JAMES CRAIG, Detroit police chief, talks about the culture of violence in the city. – Andre Smith photo
After six months on the job as Detroit’s police chief, James Craig, the former head of the Cincinnati Police Department, command officer of the Los Angeles Police Department and chief of the Portland Police Department, goes on the record in a wide-ranging sit-down interview with Chronicle editor Bankole Thompson about the state of the police department, his view of the bankruptcy’s impact on the department, the level of violent crime in Detroit, stop and frisk, former chief of staff Christine Beatty and why he thinks Detroit city councilman George Cushingberry should have been arrested in a police stop, among other hot button issues. Following are excerpts from that interview.
MICHIGAN CHRONICLE: What were your expectations when you took over this job?
JAMES CRAIG: Well, I’ve always had a strong desire to return to the city of Detroit. This is my home where I began my policing career. I’ve wanted to come back. Because I really believe the best thing that could have happened was when I left Detroit. I held on to a goal earlier in my career becoming a police chief.
MC: What was in the back of your mind when you were named the chief of police for Detroit?
JG: That I need to hit the ground running. I think the reality for me was that police officers and the community were overdue for change. They were expecting change, and were expecting it now. It wasn’t a situation where I got time to get a sense of what was going on. I need to come in and hit the ground running.
MC: So how have things changed from where you were six months ago to where you are now?
JC: Dramatic change. In fact, if you were talking to rank and file officers in the community, they would tell you they haven’t seen the amount of change in such a short amount of time. I came in July and when I got here we were down a few homicides, maybe 22, but were up in robberies and many of our crime categories. Here we are six months later and we are down in some of those categories.
The real good news is that at the end of the year we are down in homicides….52 less people killed. When I look at that I get somewhat excited about the trend downwards. The bad news is that we still have 333 and it is too many.
MC: I hear you talk about numbers going down, but how do seniors feel safe at home when the probability of getting robbed is so high?
JC: That’s a great question. It’s nice for me to recite statistics, to say we are reducing crime 10 percent. But in my view, my experience, a better gage is do you feel safer? Because I’m out and about in the community, I talk to people. They have said to me (across the board people who live in the city and in the suburbs) they see change. To me that’s a better gage than sitting here giving you statistics.
Statistics are important, it’s kind of a guide because if we don’t know where we are, how do we know where we are going? There is no secret that we adopted the COMSTAT model, same used in New York, Los Angeles.
MC: Talk about the large-scale operation you conducted recently.
JC: We’ve done several operations and one last year and as recently as the beginning of 2014. And each of them we sent a message of restoring order in the city. People expect it now. They like it. When you look at that apartment building, the Colony Arms, a historic complaint of location.
My question is, where was the elected leadership on this issue? Where was the police department on this issue? Because you talk to the residents noting is being done. The location is situated right down the street from the mayor’s residence. How come we did not respond to the continued complaints?
MC: What do you think has been the issue?
JC: Complacency. Status quo.
MC: Ok, in Chief Craig’s world, what is the ideal police department?
JC: You’re seeing it now. We haven’t gotten there yet. When you look at our crime reduction, here we are today 61 percent reduction in homicide. Last year this time Detroit had 20 homicides and we are right now sitting at 11. That’s dramatic. Violent crime in the city is down 27 percent. Property crime is down 38 percent. In overall crime there is a 35 percent reduction.
This is not be accident and you have people saying “I do feel safer.” In fact, the areas that we have targeted for enforcement, that’s just not a random response. It was very strategic based on the data, areas recognized as some of the most violent zip codes in America.
I’ve got people under arrest telling me, “We knew you were coming. And we appreciate it.” That’s kind of odd coming from someone who is in handcuffs. We launched these large-scale operations and the last one was about 400 contacts, not one use of force, not one complaint.
MC: This leads to the Department of Justice Consent Degree. Is it phasing out?
JC: Well, it is not out yet. The issue of compliance is gone. The second part is the use of force it’s still there somewhat, but we are more compliant than we were five years ago. The work continues. I’m pushing hard and holding the executive management team accountable to make sure we reach the threshold of total compliance.
MC: Does the ongoing bankruptcy process affect the performance of the department now?
JC: I would tell you that in my time here, and certainly I came in after Kevyn Orr, the police department performance has improved. That under the preexisting structure this department wasn’t performing very well. In fact, I can talk about 50 minute response time, high crime. I can name a few. My question is, what worked? It didn’t work out very well. The statistics bare that out. You had a community that couldn’t call the police department.
MC: So the bankruptcy is a blessing in disguise?
JC: Well, it is a blessing. It’s not just that. You’ve got bankruptcy and you’ve got a new police chief who has an outside view. You had virtual precincts. Precincts were closed in the city of Detroit. That’s not the case today. I’m not saying we are perfect because the work continues. I would tell you we are moving in the right direction.
MC: You look very relaxed. Seems like you are enjoying this position.
JC: I’m enjoying it because I’m passionate. Secondly, I’m at home. What better opportunity to come home and serve the people? My family lives here. This is where I started my policing career. So I’m excited and I’m committed. I feel like we have a good team.
MC: Police commission meetings in the past have become sessions to unravel police misconduct and tensions in the community. How relevant is community policing to keeping Detroit safe?
JC: The hallmark of success in really reducing crime is your relationship with the community. I don’t mean just a talking relationship. I’m talking true partnerships. For example, since I’ve been here we’ve established an External Chief’s Advisory Board with a cross section of the people in the city. We hold community forums, work closely with clergy leaders. We have planned in the very near future a LGBT forum. That’s a key priority. My exposure to that community started in Los Angeles.
MC: Recently some people took issue with your remarks that what we need in Detroit is more guns. Can you explain?
JC: What I did say is good Detroiters, good Americans who are armed and most importantly responsible can have an effect on a daily violence. And so clearly not just what James Craig believes but research supports that statement. The Department of Justice said good citizens who are armed tend to be the biggest deterrent to violent crime. We know it here in Detroit.
What I have seen in my time here is that we’ve arrested suspects who wear body armor. And why do they wear body armor? Because there is a fear of being shot not by police but by citizens that they attempt to rob. That’s one issue. The second issue is sometimes suspects, when they confront a person, they make them disrobe to determine whether or not they are armed.
MC: To hear that coming from you, some people said the police chief was surrendering.
JC: Really? That’s absolutely untrue. Look at what we’ve done. I haven’t given up. Let’s talk about the police chiefs before me. Did they give up? Crime was high, morale was low and things weren’t getting done. What happened? I would ask that question. Then we didn’t even respond to calls to service. We didn’t even deal with many of the complaints. You want to talk about giving up?
The department hasn’t given up. If anything, we are more responsive. This is not a matter of giving up. My exposure in Maine made me realize that in one of the safest states in America, they have people with CCWs and they are not afraid to use guns. The level of violence, the culture of violence here does not really happen in other cities.
MC: What is responsible for the level of violence you said doesn’t exist in other cities?
JC: Detroit has accepted a violent culture, and that is not acceptable. That is not the way life should be. We shouldn’t have accepted this. It’s appalling to me going into a city, and I’ve been in a couple of them, people have a cavalier attitude — it’s like, it’s Detroit, it just happens. That’s the attitude. No one gets excited when somebody’s violent criminal acts are caught. We should not tolerate it. We should say this is not acceptable. We can’t bury our heads in the sand. Where is the outcry?
MC: There is a perception that transcended your tenure, and that is we have more police presence downtown than we do in the neighborhoods. How do you respond?
JC: I’ve heard that. Downtown actually is safer, not so much because we have more police. We certainly have casinos, and the casinos do pay for policing downtown. We’ve had four operations. It didn’t happen downtown. It happened in the neighborhoods. The Colony Arms, the King home…so when you talk about where are we focusing our policing efforts, I say in the neighborhoods.
I push back when people make those statements. We have our COMSTAT meetings every week and we primarily talk about crime in our neighborhoods. We recognize for Detroit to be safe we can’t just focus on downtown.
MC: Tkhe New York Police Department came under fire for stop and frisk as it was litigated in federal court. What’s your position on that?
JC: Let me just say that the Detroit Police Department is a constitutional police agency. Evidence of that is that here we are 10 years plus in a consent judgment. I think this department knows a little bit about constitutional policing.
More importantly, let’s talk about our large-scale operations. I talked about our last operation, last week, 400-plus contacts. No complaints, no use of force. And I’m not suggesting that use of force is bad. I’m suggesting that the police officers are professional. We treat people with dignity, respect and if that does not occur, we will vigorously investigate that.
Yes, we will stop you. We will do it constitutionally based on reasonable suspicion. Yes, we will frisk if we have suspicion someone is armed with a weapon. That’s what we do. And so stop and frisk in and of itself is not bad. It’s whether or not it’s constitutional.
We are not going to stop people or engage in bias policing. The city is over 80 percent African American. Is there greater likelihood that we are going to stop African Americans? Probably so. If we were stopping an inordinate number of Caucasians, then one might argue, well, are you engaging in bias policing? Bias policing is wrong on whatever side.
When I first arrived here, I would ask police officers, “What do you want?” And I would hear continuously, “We want to be a police officers, we want to serve this city, this community.” That is what I kept hearing.
And the last part of this whole stop and frisk matter, we had a councilman who was stopped recently. That’s wasn’t “driving while Black.” That wasn’t biased policing. That’s what I described as good police work because there was a public safety issue in my judgment based on the totality of issues the officers were confronted with. We are talking about open alcohol, the evidence of marijuana, an unregistered vehicle, evidence of an expired driver’s license, no proof of insurance.
MC: So why was he let go?
JC: That’s a problem. Because if you got stopped with all of these things, what would happen to you? You’d be arrested. But my point is this: Can we say from that incident that there’s been a culture of certain people getting a pass? Let’s talk about the former chief of staff (Christine Beatty) and the word that I got is because they were trying to do their job they were treated harshly. There is a culture that certain people might get a pass. That day is over. Remember, I came from Los Angeles, the land of stars. Because you are a movie star you don’t get a special break.
MC: So what happens in the Cushingberry case now?
JC: We are not going to go back and recharge him. The case is over. Cushingberry was released. The decision was made to release him.
MC: This was more about the police department’s actions?
JC: I was concerned at this point about the department’s actions. The officers who initiated this stop in my view did the right thing. They wanted to make an arrest.
MC: What is your worst nightmare as chief of police?
JC: The worst nightmare is that we have situations like we see in other parts of the country where we have an active shooter, like the barbershop shooting.