Detroit police struggle to protect bankrupt city

Night after night, Detroit police officers are tasked with patrolling one of the most dangerous cities in America and have taken 10% pay cuts

By Gina Damron
Detroit Free Press

DETROIT — Wind whipped through downed windows and the speedometer reached 90 m.p.h. as the police cruiser sped down the interstate.

Weaving through traffic, Detroit Police Officers Derrick Keasley and Darius Shepherd rushed to reach other officers, who were miles away chasing down a suspect in a neighborhood off Van Dyke.

It was about 9 p.m. on a warm evening this month as the special operations officers tromped through high grass, then came to a yard, where they handily climbed a rusty chain link fence and landed next to a dilapidated and abandoned building.

This suspect was gone, but the shift was hours from over.

Night after night, Detroit police officers are tasked with patrolling one of the most dangerous cities in America. Detroit, which regularly tops FBI lists ranking violent crime, logged 386 homicides in 2012, not including 25 deemed justifiable, officials have said. That year, the city logged its highest murder rate in nearly two decades.

The officers are working in a city so broke it filed for bankruptcy on July 18, citing more than $18 billion in unfunded liabilities. Detroit's police officers have taken 10% pay cuts, and there's talk of new concessions that could include pay, health benefits and their future pensions.

As morale has dwindled, so has the number of police officers on the streets, who answer calls for everything from domestic violence to shootings. According to Detroit's 2012 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, the city had 3,162 full-time equivalent uniformed employees in 2006. By last year, that number was 2,708, down 14% in six years. Today, it stands at about 2,500 officers.

They are subjected to the best and worst of the public — graciously thanked when a missing loved one is brought home safely and shot at by fleeing suspects.

They patrol in run-down cruisers, sometimes with broken equipment. They target crime hot spots, keep a watchful eye on those walking the streets at night, and chug coffee and energy drinks to get through their shifts.

Police Chief James Craig, who took the helm of the department July 1, has promised increased morale.

Changes in the department already are afoot. Craig has said the department redeployed some special operations officers to patrols, is testing out three different split-shift schedules, is working on bringing back the tactical services section and is looking to start a gang intelligence unit. Craig has said his priority is getting more officers on the street.

The Free Press spent time with patrol officers from the Eastern District and special operations officers in the Northeastern District to document what it's like policing a city plagued by hundreds of homicides and nonfatal shootings every year.

For Officer Demereal Mercer, working patrol on the east side is personal. It's where she grew up.

"That's where the work is," Mercer said. "And we're needed out here."

A safe return
8:01p.m. July 30, near Cadieux and Mack

A tall and lanky elderly man wearing torn, dirty jeans shuffles slowly along the sidewalk.

"Sir, sir, you OK?" Officer Marvin Quinal asks. "Do you live here?"

Visibly disoriented and frustrated, the man says his sister lives down the road and he's headed to his bank.

"Do you need a ride home?" Mercer asks.

No, the man insists. He tries to move past the officers, who motion for him to stop.

"We need to talk to you, make sure you're OK," Quinal explains.

They mine him for crucial information: Name. Address.

They place him in the rear of the patrol car, intent on finding his home. If they can't, he'll have to go to Detroit Receiving Hospital.

"Right there, right there, right there!" the man yells as they cruise down Devonshire.

But that's the fourth house he's pointed at, Quinal said.

Mercer keeps driving. Suddenly, just beyond Waveney Street, a mob of people burst from a house and surround the patrol car. They spot the man in the backseat.

Crying relatives, clutching missing person posters, tell officers the man suffers from dementia. They'd filed a missing person report after he wandered off three days earlier.

"Thank, y'all," one woman says to the officers. "Thank, y'all."

It's a happy ending that came despite an obstacle: The computer in the patrol car was broken. Had it worked, the officers could have run the man's name and found the missing person report and his address.

"If I had my computer, I could have had him home like that," Mercer says, snapping her fingers.

Problems with the aging car, which as of late July was pushing 190,000 miles, don't end with the computer. The video, microphone and radio don't work, either. Mercer says most patrol cars have working computers, but some cars have other problems. One car recently wouldn't reverse, she says.

That could soon change. On Thursday, 15 police cruisers and 10 ambulances were delivered, and another 85 patrol cars and 13 EMS rigs are on the way, thanks to an $8-million donation from private businesses.

Guns and drugs
11:50 p.m. Aug. 9,Yacama, near State Fair

Officers Keasley, 31, and Shepherd, 26, get out of the car to go after a man they say was at a known drug house, tossed a handgun and ran.

Keasley gives chase, while Shepherd approaches two men and a woman sitting on the porch. They find drugs and a handgun. Guns and drugs — it's what they look for.

Keasley returns with a man, who tells them he ran because he didn't know who they were. He was afraid, the man says, because "it's a bad neighborhood."

Shepherd, who went to high school in Detroit, played football at Wayne State University and still lives in the city, has been a crime victim himself.

His truck was stolen. His dog was, too.

"Who takes the dog?" Shepherd says.

"It's a low cost to stay here, but, you know, it's a high price to pay when things happen," he says.

While on the street, Keasley and Shepherd watch people. They can spot suspicious mannerisms that others may not see: the flick of a hand tossing something into the grass; a person tapping their elbow to a concealed gun to make sure it's still there; arms held stiff to one side to keep something hidden.

Often, when the officers pull someone over, they're looking for guns, Shepherd said. They'll handcuff the person and conduct a search. And they need to stay vigilant because suspects will take advantage if the officers aren't looking.

"If they get the chance and they think you're not paying attention," Shepherd says, "they will hit you."

Shepherd, who's been on the force for about five years, is no stranger to violence. He says he's been shot at five times on the job. But he doesn't call that bad luck.

"I'm getting the bad guy when it happens," Shepherd says. "I guess in my line of work, it would be good luck. I didn't get shot."

Recurring violence
11:18 p.m. July 30Schoenherr and 7 Mile Road

The patrol car rolls up to a house, where a woman is standing outside.

She says her boyfriend head-butted her minutes earlier and took off.

What were they arguing about?

"Just petty stuff," she says. "Nothing serious."

She has called police on him before, but he isn't the only one who has been in trouble. She claims he hit her but lied and said she hit him, so she went to jail.

The man lives with her and her mother. Mercer tells the woman she needs to kick him out.

"We're not together," the woman says, "he just won't leave."

Mercer and Quinal — both 44 and 12-year veterans of the — say they answer domestic violence calls nearly every night.

On that night, while working a 12-hour shift, they also respond to an accident involving an ATV, a break-in at a Wendy's and even a call about a dog fight that turned out to be dogs barking from the yard of a business.

"Made location. Talked to Rex, the lead dog," Quinal jokes. "Said, 'All is fine. We didn't call you.' "

Break-in during move-in
12:30 a.m. July 31, Teppert near 7 Mile Road

The front door is broken open and a side window is shattered.

It was like this when the women came home.

"Detroit police!" Quinal yells, gun drawn, as he makes his way through the home.

"Detroit police! If you're in here, come out!" Mercer adds.

The furniture is gone, leaving behind pressure marks in the soft carpet. Gushing water can be heard as the officers move toward the stairs leading into the basement. Down there, the pipes were stolen.

The homeowner had only recently purchased the house and was still in the process of moving in. The woman with her said it's no wonder people get concealed weapons permits.

"What if we would have been asleep or something?" she says.

'I love you guys'
Policing can be tough and life-changing, some officers say.

Though the pay cuts left many struggling to save and cutting back on discretionary spending, some officers say they can't imagine doing anything else.

Their jobs aren't all violence and arrests. They're also out there doing community engagement.

Mercer says she tries to talk to people and build relationships.

"I know I'm helping somebody by being here every day, that's why I refuse to work inside," she says.

Officers say one of the hardest parts of the job is disrespect from the public. But, occasionally, respect comes at a random moment.

"I love you guys," someone says as Keasley and Shepherd drove near 7 Mile and Ryan.

Shepherd: "We love you, too."

Copyright 2013 the Detroit Free Press

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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