New Detroit police chief will face all of the same problems

To say that we wish the Detroit Police Department’s new chief the best of luck may sound flippant, but it’s God’s own truth.

At least 375 people were murdered in the city last year, the worst murder rate in years. More than 1,121 people were shot in 2012. The murder rate is a direct assault on residents, but smaller, less cataclysmic crimes – such as burglary and car theft – chip away at quality of life, eroding residents’ confidence in the city, suggesting that what you get out of staying might not be worth the price you pay. Crime is the reason people leave, and the reason more don’t move in.

Hired by emergency manager Kevyn Orr – who is charged with resolving Detroit’s financial crisis – James Craig must make a mark on Detroit’s crime rate before the end of Orr’s 18-month term or risk replacement. And if Craig is unsuccessful, Orr’s work will be largely irrelevant.

Craig, who started his career as a cadet in Detroit, has a lot of great ideas. The new chief – a veteran of police departments in Los Angeles, Cincinnati and Portland, Maine – told the Free Press Editorial Board (on May 16) that he believes the Detroit department can become a premier police agency. He said he’ll work to bring the department into compliance with all the provisions of the federal consent decree it operates under as quickly as possible.

Craig brought CompStat, a crime statistics reporting system that allows police to direct resources to crime hot spots, to other departments, and he said he plans to use it in Detroit. He wants to move officers from dispatch centers and precinct desk jobs back onto the streets, and plans to re-evaluate the unpopular 12-hour shift imposed by a former police chief.

But all of Craig’s good intentions may founder against the reality of Detroit’s budget crisis.

CompStat costs money to set up and to staff. For officers staffing emergency dispatch centers to move to patrol, civillians must be hired to fill those jobs. The 12-hour shift was created to curb out-of-control overtime costs.

Here’s the reality of Detroit’s budget: Police officers’ pay has been cut by 10 percent. And while private businesses and philanthropic organizations have contributed funds for the purchase of ambulances and patrol cars, the department is unlikely to see its operational budget increase.

Even within those constraints, Craig said he believes he can boost response time and make the department more efficient by evaluating staffing – not just how many officers are working, but how they’re assigned.

Gov. Rick Snyder has said he’s committed to helping Detroit return not just to fiscal health, but to begin to grow its population. If the city’s crime rate stays high, that’s unlikely to happen. This is the time for Snyder to prove to Detroit residents that he’s acting in good faith.

State funds to set up a CompStat system and train officers in its use would be a strong signal to Detroiters that the governor’s care for the city’s future isn’t just lip service.

Craig has also promised that his department will be open and accountable to the news media and the community. This would be a marked change for the department, which has been characterized by slow responses to requests made under the Freedom of Information Act, and reluctance to release public information, such as basic crime statistics and the number of officers working in the department.

Craig said he understands that the community is served when crime statistics are made public, and when the department is open and accessible. We hope that proves true.