.”

However, Godbee, who is entering his second full summer as chief, is taking no chances. Already his department was part of a multi-jurisdictional task force that targeted people with outstanding warrants for serious violent acts, or are parole or probation violators previously convicted of serious violent crimes.

“We are not going to wait for them to commit another crime,” Godbee said.

Other steps Godbee has undertaken include empowering inspectors to run precincts and making them accountable for crime in their precinct areas. To help get more officers on the street, he took criticism for closing precincts to the public after 4 p.m.

The chief also requires victims of non-emergency crimes, such as a garage or car burglary, to call in incidents rather than sending an officer. 

 

Property owners or security company employees also are required to confirm alarms before police are dispatched. In the past, numerous false alarms have kept officers busy, making them unavailable for other calls.

Still, Godbee knows he faces an uphill battle. While he finds ways to get officers from behind desks and onto the streets, chronic unemployment, low graduation rates and too few available jobs for people without a college education add fuel to the fire.

“It is almost a perfect storm for some of the crime issues we encounter,” he acknowledges.

Godbee also is getting help on the streets from volunteers in neighborhood organizations and community groups such as the Detroit 300, It Takes a Village Ya’ll and Made Men, who patrol streets, ask questions and offer information to police.

Bishop Edgar Vann of Second Ebenezer Church in Detroit and a former police commissioner founded Made Men, a volunteer patrol group. He praised Godbee’s leadership, but said it is optimistic to believe there won’t be a major spike in violence when warm weather sets in.

“Detroit is a powder keg,” he said. “We know that just from the winter months, and what we went through with crime. General disrespect for law enforcement has never been higher.”

How Low Can We Go?

David Martin, a Wayne State University research associate who follows and examines homicide statistics, said the question to ask isn’t whether violence will spike this summer but when the city will hit rock bottom in terms of violence and begin a turnaround.

“Detroit's homicide rate is 10 times the state and national averages,” Martin said. “The question to ask is when will it bottom out?” Martin said the city’s economic and societal conditions give rise to violence. The more than 20,000 people who move out of the city each year exacerbate the situation, he explained.

“People vote with their feet,” he said. “Go out in the community and talk to people, and they say they are saving so they can move.”

Rosalind Johnson said she left Detroit in March after her 19-year-old son, John Johnson, and his girlfriend, Tailar Davis, 20, were fatally shot in Davis’ Ford 500 car on the city’s west side in January.

 

The couple planned to attend Henry Ford Community College in the fall, Johnson to become a physical therapist and Davis to become a nurse.

Investigators told relatives the couple likely was shot from the car’s backseat, indicating they knew the shooter.

“Rumors (in the neighborhood) said someone he knew did it,” Rosalind Johnson said. “I moved. Whoever committed the crime shot my son in the head four times and his girlfriend two times. What type of person would do this?”

Looking Ahead

Despite the startling statistics and the sobering stories, John Broad, president of Crime Stoppers, feels optimistic.

He said tips are flooding in from people fed up with the violence. So far this year, calls are up 20 percent compared to 2011 and 64 percent over 2010. He hopes to receive 7,000 tips this year.

The increase in tips leads Broad to believe that Crime Stoppers finally has made a dent in the city’s so-called “no snitching” philosophy. Less than one-third of people who call in tips follow up to see if there is a cash reward, he said.

“There is an increased commitment to look out for each other,” Broad said. “We have to get involved to help.”

Wilkins, still in mourning over her grandson’s death, wants to feel that hopeful. For now, all she can feel is searing anger.

“(Murderers) are slowly sucking the life out of humanity,” she said. “I am so sick of it. They are killing babies.”

Lashaunda Green fears for her own baby. On March 13, her 12-year-old son, Michael Green III, was shot on his way to play basketball at a buddy’s hoop a few houses down the street from his home.

On his way to his friend’s house, Michael, now 13, saw a black car riding down the street and felt pain in the back of his right arm. He had been shot—not by someone in the car—but by a stray bullet fired by someone down the street who was targeting the car, Green said.

It took three surgeries to repair damage caused by the bullet. Michael already has recovered feeling in his fingers and can move them, something doctors initially thought would take weeks of physical therapy to accomplish.

Now, fear rises within Green each time she rides down her street on Detroit’s west side. And it hasn’t been easy for Michael either. He had nightmares the first few days he was home from the hospital and needs classmates to help him complete assignments. He will spend his summer in rehabilitation and going to doctor’s appointments.

“He asks why he was shot and I try to keep him positive,” Green said. “He isn’t a hood kid. I try to teach Michael forgiveness. It was so senseless.”

But Lashaunda Green realizes she has been blessed; her son lived to tell the story.

“On the day he got shot, Michael was wearing a bracelet that said ‘Stop the Violence: Live, Love, Dream,’” she said. “That meant something to me. It means God will allow him to live. God will allow him to love and he has been given a chance to make his dreams come true.”

Santiago Esparza is a Detroit-based freelance writer.

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