Agenda for Detroit: Why policing matters

by Michael Allegretti and George Kelling.

This is the six article in the series “Agenda for Detroit,” the purpose of which is to offer policy recommendations for a post-bankrupt Detroit. The series will culminate with the live stream event “Detroit: The Next American City of Opportunity,” featuring Gov. Rick Snyder and Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, on March 24th.

Police departments lay the foundation of modern urban life, and nowhere is their work more critical than in Detroit. Every institution in Detroit depends on an effective police force, without which schools cannot educate, places of worship cannot flourish, businesses have no hope of prospering, and neighborhoods cannot endure.

Like most organizations in Detroit, the Detroit Police Department (DPD) has had a tough time recently. Officers’ salaries have been cut, anticipated pensions look likely to be reduced, the force has been radically downsized, and equipment has deteriorated. The department’s leadership has been in flux. Over a recent three-year period (2010 to 2013) Detroit had four chiefs:  Warren Evans, Ralph Godbee, Chester Logan and, the current chief, James Craig.  These four chiefs’ strategies have varied considerably, and in some cases were hardly articulated at all.

In a post-bankrupt Detroit, the DPD must make a clear commitment to the basic business of policing. That means not only articulating a set of goals and how to achieve them, but also establishing a managerial structure that keeps everyone focused on their shared goals.  The how of police work is as important as its goals, because policing methods are always constrained by the law and Constitution.

What the DPD needs now is continuity in both leadership and mission, with a strong focus on the problems of neighborhoods. We encourage readers to obtain the “Detroit Police Department Plan of Action.”  It describes the managerial structure now in place, and provides an excellent example of the DPD’s new commitment to transparency.

To be sure, the DPD has many partners, such as private citizens, neighborhood groups, other governmental agencies, and private sector entities– such as the business improvement districts (BIDs) found in commercial areas throughout the city.  Yet, as valuable as such partners can be, without police, all are limited in what they can accomplish.

Focusing on the core mission of policing is not easy in a city with some 143 square miles, a large share of which has been depopulated. The problems with arson, drug houses, disorder are most heavily concentrated in the depopulated areas. It’s the responsibility of the DPD to help these communities restore themselves, often on very different terms than in the good days, before decline set in.

All that is well-known. But what is generally underreported in media accounts is that Detroit also has many thriving neighborhoods. In Grandmont and Rosedale in northwest Detroit, houses are well-maintained and charming. The Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation, a powerful community group, safeguards the neighborhood’s overall health. If a home is abandoned, the Corporation and its neighbors move swiftly to maintain it until it is reoccupied.  Detroit’s revitalization is contingent not only on expanding from the Downtown and Wayne State University corridor, it must also expand from neighborhoods like Grandmont and Rosedale.

Unfortunately, such neighborhoods are under siege. Barely several blocks from Grandmont and Rosedale are complete blocks of abandoned homes and buildings. Predators steal copper from street lighting, darkening the community at night. Even more threatening to neighborhood stability, burglars invade homes during the daytime when residents are working, stealing valuable property and creating a sense of dread which comes from having one’s personal space violated.  Policing such neighborhoods is very different than policing abandoned neighborhoods.

We distinguish between policing abandoned neighborhoods and thriving neighborhoods because appreciating this distinction lies at the core of the DPD’s challenge. It must develop a core mission of preventing crime and maintaining order, and yet carry out this mission in very different ways, depending on the local context.  Happily, the administration of Chief Craig appears to be establishing the managerial structure to manage such diverse problems and communities.  This has not always been the case in the DPD’s past.

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