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Q&A With Detroit Mayoral Candidate Benny Napoleon

BLAC's full chat with the former Detroit Police chief, Capri Capital executive and assistant Wayne County executive, and current Wayne County sheriff

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BLAC Detroit's editorial staff had the opportunity to speak with both Detroit mayoral candidates before voters take to the polls on Nov. 5. Here, we chatted with Benny Napoleon, the former Detroit Police chief, Capri Capital executive and assistant Wayne County executive, and current Wayne County sheriff about everything from improving safety to bringing more jobs to the city to mass transit.

Policies and Issues

What you would do to stop Detroit's population erosion and attract new residents and families to live in the city?

When you talk to Detroiters and people who have left, they're concerned about three major issues. And until we fix those issues, we will continue to have people who are leaving the city and refusing to come in (the city). Those three issues are: taxes and insurance. They are paying a higher rate for the services that are delivered and people are concerned about that. The second thing that people are concerned about is the school system. We have to make sure that children in the city of Detroit are given a quality education. If we can't assure people that children in this community are going to get a good education, parents are not going to stay here and send their kids to the system. They will move some place where they have a system that they trust. So you have to get the taxes and insurance under control. You have to make sure that our children are educated.

But the number one reason people say that they are leaving the city of Detroit and refusing to come in the city¬—not just Michigan residents but business—(is) the issue of crime. We must get the issue of crime in the city of Detroit off of the national consciousness, off of the national dialogue. We cannot continue to be the poster child for violent crime in America. If we fix those three things, you will see people that are here, who have the ability to leave, they will stay. And people who don't live here would be willing to come and move back into this community.

When you are talking about willing to stay in the city and come back and move into the city, that is the way we are going to repopulate the city by making sure we take care of those three issues.

What would you do to improve safety in the city and reduce the crime rate?

Well I am the only person in this race who has any experience doing that. We were able to reduce crime during my tenure as police chief in this town by 30 percent in a 2 1/2 (year) period by using proven crime reduction techniques. You have to understand deployment. You have to understand cost of service. You have to understand cost stacking, crime mapping. Those are the things you have to utilize in order to make sure the police are properly deployed. You have to understand what drives the crime rate in the city of Detroit.

One is the illegal narcotics trade. Two, is the people who are between the ages of 13 and the mid to late 20s; and the third group of those people who are career criminals—that person who gets up in the morning, puts a gun in their waistband and decides they are going to rob somebody.

You have to come up with a crime fighting strategy that focuses on those targeted populations to help reduce crime in our community, because that is what is driving the crime rate.

Using community policing, crime prevention, problem oriented policing, directed enforcement and a data driven approach to fighting crime will reduce the crime rate in this community.

What would you do to bring more jobs to Detroit?

We have about six billion dollars worth of investment on the table in the city of Detroit as we speak. Jobs will come when we make our neighborhood safe and we repopulate this community. Going back to your original question: When the people come, there are job and business opportunities for people to engage in and grow. Small-business owners in the neighborhoods—which is what makes up the predominance of jobs in this country, small business—they have to be assured that coming into the city of Detroit and opening a business, it's going to be easy, quick and safe. That's what will increase the number of people who are going to start opening up businesses in our community and our neighborhoods.

We had a succession of leadership in this city for the last 50 years who were focused on growing downtown and Midtown—and not focusing on creating livable, walkable, sustainable neighborhoods. We need leadership that is going to focus on making the quality of life for the everyday Detroiter better. 

We should not have to worry about violent crime. We should not have to worry about educating our children. We should not have to worry about the blight that exists, the trash and graffiti. We should not have to worry about the lack of jobs in our neighborhoods. We need leadership that is going to focus on where the real issues are in our community.

People talk about Detroit and downtown in a very positive way. Things that people are talking about negative in relation to Detroit are occurring in the neighborhoods. The high crime rates, our children are not being educated, the blight. So we need a mayor that is going to be focused on the neighborhoods, because that is where we will see a true transformation.

What would you do to help improve the quality of schools in Detroit?

When I am elected mayor, I am going to be the education mayor. I am going to work harder than anyone has ever worked in that office to make sure our children are given a quality education. We need an achievement-based strategy for our children so that they recognize that they have to be prepared for this new technology-driven economy and the job creation that is going to come in those particular areas.

For example, we have applications on our phones that have basically eliminated certain businesses. Remember when we had operators? And you'd pick the phone up and need to make a long distance phone call, and you had an issue and you would call the operator? Those don't exist anymore. What about record stores? Those used to dominate the neighborhoods. Doesn't exist anymore, an app has destroyed that industry.

So we need to teach our children if you are going to be successful in this world, there are only three things that you can do to be successful: you have to do something and do it very well, you have to create something, or you have to make something and sell something. That's the only way you are going to be employable in the future. So we need an achievement-driven community that will teach our children those principles. They have to understand that if you are going to make a living in this day and age, those are the things that you have to do.

What is the first step?

We have to have achievement-driven education where children understand that you have to be able to pass entrance exams to get into college. We have children today only, 20-plus percent of our kids are college ready when they graduate from high school. That's unacceptable. So we need children who realize that if you are going to go to college, you have to be able to write an acceptable ACT score. And we have to focus on giving them the skill set to do that. We need to increase their reading comprehension. A lot of children can read. But do they comprehend what they are reading? So we need to really focus on what the challenges are, have measurements in place where we start our children out giving them the guidance in the areas that they need to be guided in, so that they are prepared to go to college. So they are prepared to do something well, they are prepared to make something, or prepared to sell something because that is the only way they are going to be employable in the future.

Will you create an initiative or go through school board policy and legislation?

What we are going to do in every single neighborhood, in every single square mile, we are going to utilize the resources that we have in this community, which are vast.

We have a great resource in the city of Detroit that is grossly underutilized and that is the Detroit Public Libraries, which fall under the Detroit Public School System. Each library within a community needs to be turned into a learning center for after-hours activities for our children, where they have the resources they are going to need to help educate themselves. We should have libraries with fully stocked computer labs, tutoring and after-school activities related to education. So that our children who don't have access to those kinds of things can get them within a walking distance of their homes. We need a curriculum that is going to focus on making sure that our children get those kinds of skill sets.

One of the most important things is, we are going to have to stop returning money back to the federal government. I mean we turned back about 75 percent of our Title I money, as I recall. And there is grant money that we consistently return back to the federal government. That is unconscionable in a community where you have a significant number of our children who are not graduating from school and who are graduating unprepared to go to college.

So we need to first and foremost, spend the resources that are sent to us because when we send them back, somebody else takes that money and they educate their children.

How do you think business and corporations can help Detroit?

I have met with the Skillman Foundation several times, and I think they have some phenomenal programs with the proper leadership at the control of the mayor's office and the executive side of the city government. Having that bully pulpit at the mayor's office focusing on education. I have been in this town my entire life and I don't recall any mayor who wanted to step into this education issue and really engage it. They have kind of left it to the Detroit Public Schools Board of Education, which really is OK. But the fact is, it helps when you have a mayor who is standing side by side with the people who run the school system and saying, 'We are going to do whatever we can from this office to help facilitate that office and make sure that our children are getting properly educated.'

We should have clean and safe schools. Children should not have to go to school worried about their safety. There was a time in this town when we had Detroit police officers assigned to schools in the city. Every high school had at least one officer, some of them had two, and some middle schools had officers assigned for security reasons. That doesn't exist anymore. So consequently, sometimes our children are going to school in fear. So we need to make sure they are going to school in a safe environment.

But the mayor of the city of Detroit needs to recognize, unequivocally, that educating the children in this community is as much a necessity as anything else the mayor's office does, because that is really what is going to grow our community from a family perspective. If we don't have a good school system, people will continue to flock out because that is one of the reasons they are leaving.

So what you are saying is: Without an education base, businesses can come to the city but the effect won't last without people with the education to work those incoming jobs?

What I am saying is that if we are going to attract businesses into this community, we must have residents that can work and do the jobs with skill sets businesses need to employ people who live here. It's great that we see all these businesses bringing jobs in Detroit, but what difference does it make if the people who live here are not able, capable of filling the jobs, and they are going to have to go outside the community to fill the jobs that they bring here. That did not do anything for the people who live here. And that really has to be the focus of the mayor. To make sure that yes we need you to come in, yes we need you to build these facilities, but yes we also need you to have a solid training mechanism to employ people who are unemployed in this community that's going to benefit everybody.

What would you do to minimize corruption, cronyism and waste in Detroit city government?

Unfortunately, I am probably more knowledgeable about that than most folks. And as you look around the city government throughout this country's legacy in law enforcement, especially on the local level, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Boston, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, we've all had scandals with people in law enforcement who have violated the trust. The point is that it's going to happen, no one is going to eliminate it. But the message that has to be sent from leadership is that when you are involved, you are going to be punished. And I stood strong in that respect.

When officers that were working for me got involved in activities that were criminal, they were prosecuted, they were sent to prison, and they served time just like anybody else and probably more so than other people who were engaged in activities. You need to set the tone from the top that corruption will not be tolerated. That we will cooperate with any investigative entity that is engaged in investigating people involved with corruption.

Do you believe having improved mass transit in southeast Michigan is important? If so, why, and what efforts would you support or endorse? If not, why?

Absolutely. I am supported by the [Amalgamated Transit Union] bus drivers here in the city of Detroit. We understand that regional transportation is critical to the growth of this area. I did not really understand, because I lived in Detroit all my life and I've never really relied on catching the bus. Since I graduated from high school, I have not had to catch the bus with any regularity. But what I do understand is that I've gone to other communities and spent time in D.C., Boston and Atlanta [and] that having the ability to move around in a very expeditious manner with mass transit will help the economy all around. People can get to the jobs and jobs can get to people. So I think it's critical we have mass transit in this area and it's long overdue.

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