Addressing Detroit's Crime Problem

Photo: Patricia Drury/Flickr


Detroit's historic bankruptcy has shed light on the city's troubled finances and high public-sector labor costs. However, equally responsible for the Motor City's woes has been its failure to keep its citizens safe.

While it will take years for Detroit to regain its financial footing, the city can move quickly to turn the corner on crime. It must look to lessons from New York City in the 1990s, leverage its gains from the renaissance in its urban core, and, most importantly, work closely with the residents of high-crime neighborhoods.

Today there are two Detroits housed within one city. Both are increasingly well known to Americans. These two Detroits -- apart from sharing a name, sports teams, and a few expressways -- function in complete isolation from one another. One is known as Downtown and Midtown, where an urban renewal is quickly taking shape in the shadows of GM's aptly named Renaissance Center. Here, crime is declining, and joggers and diners can be found on the streets until late at night. This area is approximately ten square miles.

The other Detroit is known simply as the "neighborhoods," where vacant homes line almost every block, crime continues to increase, and outdoor civic life has been hijacked by fear. The city's jaw-dropping crime statistics -- a violent crime rate of 2,137 per 100,000 residents, an average 58-minute response time for 911 calls, and a homicide rate of 55 per 100,000 residents -- come from this Detroit. This area occupies the city's other 130 square miles.

However, in between these two Detroits are pockets of civic life that have gone largely unnoticed. These places are counted among the "neighborhoods" because they are residential and far away from the glow of the downtown renaissance. These are places like Grandmont and Rosedale in Northwest Detroit, East English Village and Cornerstone Village in East Detroit, Green Acres and Palmer Woods in West Detroit, and Mexicantown in Southwest Detroit. These neighborhoods have not been lost, but they are in trouble. Good people live in these places -- paying their mortgages and taxes, revitalizing vacant homes, shopping, participating in neighborhood patrols, and educating their children. They work double time as citizens and public servants.

For the past two years, I have been working on the ground in Detroit alongside famed criminologist George Kelling, the man behind the "broken windows" theory of crime prevention, which underpinned New York City's historic turnaround in the early 1990s. We have been helping Detroit's police department and neighborhoods implement community-policing programs in various corners of the city, including some of these neighborhoods, and have achieved modest gains.

Downtown and Midtown have become remarkably safer places because of outside influences. A visionary chief executive, Dan Gilbert, has purchased dozens of buildings, created a high-tech surveillance-camera system, and founded an outdoor oasis called Campus Martius Park. An enterprising university, Wayne State, has developed a strong police department to provide public safety around its ever-growing campus. And entrepreneurs have leveraged low interest rates and government incentives to open up shops in the area.

These largely top-down economic activities have allowed for a vibrant civic life to develop in the urban core, and a result the place has become safer. But these sorts of activities cannot be expected to occur all across the 130 remaining square miles. For the "neighborhoods," a bottom-up and targeted approach is required.

Detroit is so far gone in many of these places that home invasions often go unprosecuted, simply because they are such a common occurrence -- a story not unfamiliar to New Yorkers during the 1980s. Just as New York began to reclaim its quality of life by cracking down on subway-fare cheats and squeegee men, Detroit has had to begin with a crackdown on home invasions. In Grandmont and Rosedale, this has meant organizing citizens to report suspicious behavior, having police take reports seriously, having probation officers serve outstanding warrants, and having prosecutors do their part. The result has been a 26 percent drop in home invasions and 1,200 active contacts between officers and residents. None of the worst offenders in the area have been re-arrested, suggesting they got the message. It's a start.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to improving the safety of Detroit's "neighborhoods," but many of these places are still home to high concentrations of residents and are worth saving. They need to be surgically identified, stabilized, and expanded. The city's focus must be on the residents who have stayed and weathered the storm, and who ultimately will serve as the critical partner for these efforts.

The lesson is clear: Restoring public safety will by necessity be an incremental process that requires the rebuilding of the most basic institutions of civic life. But it can be done -- and must be done, if Detroit is ever, once again, to flourish.

Michael Allegretti is vice president of programs at the Manhattan Institute.

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