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(Literal) Fear & Loathing in Detroit: Me, Chief Godbee, car crimes and guns
Posted 9/7/2010 11:34 AM EDT on crainsdetroit.com
There are days … usually nights, actually … when being a Detroit resident leaves you helpless and angry. Mad at the city, at the police, at the pathetic criminals who do so much damage to Detroit’s already devastated reputation.
Take Friday night, for example: We watched a pair of shifty young men walk past us on the Chrysler service drive sidewalk, wait for us to get about 100 yards away, and then proceed to smack the glass out of a parked car so they could steal the radio, navigation system or whatever. It was just across I-375 near Greektown in front of the Woodward Academy. The car’s owner was probably inside the casino gambling, or maybe at the Eminem/Jay-Z concert at Comerica Park.
We slowed down, looked back but kept walking. Our apartment building was just a block away.
Outwardly I was calm but inside, I was seething. I certainly wasn’t going to go charging back in some sort of vigilante rage — after all, it wasn’t my car and I wasn’t armed. Just being honest, ya know? We did tell the doorman at our apartment building, and he called the police. I have no idea if they showed up. Probably not. The next day, there was fresh green auto glass along the curb in that spot.
What made me so angry this time was that I had just talked to interim Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee Jr. a few days before about this very situation — visitor’s cars being broken into in my Lafayette Park neighborhood, which has long been a very popular place to park for events because of its proximity to the stadiums, theaters, etc., but is seemingly ignored by police.
What sparked my conversation with Godbee was walking home from the Detroit Lions-Cleveland Browns preseason game on Aug. 28. There was new auto glass shards – the infamous Detroit Diamonds (in photo) – littering Gratiot, Antietam and Rivard and the vehicles were still there, windows and stereos gone. In broad daylight. Meanwhile, there were three or four police officers at some intersections around the stadium just steps away.
That’s nothing new. For all the time I’ve lived and worked downtown, thieves have been breaking into cars on those streets, within sight of Ford Field and Comerica Park, but with no police around. You come to accept it as an ugly premium for living in the city, and you tell yourself it happens in every big city. But does it?
Later that night after the football game, en route to New Center’s Northern Lights Lounge (Warning: They’re deadly serious about their Long Island iced tea, which is Soviet-severe), we saw at least six tow trucks in the Grand Circus Park and Foxtown area removing cars that may or may not have been illegally parked. There could have been more. We counted six that we passed, and each truck was accompanied by at least one cop.
Detroit sent this message to visitors that night: We’re not going to protect your vehicles if you come downtown, but if you don’t park properly, we’re going to tow you. But please come spend money downtown, mkay?
Every one of those people whose car or truck was damaged told family and friends what happened, further damaging the city with tales of theft. Those tales go viral, especially in the age of social media and smart phones. Are they likely to come back downtown and spend money? Some of them probably won’t. Others will come less often.
It’s the emphasis on parking violations, of all things in this town, rather than prevention of actual physical crime that’s galling to me as a city resident.
What I'm seeing is that it’s more cost effective to assign officers to parking enforcement on busy weekends than it is to deploy them to protect cars. Protection doesn’t raise revenue. Towing cars does. Does that seem sleazy and short-sighted?
The police chief says that’s not true: “We’re equally concerned about protecting vehicles as we are towing them,” he told me, noting that cars have to be removed from fire lanes, etc.
The visual evidence of that concern is to the contrary, however. Cars are towed and cars get the parking boot, but cars are broken into almost daily where I live (much worse during events). And it all comes as one of Mayor Dave Bing's SUVs just had its wheels stolen and the Rev. Jesse Jackson had his vehicle stolen when it was in town the other day. If their vehicles can't be protected, what does that say for the rest of us? Is it hopeless out there?
Would putting one or two officers on foot patrol in areas of parked cars during big events put a strain on police manpower? The Detroit Police Department has 3,500 officers, an over-burdened and undermanned small army forced to do yeoman’s work in a beleaguered city whose government has a national reputation of corruption and inefficiency and whose population seems bent on self-destruction via crime and drugs. So it’s not the rank and file officers to blame. It’s those who assign them their tasks.
“If we’re not distributing officers correctly, I will take talk with my command staff,” Godbee said. “We need to pay attention to those areas.”
I don’t know if the chief had that talk between the time I talked to him after the football game and Friday’s rash of car crimes. It was a week. I e-mailed him and others over the weekend, but haven’t heard back.
Detroit assigns 70 officers to Ford Field, posted inside and outside, for Lions games, and up to 30 officers for Tigers games.
The chief makes an excellent point in that when you move officers from one area to another, crooks often simply go to where the cops just vacated. “The criminals watch us, too. They take the path of least resistance,” he said. But having several officers lingering in intersections around the stadium, where one would suffice, means there is manpower available to protect other areas during events.
“We’re constantly moving and deploying,” he said. “This has been a long-standing issue when we have visitors come (into the city).”
The police department used to deploy educational efforts to teach visitors tactics to reduce the odds of break-ins, such as parking in garages, keeping valuables out of sight, etc. It’s unclear why that effort ended, but Godbee said it’s something he plans to revisit. He said he understands the image hit the city takes when cars are targeted during events.
“We need to do a better public relations campaign,” he said. He's right. Like the city's image, the police department's credibility hangs by a frayed sliver. (I'm not even getting into the towing situation, which is its own hornet's nest of problems)
Better PR would help. But in the meantime, I’m still angry and frustrated, as I’m sure the victims of these crimes remain, too. I feel it’s only a matter of time before I’m the target of something worse — I’ve already had my bicycle and car’s radar detector stolen in the past year, and those were inside secured and patrolled lots. I did all the right stuff but it didn’t matter.
I regularly ask myself if I want to buy a handgun. This has to be a thought that crosses the mind of a lot of downtown residents.
I’ve used firearms and am trained to do so (and I already own a reconditioned .303-caliber Mk. III Short Magazine Lee-Enfield rifle), yet I understand introducing a weapon into a hostile situation carries immense risk and the distinct possibility of catastrophic results for everyone involved. A long, thoughtful calculus must go into the decision to buy and legally carry a gun: Even with proper training (including combat shooting courses) it takes a very distinct emotional, mental, moral and physical mindset to bear a firearm, much less properly use it, knowing there are lifelong consequences. Some people can do it, but most cannot and should not. You can’t go back once you pull the trigger.
This is a decision I continue to mull. And one I wish I didn’t have to.
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(Literal) Fear & Loathing in Detroit: Me, Chief Godbee, car crimes and guns
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