No problem facing Detroit is more apparent yet baffling than crime and public safety. For decades, the city has owned one of the highest murder rates in the country, its burglaries and auto thefts are blamed for the sky-high insurance rates residents must pay.
But no one has been able to dramatically lessen the problem. Murders may have been down in 2013, but they’re still fantastically high, either the worst or second-worst in the country
Detroit spends more than $800 million a year on police, fire and EMS, but it’s not enough. Emergency response times for the worst crimes hover near one hour – the national average is 11 minutes – and the city solves only about 1-in-5 of the thousands of violent crimes committed each year.
“It’s a major negative deterrent,” said Eric Foster, president of public policy consulting firm Foster, McCollum White and Associates.
Reducing crime is one of the main goals of Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, who wants to take any savings from bankruptcy court to pour millions into buying new police cars and fire equipment.
“The people don’t feel safe and it’s hard to attract people from outside and to retain people who are already here,” said Tiandra Hodge, a native Detroiter and a fellow in the Challenge Detroit work-volunteer program.
Since just before the 1967 riots, Detroit’s murder problem has ballooned and remained high, with spikes in the mid-1970s and again a decade later during the years of a crack-cocaine epidemic.
As the city struggled to control crime, the police department came under repeated scrutiny: In the 1960s and 1970s, for its aggressive patrol tactics that angered blacks and, a decade ago, when the federal government began oversight of the department over officers’ use of force and civil rights violations.
In recent years, a shrinking budget and police retirements resulted in the department losing nearly 500 officers, or 15 percent of its force, between 2008 and 2012. Over that span, violent crime fell 7 percent, but murders rose 26 percent. The city “clears” about 19 percent of its violent crimes. Other large cities solve 40 percent, on average.
The travails of Detroit’s fire and emergency medical response have been well documented. Many of the city’s ladder fire trucks are out of service and it took an infusion of private money to shore up the city’s fleet of ambulances.
Reversing these largely budget-driven trends is going to take cash, and lots of it. To get to the police manpower of 30 years ago, Foster calculates the city would have to spend $157 million more a year. That could put a squad car in nearly every one of the city’s square miles, a metric he says will be the only way to get response times down to a respectable level.
If the millions expected to be trimmed from the Detroit debt bill don’t translate into more police, better fire equipment and more ambulances, Foster said, “then something’s gone horribly wrong.”