Another Detroit Police Officer Leaves The Beat

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Kenny Williams

Detroit lost another cop Friday.

It happens frequently. Sworn police officers retire, or otherwise leave the force, and there is no one to take their place. This is called attrition, and it is slowly eating away at the DPD’s ability to respond effectively to crime in Detroit.

The cop who retired Friday was Kenny Williams, commander of the central district, which takes in the chunk of Detroit from the river up to Highland Park, including downtown, Midtown and the Medical Center.

The number of police in Detroit when Williams left the force is around 2,600. 

When Williams joined the DPD, in 1987, there were about 5,000 sworn officers. The city’s population has declined by more than 350,000 people in 25 years, but the level of crime has failed to slow at a proportionate rate.

“If you take our homicides and shootings, it dictates we don’t have enough,” Williams said. “Some nights there can be four serious incidents in a district, and maybe five or six scout cars.”

Williams does not sit around criticizing the department, or the city. He lives in Detroit, as does his only child, an adult daughter, and his two grandchildren.

“I’m vested in this place,” he says. “I love this city.”

Yet Williams is street smart, and he believes there are too many desperate young people in Detroit who have nothing to live for and feel no fear.

He says: “I don’t go to gas stations or party stores in the city, and I don’t let anyone I know go to them, either.”

Williams, 48, is an example of the possibilities the department offered a smart kid in the 1980s. He grew up at Navaho and Freud on the East Side and played point guard on East Catholic High School's three state championship basketball team in 1979-81. 

He has four years of college but no degree, and was working as a waiter at the upper-crust Detroit Club, serving tables and listening in on corporate chieftains, when he got mad at his boss one day and walked into the police recruiting office. 

He started driving a scout car in the old 11th (Davison) Precinct, but then joined Mayor Coleman Young's security team in 1989, during Young’s last term. After Young retired, Williams voluntarily accompanied the mayor when he left home, and he got to know him so well that he was among family members and close friends in the hospital room when Young died in 1997.

“I loved that man,” Williams says. “I would do anything for him.”

Williams learned a lot from Young. The mayor once had him watch “The Godfather” three times in one night and then discuss the lessons learned, which included, 1) Keep your friends close and your enemies closer, 2) Whoever sets up the meeting is a traitor, and 3) Never let someone from outside the family know what you are thinking.

As a police officer, Williams spent a lot of time planning major events, such as the Super Bowl, and he says the highlight of his career was heading the logistics for the funeral of Rosa Parks, whose post-mortal glow was sought by everyone from former U.S. presidents to the nation’s most famous preachers. 

“But the stage was only so big,” says Williams.

Working in the national eye tested his leadership and management skills, but so did his final job -- chief law enforcement officer for central Detroit, with its skyscrapers, clubs, entertainment centers, sports venues, cultural institutions, hospitals, colleges and 20,000 residents, many of whom complain city leaders devote too many police resources downtown.

“It’s like a juggling act,” William says. “You have to make each side feel they’re important.“

Williams said he tried to communicate closely with residents, and he did his best to be honest when he told them downtown was important and needed police attention. He also pointed out that crime overall in the central district fell by 21 percent last year. He believes the relatively healthy downtown and Midtown will continue to grow and eventually spill over their boundaries, bringing development to nearby areas where blight is more common today. 

Williams likes to say that when many of the downtown venues host events, like last Friday, the central business district temporarily becomes the second biggest city in Michigan – after Detroit itself – with more than 200,000 visitors. And, in a city with a serous violence problem, downtown has remained largely crime-free.

“It’s the safest downtown in America,” he says. 

That’s not to say there are no challenges. Williams ran into trouble in January when police tried to herd motorists into paid lots to combat break-ins, and a number of cars were towed. Williams says he should have communicated better.

Last summer, shootings and unruliness broke out at some downtown clubs, and residents – many of them newly arrived downtown – complained loudly when chaos engulfed their neighborhoods. Williams and his officers stepped up enforcement, and, with state liquor officials, put one club out of business.

One shooting victim last summer bled profusely on a sidewalk. Beyond the human tragedy, Williams fears a businessman somewhere will see an image of that blood and might think twice about doing something in Detroit.

“Our biggest problem is lack of investment,” he says.

He has no time for the paranoiac undercurrent in Detroit politics that says outsiders are trying to take over Detroit at the expense  of Detroiters.

“We’ve got to get rid of this boogeyman we’re worried about,” Williams says. “I’d like to see an influx of ideas and people. With this paranoia, people are guarding the city against outsiders, but it’s like they are guarding a bank with no money in it.”

In retirement, Williams will continue to run his security-consulting firm, KBW & Associates, which he started in 2000. One of his clients is Eminem, with whom Williams travels.

Williams wasn’t the only Detroit cop to retire Friday. They leave on a weekly basis, and they’ll be missed. In fact, there has been a net loss of more than 300 sworn officers in the past couple of years because there is no money to replace them. And more budget cuts are coming.

This in a city in with more than 440 shootings and 144 homicides so far this year.

That’s only a dozen or so homicides fewer than New York City this week.

And New York has 7.6 million more people.

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