DETROIT – It has come to this: Even some criminals sympathize with Detroit’s cops.
Baron Coleman thought he’d heard it all in his 17 years patrolling the streets. But then came the city’s bankruptcy, a 10 percent cut in police salaries, followed by support from a most unlikely corner – the bad guys.
“When they saw us take a pay cut they were in shock. We were arresting guys ... and they were like, ‘I can’t believe your city would do you like this.’ ... I say, ‘Thanks for caring,’” the veteran officer says with a smile. “It’s just funny because I don’t like communicating with a person who has just committed a robbery how sad my life is.”
Detroit police officers have long known adversity: They’ve worked in crumbling station houses with busted pipes, driven run-down cars, tangled with balky radios. They’ve navigated darkened streets – Detroit has thousands of broken street lights – chasing criminals, breaking up fights, encountering drug dealers who may be carrying AK-47s or wearing their own bulletproof vests.
As Detroit tries to rebound – a plan to emerge from bankruptcy was filed Friday – few groups, if any, have been feeling the pain of the city’s financial collapse more than the police. Despite some recent positive changes – a new chief, new cruisers, new plans – there’s worry, frustration and anger among the rank and file. Paychecks have shrunk. Morale is low. Co-workers have fled to more lucrative jobs. And those who remain face a formidable task: trying to protect a sprawling, often violent city where hidden dangers lurk among tens of thousands of abandoned houses.
Baron Coleman knows it’s hard being a police officer anywhere. In these trying times, it may be a lot harder in Detroit.
Nearly a generation ago, when Coleman traded a factory job for a badge and crisp blue uniform, he had certain expectations: a good salary, great benefits and a pension.
The bankruptcy erased all that. The city’s financial future is uncertain. So is his own.
Though he still enjoys being an officer, Coleman he says he never dreamed that as he approached age 50, he’d be working seven days a week — moonlighting in security jobs — to pay for two kids in school and compensate for a $15,000 drop in benefits and wages.
“Right now, the dream of what I came on for has been destroyed,” he says. “I’m worried. Is my pension going to be there? If I get injured, is the city going to cover my family? ... Before I would tell my wife, ‘If I die, I know you’ll be taken care of.’ Now, I tell her, ‘If I die, you’re on your own.’”
The plan by Detroit’s emergency financial manager to pull the city out of bankruptcy would give police and fire retirees at least 90 percent of their pensions after eliminating cost-of-living allowances (other city workers would likely get at least 70 percent). But that plan probably faces court challenges and hinges on proposed state funding, among other factors.
While so many unresolved issues linger, the department is under new leadership. James Craig knew all about the department’s troubles, but the former Detroit police officer who spent much of his 37-year law enforcement career in Los Angeles eagerly returned home last summer to take what he called his “dream job” — chief of police.
He is the fifth man to hold the position in five years. But he is undaunted.
In a report last month, Craig announced a sweeping reorganization and vowed to reform a police department he said had been woefully mismanaged and had “lost the confidence of the public, lost the confidence of its own officers and lost its way ...”
Or as Craig puts it more succinctly: “The bottom line — the department, like the city, was broken.”
Some troubles have been general: The department has operated under a federal monitor for a decade because of accusations of abuse, including excessive force. That oversight is coming to an end. Other embarrassments have been more specific: A member of an elite police squad now awaits retrial — the first jury was deadlocked — in the 2010 shooting of a 7-year-old girl killed during a chaotic search for a murder suspect. The events were captured by a reality TV crew.
The city’s financial agony has only added to the dysfunction and disrepair. When Craig arrived, he discovered:
— A 50-minute response time to 911 calls. It’s been reduced to eight minutes for priority calls.
— Twelve-hour shifts and “virtual’ police precincts, stations that closed at 4 p.m. — two unpopular cost-cutting moves that Craig scuttled.
— Bulletproof vests that were no longer effective. (They’ve been replaced.) And dilapidated cars with nearly 200,000 miles on their odometers. (Last summer, the business community donated about $8 million for a new fleet of 100 police cruisers along with ambulances.)
Add to all that the stress of seeking justice for the victims of the violent incidents that have come to epitomize the Motor City: the Good Samaritan shot in the eye while trying to help two women robbery victims. The 91-year-old man who was victim to a carjacking. (There were about 700 carjackings in the city last year. In October, Craig may have been a potential target himself when a man approached his unmarked cruiser at a stoplight. The chief didn’t wait around to find out the stranger’s intentions.)
Craig says when he took over, he had three goals: reduce violence, improve morale and restore credibility. The department, he says, is now on the mend and more accountable. “The people here deserve better,” he says, “and they’re getting better.”
He points to a 7 percent drop in violent crime in 2013 from the previous year. And a 14 percent decline in criminal homicides in the same period — from 386 in 2012 to 333 last year. Encouraging as that is, it is precisely the same number of homicides that occurred in New York City, which has a population almost a dozen times larger than Detroit’s.
Over seven months, Craig has been a high-profile presence, holding news conferences, appearing on radio and TV. He recently made headlines when he declared more armed citizens — law-abiding ones, of course __ could help make Detroit safer. He says he learned that lesson as chief in Portland, Maine. (He also headed the department in Cincinnati.)
Craig also has led a series of large-scale raids in crime-ravaged neighborhoods. News crews have been at his heels, chronicling his every comment, whether it’s describing a raid as a “party” (meaning law-abiding citizens can celebrate) or publicly apologizing that the crackdowns didn’t come sooner
Many residents have cheered the raids. That’s no surprise. But something else is: A few of those arrested have actually offered thanks.
Why would someone be grateful to be nabbed by the police?
“They understand it’s time for someone to come in and put an end to this. There’s no secret,” says Elvin Barren, commander of the organized crime division. After a raid one handcuffed suspect, talking with a TV reporter, endorsed the work of Craig and his department: “Keep up the good work,” he declared. “Keep my family safe.”
Among rank-and-file officers, there are deep-seated anxieties, both about the city’s finances and their own.
They fear they’re too short-staffed to adequately protect a city spanning about 140 square miles. Craig has announced plans to hire 150 new officers to shore up the 2,300-member force.
They worry about hazards posed by the thousands of abandoned homes, whether it’s falling through a rotted floor or hunting a suspect hiding in the inky darkness.
And they’re especially unhappy with the pay cut. Some say they’re annoyed they have to work second or third jobs to pay the bills while others charged with turning the city around are bringing home six-figure salaries.
“To say morale is up is a falsehood,” says Scott Barrick, a second-generation officer who spent 19 years on the streets before recently becoming a full-time police union official. “It seems like every time we turn around they want us to do more and they want to give us less. You can’t help but think, ‘Why am I doing this every day?’ ... You feel like the entire burden of repairing the city is falling on our shoulders and quite frankly over the last year, it has.”
He remembers a fight that erupted last year after a nightclub closed in the pre-dawn hours and a crowd spilled into the streets. At first, Barrick says, there were just six officers to subdue hundreds. “We’re calling for backup but no one is coming there is no one to help,” he says. Eventually, four others arrived to quell the disturbance.
He often says, half-jokingly, that “we’re five minutes from disaster all the time.”
The police force shrank as Detroit’s population — now about 700,000 — dramatically declined. From 2000 to 2010 alone, the city lost about a quarter-million residents. Parts of Detroit are prospering, notably a revitalized downtown. But some neighborhoods are barren landscapes littered with abandoned homes and weed-filled lots. And some streets resemble disaster zones, with initials scrawled on houses, signifying to demolition crews where there’s no water or electricity.
Vandals often plunder these empty houses, hauling off anything of possible value: windows, doors, bathtubs, sinks, copper, ductwork, dry wall, heaters, fixtures and more. “It’s like a stripped turkey bone,” Coleman adds.
Two years, ago, Officer Nicholle Quinn recalls, she and her partner were searching for a burglary suspect in a pitch-black abandoned house. As they headed toward the basement, she could hear and smell water. She told her partner to stop — “something doesn’t feel right.”
She was right. Copper pipes had been ripped out and rising water had reached the basement ceiling. Anyone who stepped down could have drowned.
Quinn is among the many officers feeling a financial squeeze, both with a smaller paycheck and the increased cost of prescription drugs for her and her 11-year-old son to treat their year-round allergies. She moonlights whenever she can for extra cash, but isn’t happy about it.
“People become police officers because they love what they do,” Quinn says. “They want to solve problems. They want to catch bad guys.” But some rank-and-file officers feel they’ve borne the brunt of the department’s sacrifices and it reaches the point, she says, where “you start hating to have to go to work for 10 percent less.”
Quinn’s original plan was to work 20 years so that she would be eligible for retirement. Five years short of the mark, she’s changed course. She’s studying for her master’s degree in public administration. “I want to be completely and utterly done with being a police officer,” she says.
If she goes, she’ll join the exodus of officers who’ve found better-paying jobs in suburban departments, universities and law enforcement agencies around the country. Detroit police officers’ salaries top out at less than $50,000 a year.
In January, 19 new officers graduated and joined the force, but since the start of 2012, 425 members of the department — nearly 20 percent — have left. The department could not provide details, including how many are retirements.
Not all of this is new.
“I think the morale of the typical police officer frankly has been poor as long as I can remember,” says Martin Hershock, dean of the college of arts, sciences and letters at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and the son of a Detroit police officer who served from the 1950s to the 1970s.
“My father and his friends constantly complained about community attitudes toward the police and the constant struggle they had with the city to protect their pensions,” he says. “The city has often looked to balance the budget on the backs of the police and fire.”
But being an officer has become a “thankless job,” with a vast area to patrol, a steady stream of citizen complaints and a general mistrust by a largely black populace, Hershock adds. “They see the police department as perpetrating a long-standing culture of aggression, particularly toward minorities, even though the department itself is predominantly minority,” he says.
Barrick, the union official, says he hears from officers daily. Veterans ask if they should quit now in case things get worse; younger police wonder if it’s time to jump ship. He says it’s hard to make decisions with so much unknown. He expects a turnaround, but the big question is when.
“I do believe things are going to get better,” he says, “but do you want to stay around and wait to see it?”
Sharon Cohen, a Chicago-based national writer, can be reached at email@example.com.