Chief James Craig PHOTO CREDIT: Andre Smith

Chief James Craig
PHOTO CREDIT: Andre Smith

 Prior to the election of Mayor Coleman Young in 1974, the relationship between the predominantly white police force and Detroit’s black community was toxic on a good day. It was years of pent up anger against police brutality and other elements of everyday racism and segregation in an Up South Detroit that lit the fuse on the explosive 1967 uprising, and it was Young’s promise to disband STRESS, the notoriously brutal Detroit Police unit known to routinely terrorize the black community, that was considered the key plank in his campaign that got him elected. Soon after Young became Mayor, he not only made good on his promise to disband STRESS but also aggressively integrated the entire police force from 95 percent white to a much more equitable 50/50 split of white and black officers.

While integration of the police force helped to heal one large wound by providing more officers who looked like – and better understood – the community they served, it wasn’t long before it became clear that it would require more than integration to sufficiently upgrade the police department to the desired level of competence and community service. By 2000, Mayor Dennis Archer requested a probe after police had been found to be involved in 47 fatal shootings between 1995 and 2000, including six suspects that were unarmed. During roughly that same time period, 19 witnesses died while in detention. A federal consent decree was put in place by 2003 after an investigation revealed an inordinately large number of complaints of improper use of force by officers and improper treatment of witnesses.

The consent decree was removed in August of 2014. U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade said at the time that the first two areas of concern, including what she described as “deplorable” conditions of confinement and unconstitutional arrests of witnesses, had been resolved. Between 2009 and 2014, in a dramatic contrast to the troubling statistics of earlier years, the police department reported just 17 fatal shootings and one detainee death.

Detroit Police Chief James Craig, who also happens to be a Detroit native and a city resident, is well versed in his city’s history when it comes to police-community relations, but he has also had the benefit of working in other police departments in other cities, such as Cincinnati and Los Angeles, that has given him a somewhat unique perspective on what his city needs and what he thinks will work. A police officer for more than 30 years, Craig has had time to reflect on what it takes to provide effective community policing. Granted, his views are not universally praised or admired. He does have his share of critics. But with a noticeably declining violent crime rate in the brief time since he has taken the reins, it’s apparent that the man must be doing at least a few things right.

Hired a little over two years ago under the auspices of then Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, Craig has ruffled a few feathers from time to time, but he has also gone out of his way to make himself available and accessible, not only to the press but, more importantly, to members of the community who likely feel better knowing they have a police chief they can reach out and touch. In a recent conversation with Detroit Public TV and the Michigan Chronicle, Chief Craig spent a generous amount of time in conversation about his views on community policing and what has changed – and what needs to change.

On the benefits of an armed citizenry

Some people were saying “Oh my God you’re telling everybody in Detroit to arm up. That’s not true. That’s not even logical or responsible.”

Rather, Craig said he advocates the positive effect that “The law-abiding, responsible, well-trained law abiding citizens can have on crime.”

According to Craig, “research shows that criminals are more afraid of armed citizens than they are of the police. …So if that’s a fact, If we believe the research, then do we believe that can have an effect on reducing violent crime?

“Over the last three years we have seen a reduction of street crimes. Yes, great police work.  But it’s also no secret that there are a number of law abiding citizens in Detroit who have obtained a concealed pistol license. I believe that has played a role in some way in reducing the incidents of robbery.”

On police community relations in Detroit

“I would say that police community relations today certainly here in the city of Detroit, given what is going on across this nation, we are certainly a model. We are a constitutional police department, which is reflective in the Department of Justice’s decision to release us from oversight. But when you look at and compare us to other cities that are struggling with their relationships in many areas of the minority community, we’re certainly seeing an improvement.”

“In fact, Minister Farrakhan visited here recently – he resides in Chicago, a place where there are 12,000 police officers, 2 million residents, significant challenges in addressing violent crime, and he said to me on his last visit that he believes the Detroit Police Department is a model for what police community relations should look like.”

Craig says that when he came here two years ago, police morale was at the bottom, and homicide only had an 11 percent clearance rate.

On officer morale, recruitment efforts and the challenge of retention

“When you look at attrition you have to ask why. One of the first, most notable reasons, it’s no secret that pre-bankruptcy our police officers had 10 percent of their pay taken, which, when you compare us to the market, our police officers are some of the lowest paid in this country. But yet doing probably the most challenging job of any police department in this country.

“There was a revolving door of police chiefs. I mean, in 10 short years we went through maybe eight police chiefs. That certainly created a tremendous instability in leadership. The City of Detroit police department was under a consent decree for 13 years, the 2nd longest running consent judgment in this country, only exceeded by Oakland, California. Clearly the revolving door of police chiefs had an impact.”

“We’re a more fully functional police department today than we were 2.5 years ago, and we have fewer police officers. We have faster response times, we have a clearance rate that hovers around the national average, 65 percent. We are making key arrests on some of the most violent crimes.”

Craig said he managed to do this by increasing efficiency, removing officers from positions that could be performed by civilians such as dispatch, vehicle maintenance, building maintenance, and clerical.

On the issue of whether or not Detroit officers should reside in Detroit

“I was hired under residency. And frankly, while I understand why most in the city would want a Detroit police officer to live in their neighborhood, let me just say that after having spent 28 years in LA, probably 75 percent or even higher lived outside the city of LA. So the only thing you can hope for is that leadership, the police chief and his executive team, holds a police officer accountable to do the right job, the kind of job that the people of Detroit expect. Living in the city – and I know this angers some- really doesn’t make a difference. Now what we have done to compensate for that, one of the things we have done as part of our neighborhood policing program is those police officers who reside in the city of Detroit, we’re in the process of giving them marked take home scout cars. One, because they’re neighborhood police officers. Two, they live in the city. The response has been very favorable.”

“The police are the people and the people are the police.”

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