Detroit police fight spike in violence, COVID-19 with depleted manpower
The department has responded to nearly 2,000 calls about social gatherings during a time when 14% of officers are quarantined due to the COVID-19 pandemic
The Detroit News
DETROIT — A recent rise in shootings and murders has prompted the city's depleted police force to "refocus on eradicating violence," while also enforcing violations of the governor's social distancing order, chief James Craig said Wednesday.
From April 1 through Tuesday, there were eight homicides and 27 nonfatal shootings in Detroit, according to police department data. Last year, the city averaged about five homicides and 15 shootings per week.
Year-to-date, there have been 67 criminal homicides in Detroit — a 68% increase over this time last year — and 173 nonfatal shootings, up 37%.
"We've been relatively quiet the last couple days, but we had a spike during the weekend that was troublesome," Craig said. "We're going to address that."
Meanwhile, as police try to quell the violence, they're also dealing with Detroiters who are violating Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's order prohibiting crowds from gathering. In the past three weeks, Detroit cops have responded to nearly 2,000 reports of people congregating for basketball games, parties and barbecues.
The increased police workload comes as nearly 14% of Detroit's 2,500 officers are quarantined amid a COVID-19 outbreak that includes the chief, who is recovering at home after testing positive for the virus two weeks ago.
The chief said he was able to mitigate the quarantines somewhat by moving 80 officers from special units to patrols.
Craig said there was an initial "lull in violence" in Detroit after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's stay-at-home order became effective March 24 — "but then the weather started getting warmer, young people started congregating, and there were some problems," he said.
"At the beginning of this year, we saw an uptick in violence, and we put a robust enforcement effort in place that had a positive impact," Craig said. "Now, we're going to have to refocus on eradicating violence, like the shootings and homicides we've seen during narcotics transactions. We're going to retool what we started earlier in the year."
Police officials will launch that effort while navigating the fallout from the department's virus outbreak. Capt. Jonathan Parnell, the head of the Homicide Section, and a civilian dispatcher died after contracting the virus, and of the 369 current quarantined Detroit officers, 170 have tested positive.
Despite the reduced manpower, officers have been working to enforce the governor's social distancing order, which Detroiters are repeatedly violating, Craig said.
Since April 4, Detroit police have gone to 1,976 "special attention" runs about reported violations, issued 545 warnings, broke up nine parties, including five barbecues, and issued 129 citations in 92 locations where five or more people congregated.
On Tuesday, police issued 74 warnings and 35 citations in 11 locations.
"I've made a commitment that there would be no disruption of service, and first and foremost, we want to make sure we're responding to emergencies," Craig said. "We're continuing to fight that fight, and we won't relent.
"At the same time, we have to do enforcement where we're getting large numbers of people congregating."
City officials removed basketball hoops from city parks to prevent people from playing, but Detroiters are using their own portable hoops, Craig said.
"(Tuesday) officers responded to a gas station, where someone had set up a hoop, and a number of young people had converged," he said. "Many of these young people need to understand that this is serious. People are dying, and this virus does not discriminate. Even if you're asymptomatic, you could give it to someone you love, and it could cost them their life."
Craig said the attitudes of Detroiters have been changing.
"We've been seeing more people cooperate in the last few days," he said.
Detroit's Health Department has recorded 5,834 COVID-19 cases in the city and a total of 247 deaths as of Wednesday.
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Assistant Police Chief James White have implored residents to abide by the state's emergency stay home, stay safe order or they will risk a fine of up to $1,000 and six months in jail.
Duggan said Wednesday that 421 Detroit cops have returned to work after being quarantined.
"The police department is staffing all the way back up now," Duggan said. "The specialty squads are getting filled again as those officers are taken from the street and putting back on their squads because we can fill out our patrol cars."
The police, Duggan said, "continue to do an outstanding job."
"Now, in addition to fighting crime, they are breaking up every group that is starting to form, which is a risk to all of us," he said.
The mayor said there's been no movement yet to close parks or impose a curfew but he's in talks with police command staff daily.
The city has seen a decrease in some crimes this year, and overall calls for service have gone down, Assistant Chief David LeValley said. While violent crime in Detroit is up 8% over last year, burglaries have fallen 15% this year, while property crime has dropped by 4%. Auto thefts are up 11%.
Lisa Carter, chairwoman of the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners, said police are doing a good job with limited resources.
"They definitely have their hands full," he said. "I think the police department has done everything in their power to ensure there's a police presence in our neighborhoods, but they're stretched pretty thin.
"They've shut down some units that are important but not essential. They're doing what they can, just like other police departments. New York has 20% of its department quarantined, too."
Carter's husband, state Rep. Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit, is recovering after becoming the first Michigan elected official to test positive for coronavirus. The couple was close friends with state Rep. Isaac Robinson, D-Detroit, who died last month after his mother said he contracted the virus.
Lisa Carter pleaded with Detroiters to follow social distancing guidelines.
"I'm just hoping responsible residents will hold their irresponsible relatives accountable and tell them to stay home," she said.
Craig said U.S. Attorney General William Barr phoned him Wednesday to express condolences for the employees who died after contracting coronavirus, and to check on the chief's health.
"I appreciated that he reached out," Craig said. "He wanted me to know our department was in his thoughts and prayers, and he asked how I was doing. I told him I appreciated that, and that I was grateful to him and (Eastern District U.S. Attorney) Matt Schneider for working with us to abate violence in the city."
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel praised how Detroit police and Wayne County Sheriffs have enforced the governor's stay-at-home order.
“Like our health care workers, our law enforcement officers are also on the front lines of our current public health crisis,” Nessel said.
Nessel also paid tribute to the officers from both departments who died after contracting COVID-19: Parnell, the Detroit police dispatcher, and Wayne County Sheriff's Cmdr. Donafray Collins and Deputy Dean Savard.
"(They) paid the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty in the most unexpected way in a way that bulletproof vests and all the range practice in the world couldn’t protect them from," Nessel said.