Mother Jones investigates crime and corruption in Detroit, where the police cook the books, criminals stoke the fire, and reality TV is the only way out. This may be the best bit of writing I have read this year. Make sure you read the entire article.
IT WAS JUST AFTER MIDNIGHT on the morning of May 16 and the neighbors say the streetlights were out on Lillibridge Street. It is like that all over Detroit, where whole blocks regularly go dark with no warning or any apparent pattern. Inside the lower unit of a duplex halfway down the gloomy street, Charles Jones, 25, was pacing, unable to sleep. His seven-year-old daughter, Aiyana Mo’nay Stanley-Jones, slept on the couch as her grandmother watched television. Outside, Television was watching them. A half-dozen masked officers of the Special Response Team—Detroit’s version of SWAT—were at the door, guns drawn. In tow was an A&E crew filming an episode of The First 48, its true-crime program. The conceit of the show is that homicide detectives have 48 hours to crack a murder case before the trail goes cold. Thirty-four hours earlier, Je’Rean Blake Nobles, 17, had been shot outside a liquor store on nearby Mack Avenue; an informant had ID’d a man named Chauncey Owens as the shooter and provided this address.
The SWAT team tried the steel door to the building. It was unlocked. They threw a flash-bang grenade through the window of the lower unit and kicked open its wooden door, which was also unlocked. The grenade landed so close to Aiyana that it burned her blanket. Officer Joseph Weekley, the lead commando—who’d been featured before on another A&E show, Detroit SWAT—burst into the house. His weapon fired a single shot, the bullet striking Aiyana in the head and exiting her neck. It all happened in a matter of seconds.
"They had time," a Detroit police detective told me. "You don’t go into a home around midnight. People are drinking. People are awake. Me? I would have waited until the morning when the guy went to the liquor store to buy a quart of milk. That’s how it’s supposed to be done."
But the SWAT team didn’t wait. Maybe because the cameras were rolling, maybe because a Detroit police officer had been murdered two weeks earlier while trying to apprehend a suspect. This was the first raid on a house since his death.
It’s not just bad policing
Detroit’s east side is now the poorest, most violent quarter of America’s poorest, most violent big city. The illiteracy, child poverty, and unemployment rates hover around 50 percent.
Stand at the corner of Lillibridge Street and Mack Avenue and walk a mile in each direction from Alter Road to Gratiot Avenue (pronounced Gra-shit). You will count 34 churches, a dozen liquor stores, six beauty salons and barber shops, a funeral parlor, a sprawling Chrysler engine and assembly complex working at less than half-capacity, and three dollar stores—but no grocery stores. In fact, there are no chain grocery stores in all of Detroit.
There are two elementary schools in the area, both in desperate need of a lawnmower and a can of paint. But there is no money; the struggling school system has a $363 million deficit. Robert Bobb was hired in 2009 as the emergency financial manager and given sweeping powers to balance the books. But even he couldn’t stanch the tsunami of red ink; the deficit ballooned more than $140 million under his guidance.
Bobb did uncover graft and fraud and waste, however. He caught a lunch lady stealing the children’s milk money. A former risk manager for the district was indicted for siphoning off $3 million for personal use. The president of the school board, Otis Mathis, recently admitted that he had only rudimentary writing skills shortly before being forced to resign for fondling himself during a meeting with the school superintendent.
The graduation rate for Detroit schoolkids hovers around 35 percent. Moreover, the Detroit public school system is the worst performer in the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, with nearly 80 percent of eighth-graders unable to do basic math. So bad is it for Detroit’s children that Education Secretary Arne Duncan said last year, "I lose sleep over that one."
Duncan may lie awake, but many civic leaders appear to walk around with their eyes sealed shut. As a reporter, I’ve worked from New York to St. Louis to Los Angeles, and Detroit is the only big city I know of that doesn’t put out a crime blotter tracking the day’s mayhem. While other American metropolises have gotten control of their murder rate, Detroit’s remains where it was during the crack epidemic. Add in the fact that half the police precincts were closed in 2005 for budgetary reasons, and the crime lab was closed two years ago due to ineptitude, and it might explain why five of the nine members of the city council carry a firearm.
The policing ineptitude seems almost comical if it wasn’t so serious
As a reporter at the Detroit News, I get plenty of phone calls from people in the neighborhoods. A man called me once to say he had witnessed a murder, but the police refused to take his statement. When I called the head of the homicide bureau and explained the situation, he told me, "Oh yeah? Have him call me," and then hung up the phone. One man, who wanted to turn himself in for a murder, gave up trying to call the Detroit police; he drove to Ohio and turned himself in there.
There has been some improvement
The Kilpatrick scandal, combined with the murder rate, spurred the newly elected mayor, Dave Bing—an NBA Hall of Famer —to fire Police Chief James Barrens last year and replace him with Warren Evans, the Wayne County sheriff. The day Barrens cleaned out his desk, a burglar cleaned out Barrens’ house.
In Chief Evans’ defense, he seemed to understand one thing: After the collapse of the car industry and the implosion of the real estate bubble, there is little else Detroit has to export except its misery.
Evans brought a refreshing honesty to a department plagued by ineptitude and secrecy. He computerized daily crime statistics, created a mobile strike force commanded by young and educated go-getters, and dispatched cops to crime hot spots. He assigned the SWAT team the job of rounding up murder suspects, a task that had previously been done by detectives.
Evans told me then that major crimes were routinely underreported by 20 percent. He also told me that perhaps 50 percent of Detroit’s drivers were operating without a license or insurance. "It’s going to stop," he promised. "We’re going to pull people over for traffic violations and we’re going to take their cars if they’re not legal. That’s one less knucklehead driving around looking to do a drive-by."
His approach was successful, with murder dropping more than 20 percent in his first year. If that isn’t a record for any major metropolis, it is certainly a record for Detroit. (And that statistic is true; I checked.)