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
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.
How would you put efforts in place?
Well that's already on the table. We have the first leg of mass transportation that was announced by the secretary of transportation early this year. We have the first leg going up the Woodward Corridor coming into play. Finally, the powers that be in this area have realized the significance of mass transit, so you are going to see it happening. And I think once it starts happening up the Woodward Corridor, you will see a rapid expansion as dollars permit.
As leadership, we just have to continue to be supportive of this regional transit system. It's not popular in some areas but I think it's necessary.
Do you believe that Detroit should become more regionalized and share services and expenses with neighboring communities? Explain why or why not.
The only thing at this point, with all the other issues we have in this community that we need to straighten out, we need to focus on straightening out the issues Detroit has as opposed to focusing on regionalism at this point. I believe we need to get Detroit's own house in order before we want to talk about regionalizing Detroit.
What would you do to battle blight and the thousands of abandoned homes and buildings in Detroit?
The blight situation has to be addressed very obviously with capital. We are going to be the recipient very shortly of a significant influx of money from the state via the federal government to the tune of about $50 million. That is about 10 percent of what we need to eradicate blight in this community.
Let's be real honest, in Detroit's current financial situation, we are going to have to prioritize blight reduction based upon money that we have in our existing budget. But as the mayor, when I am mayor, I am going to go to Washington and I am going to convince our federal delegation that Detroit needs to be the recipient of some federal grant dollars to help clean this community up, because we honestly can't do it alone. We can do some things and we have to make sure we get the biggest bang for our buck. But unless we get some assistance from outside the city—and I believe we can convince Washington to do it, but until such time—we just have to make sure we eliminate the blight strategically with the resources we have. Focusing on target areas like in and around schools, up and down our major thoroughfares, inside our neighborhood distracts where you may have a blighted area and one house standing. We need to clear those things out in some organized and defined manner, so that we really get the biggest bang for our buck as we use our unfortunately limited blight dollars. But cleaning up this town has to be a priority.
Do you support efforts to "right-size" the city by offering incentives to encourage residents living in outer rung, dilapidated areas of the city to move to more populated areas? Why do you think this is a good or bad idea?
No, I will tell you why, and I have to only go by my personal experience. My mother has been in her house since 1960. She has been in that house now almost 50 years. And to uproot her at 79 years old and tell her she now needs to find a new place to live, I just don't think that is socially conscious. Now we can give them an option. Now if someone gave my mother an option and it made sense and she chooses to take it, then that is OK. And I can think of a way that they can probably convince her to do that, and I would be much more sensitive about how we are going to engage folks in a discussion like that. I think if we show people that it's to their benefit and really give them a benefit to leave from one place to another, and they choose to do it on their own, then yeah that's an OK plan. But not to just force people out of houses that they have been living in all of their lives, then tell them you have to get uprooted as seniors. I don't agree with that.
Part of the problem is that public services are stretched thin, having to go to distant pocket areas that are mostly abandoned. How would you handle this?
There is no place in this city that is not capable of being serviced by the police department. I have not seen any pocket of this city that is that desolate that it can't be policed properly, that you can't drive by and pick up the trash.
When I hear people make that argument, I think they are just trying to justify the position they have taken, because I would really like them to show me what they are talking about. Sure, the house may be sitting there alone and two or three blocks around it may be desolate, but two blocks over there is somebody who needs to be serviced. So if the police cars go to that block, going two blocks more is not going to impact response time much. So when you talk about police response, I don't buy that argument. I don't buy it with the fire department either. And I don't buy it even with trash pickup. I think that is folks just trying to justify the position that they've taken. I am not buying that, I am here every day and I see it, and policing is what I do, and if I can get the police to you, I can get fire and garbage to you.
How would you affect change while Detroit has an emergency manager?
First of all, I believe he is going to be gone. I believe the federal court is going to say he is there illegally and unconstitutionally. That aside, we are now in a bankruptcy proceeding. The federal judge trumps the emergency manager. So what the federal judge is doing as we mention bankruptcy is going to occur in our community. I would go to the federal judge and say, 'I am a lawyer. I can carry out the directives of the court just as well as Kevyn Orr can. I don't need Kevyn Orr. So let me carry out the mandates of the court and let me manage the city government as the elected mayor of the people of this community.' But honestly, we may not have any say in that, but that is the position I would advocate.
After the emergency manager has left and bankruptcy details have been settled, what would you do to improve the city's future?
Well one of the things is, where we have been cannot be where we are going. We have to make sure that we don't repeat some of the mistakes we have repeated in the past. We need to make sure that we focus on the core services the city does and make sure we do them well. And that is police, fire, EMS, trash pickup and those core services that impact the everyday quality of life for residents in this community. We need to make sure that we have a process in place where it is easy and safe to do business in the city to help our business grow and create jobs in the community.
We are going to take care of the blight, which is a really significant part of it. Then we have to focus on those things that are essential. Getting an affordable property tax structure in the city of Detroit, along with ensuring we are no longer being redlined when it comes to automobile and homeowners insurance.
What you are saying is to begin with the processes that take care of everyday residents?
Absolutely, because the city grows when you take care of the everyday residents and the people that live in our community. And that has to be our focus now. We can't be focused on visitors and tourist. Yeah [tourism] is great, but if you do all the things that keep people living in the community, all that will come. We need to focus on the neighborhoods.
Why do you think you're the best choice for Detroit's mayor at this time?
Well, first of all I have the capacity to lead. I understand, having come up through city government—starting at the bottom as a civilian fingerprint technician and an identification tech—working my way up to lead the largest department in city government with the second largest budget, 5,000 people at the time, almost 1/3 of the entire city workers when I was police chief, recognizing some of the issues that we had and some of the policies and procedures that just did not work to the benefit of the citizens of this community. Understanding we had issues with the purchasing process, issues servicing this community from a customer service standpoint. So working on creating, now, an environment that is friendly for the residents, and I want a lot customers that live in this community and people coming in to do business in this community. I understand that. But more importantly, I understand the citizens in this community. I understand, having lived here, the frustrations they have with leadership, the frustrations that they have with violent crime, the frustrations that they have with poor city services. I am more committed to fixing them because I have been impacted by the same things Detroiters are impacted by. I am a Detroiter and I have been here all my life. So I know what it feels like to have an abandoned house next door to you, to have streetlights that have been out for weeks and months at a time, grass that has not been cut, to have potholes on my street. To have an education system where you really have to search to educate your child in the public school system. I have had to do all of that as a Detroiter. So I understand what it is like to live in this community and what it is like to have lived in this community for a long time. You don't have to explain Detroit's issues to me. I've lived them.
It is often said that those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it. In that spirit, what policies, events, issues, etc. do you think have been the biggest contributors to getting us to this place?
We have never ever, in the 40 years that I've been affiliated with law enforcement in this town, fully focused on affirming Detroit as a safe city. We have accepted a level of violence in this community that has been unacceptable for a long time. And I think that if we had really focused on making Detroit a safe city, a lot of the people who have left would still be here. Our tax base would have been stronger and our growth would have been consistent and we still would have been a community of almost 2 million people. Detroit is the only major city in America that has lost 1 million people in population. And when you ask why, the fundamental reason most people give is: I left because it was dangerous. I did not feel safe. So that is one mistake we will definitely not replicate.
Making our school systems strong, making our children a top priority is something that will stay in the forefront. We need to make this a place where people want to come and educate their children. We had a beautiful school system that had over 260,000 young people at one time. And many of the leaders in this community came out of Detroit Public Schools system. We have to have the will to educate our children. That's the future that I see for Detroit. And we can't make those mistakes again of not making the city safe and not properly educating our kids.
If you are elected mayor, what would be the top 3 things you'd have on your "things to do list" for your first week in office? (Please include smaller items you could cross off as completed.)
The first thing I'd do is to implement my One Square Mile Initiative. That is going to impact the crime rate and quality of life making neighborhoods livable, walkable and sustainable. That will be ready to be implemented day one and we will start working on that the moment I am elected mayor. So in January when I take office, it can be implemented right away.
The second thing is that you also have to focus on jobs, jobs, jobs. Getting with folks who are going to come to this community and create economic opportunities for the citizens who live here. So working with the business community and creating that business-friendly environment that will allow you to get through simple permits within a day. And then the long processes, we will have a team of folks that will come together and help marshal you through the permitting processes that take a little longer. We are going to make sure we are going to focus on the neighborhoods getting them safe and clean, then we are going to focus on creating jobs and business opportunities for our folks and we are going to start cleaning this town up right away.
Date of birth
Sept. 10, 1955
Divorced since 1985
Tiffani Napoleon Jackson
Grandchildren ages and gender
Cass Technical High School in Detroit
Bachelor's degree in criminal justice from Mercy College of Detroit
Juris Doctorate degree from Detroit College of Law
FBI National Academy
Trained in U.S. Secret Service Dignitary Protection program
Graduated from Harvard Kennedy School of Government executive management program
Church you currently attend
Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church
Greatest personal accomplishment so far in your life
Honestly as a parent, you have to always feel great when you have a great child. And my daughter is the person who impacted and changed my life more than anything. The fact that I've been able to, basically as a single parent, raise what I believe is a strong, beautiful, happy and independent young woman that I am very proud of is my greatest personal accomplishment.
Greatest professional accomplishment so far in your life
The thing that I am most proud of is getting through law school and passing the bar. That was a challenge cause I did it while working full-time.
Transforming Detroit, one square mile at a time.
"Detroit is 143 square miles. If you take away Belle Isle, it is about 137 square miles. We are going to put a police officer in every single square mile of Detroit. And that police officer is going to be responsible for making sure that neighborhoods are livable, walkable, sustainable."