How a fake Mich. police force spent years responding to real calls
Members of the "Genesee County Task Force Blight Agency" were sentenced this week, but officials say they spent years responding to crimes as fake officers
By Dominic Adams
FLINT, Mich. — Willie Strong II wanted to be a police officer to help his community. But he found himself on the wrong end of the law as leader of a group of wannabe officers. It ended with his guilty plea to a felony and destroyed any chance he had at becoming a real cop.
Strong, 32, appointed himself as chief of his unofficial group of "officers" and played that role in the Flint area for several years. Police reports show they made "arrests" and had encounters with hundreds of citizens.
Their ruse all came crashing down one night when his group detained some people at a county park and real law enforcement got involved.
Although Strong declined to comment on his actions, police reports and his application to become a legitimate reserve officer detail his journey from avid interest in police activities, to playing the role of an officer in Genesee County that eventually got him into trouble.
"I'm just sorry for my actions," Strong said at his sentencing.
Strong's Detroit-based attorney Maurice Davis said his client acted with good intentions.
"He never intended to break the law," Davis said. "He applied and became a reserve officer because of the crime and the things he saw growing up. He wanted to do something to make a difference, so he formed this task force.
"They took it a little further than necessary, but they were trying to do the right thing."
Flint police would not discuss Strong's involvement as a reserve officer, his actions at crashes in the city or other involvement at incidents involving the Flint Police Department.
But Kevin Shanlian, chief of the Genesee County Parks ranger division, said Strong and his group simply went too far in their pretend policing.
"The big problem was that they were actually arresting people and taking people into custody on their own rules," Shanlian said. "When they started it, they all knew the rules. They knew what they were doing was wrong from jump street."
In 2011, Strong started videotaping fires and other police scenes to sell to television stations.
That morphed into him naming himself chief of a group of about 10 people who prosecutors say posed as police officers and patrolled Flint's streets nightly.
The fake police ploy ended when Strong and four others were charged with felonies in 2017.
Strong was sentenced to five years of probation on Monday, Sept. 24, by Genesee Circuit Judge Celeste Bell. The charge was impersonating an officer while committing a crime.
The sentence was part of a deal with Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton.
Strong's attorney said his client had no ill intent.
Strong had applied to become a reserve Flint police officer in October 2016. Five years earlier, he became the self-appointed chief of the group he named the Genesee County Fire and EMS Media-Genesee County Task Force Blight Agency, police reports state.
He started it in 2011 with another man named Auston Rose. The pair initially had a Facebook page they used to post videos they shot of Flint fires to sell to the media, Strong told Genesee County Parks police detectives, according to documents obtained by MLive-The Flint Journal.
The pair decided to start patrolling the streets two years later, after volunteering to help combat Devil's Night arsons in Flint.
Like Strong, Rose declined comment to MLive-The Flint Journal.
Hundreds of pages of police reports, interview transcripts, photographs and other documents obtained by MLive-The Flint Journal through a Freedom of Information Act request detailed the group's actions on the streets in and around Flint.
Strong told police the group relied on cellphone apps to help them locate fires or where emergency responders were, according to the documents.
When there would be 911 calls for fires, they'd head out -- sometimes beating firefighters to the scene, investigators previously said.
Whoever responded would set up a tripod camera to video the scene. The video would then post to the group's social media account.
"It's a Facebook page," Rose told police, according to a police report. "Um, Dave Bondy from Fox 66 and NBC 25 has access to it. They sometimes use our clips in their... their media when they need filler."
MLive-The Flint Journal could not reach Bondy for comment.
The television stations deny Strong's claims.
"I want to say the claims made by Mr. Strong and Mr. Rose are false," said Mike Schram, news director for both stations, in an email to MLive-The Flint Journal.
-Sometimes, the group did more than just shoot video.
Strong had a handwritten incident log book he kept that listed 46 Flint fire calls his group responded to and detailed the address, date and other information from the calls, according to a police report.
"The (taskforce members) used two fire extinguishers to put the flames out but did not completely put it out, so Flint fire was called to use a booster line to put it out," one entry in Strong's incident log book said.
Strong looked for other like-minded people to join in, coming up with an eight-page application to add others to the team.
Those who joined the team would get an identification badge with their name, photo and "rookie" stamped on it.
Each member was instructed to wear the same uniform, while some wore bulletproof vests and those who had concealed pistol licenses also would carry guns, the police reports show. The group also used handheld radios and cellphones to communicate with each other.
The group would meet at the downtown Flint Flat Lot, Strong would give out assignments and then they would patrol the city at least six nights per week, according to police reports.
They'd patrol in their personal vehicles that were outfitted with flashing emergency lights, computers and other items typically used by police.
Police records show Strong told his fellow impersonators that he had a contract to patrol vacant school buildings and neighborhoods. He later admitted to police he lied about the contracts.
Police said Strong made contact with at least 350 people while patrolling as fake chief and said he called 911 so much that the dispatchers knew his voice.
Investigators said Strong bragged about being the first on scene at a fatal crash on Sept. 16, 2017, involving suspected drag racers near 12th Street and Hammerberg Road.
"Willie Strong stated he directed his agents earlier in the night to patrol that area because he 'had a feeling something bad was going to happen,'" according to police reports.
Strong and three other group members typed up statements of what they witnessed in connection to the crash. The reports were emailed by Strong to Flint police 12 days later and were passed to the sergeant who oversaw the traffic bureau at the time, according to police reports.
Flint police did not say if the reports from Strong were ever used as part of the crash investigation.
However, members of his group were not always given access to crime and fire scenes.
Police would not let two of Strong's "officers" close to a fire scene on Dec. 31, 2016, on Stanley Road in Mt. Morris Township, according to a report in Strong's incident log book.
"Was denied by a Mt. Morris Township police officer to go on scene to conduct my job even after I stated who I was and why my reason to be there was," the entry said. "He still denied me... And when I was sitting in my vehicle on the side of the road with my emergency flasher on taking photos and doing a report, the officer got out of his vehicle and told me and my co-responder to leave."
Strong told police he was motivated by his desire to improve his community.
He worked security at Teachout Security Services, Skateland Arena and Outdoor Adventures Campground, according to his reserve officer application.
"I would like to help my city out," he said in his application to the Flint Police Department. "For years, I have been thinking about becoming a sworn officer. I just haven't been motivated to do it.
"Also, I know by being a reserve police officer it gets my foot in the door of that field of work. If things go well, I might go through the academy and become a sworn officer."
Police would not say how long or when Strong was a reserve officer, although his application is dated 2016.
Some who went out with Strong's group disagreed with their activities.
One woman told police that she went on a ride-along with Strong and other members of his fake police force in the summer of 2017, according a police report.
The group patrolled several vacant Flint schools and abandoned trailer parks, she said in an interview with investigators.
She never rode with the task force again because they were "joy riding... a bunch of kids," she told investigators.
Everything started to unravel for Strong in the summer of 2017.
He was with three others when they discovered four teens inside Flint Central High School, Strong told investigators.
While Strong admitted he thought about calling 911 right away, he instead waited for the trespassers to come out of the building, according to a police report.
Strong pulled out his handgun and aimed it at the kids when they exited, police said. The minor teenagers were handcuffed and police were called.
When two Flint police officers showed up at the school, the kids were immediately uncuffed and given a warning.
"Willie Strong stated the officers were 'pissed' and instructed (the task force) not to handcuff people," the police report said.
An official investigation into the group was eventually launched after Shanlian received a complaint of rude rangers at Stepping Stone Falls and Picnic area in Genesee Township on Sept. 21, 2017.
He investigated the incident because the victims thought they were being mistreated by park rangers, but Shanlian soon learned the victims were dealing with fake cops.
Three individuals, which did not include Strong, were dressed like police officers and approached two people at the county facility, according to police.
The group of fake cops said the people were trespassing, the park was closed and they were under arrest despite the fact the park was actually open.
Both victims were handcuffed, and the fake police demanded their driver's licenses. Information from the licenses was entered into a laptop inside the suspects' vehicle.
The victims were told they were being placed on a criminal watch list database, before getting the handcuffs taken off and receiving their licenses back.
While the attorneys for the fake cops say their client's actions were born out of a love for their community, they also were grateful for how the cases were adjudicated.
One of those involved, Jeffery Jones, referred comment to his attorney, Matt Norwood. Jones was sentenced on Sept 17.
"If you have someone who just wants to be eyes and ears, I think that's admirable, but you can't just detain people," Norwood said. "I think Leyton's office did the right thing. I think it was fair and deterred people from taking the law into their own hands."
Ultimately, the investigation led to charges against five people, who have each pleaded guilty to impersonating a police officer while committing a crime. Three of the five -- including Strong -- have been sentenced to five years of probation.
During his Sept. 24 sentencing, Strong, now a felon, said little, but apologized to the court for the crimes he and his group committed while pretending to be police.
"I'm just sorry for my actions," Strong told Bell during his sentencing.