Chief James Craig: 'Detroiters Have Become Somewhat Desensitized By Violent Crime'

June 15, 2014, 10:52 PM by  Allan Lengel

When James Craig took on the job as Detroit Police chief last year, the city was facing the prospect of bankruptcy, the political structure had collapsed, an emergency manager was in place,  police precincts were closed to the public after 4 p.m. and the department was in need of a serious shakeup. 

Craig came in, reopened the precincts to the public, thinned out what he saw as a bloated executive staff, put more cops on the street and drastically reduced the number of officers on the mayor’s security detail.

Nearly one year after taking office, crime is down, including carjackings, homicide solution rates have improved and police are responding quicker to emergency calls.

Not to say that all is fine. Not everyone in the police department agrees with Craig's changes. And carjackings, shootings and crime in general remain far too pervasive

“As much as I tell you that I’m comfortable in telling you crime is down that doesn’t mean that we have fixed it. I’m saying the work continues,” he tells Deadline Detroit.

Craig, a Detroit native, started his career as a Detroit cop. He went on to the Los Angeles Police Department, where he rose to the rank of captain. He then became police chief in Portland, Maine, and later Cincinnati, his last stop before coming here. 

In a recent interview at police headquarters, Craig sat down with Deadline Detroit’s Allan Lengel and talked about a number of subjects, including leadership at the department, gun ownership for citizens, Kevyn Orr  and Mike Duggan, the pervasiveness of marijuana, his high-profile raids and criticism he got when he drove off after a man approached his car at a traffic light.

The following interview was condensed and the questions were edited for clarity.

DD: Are there similarities when you talk about crime here in Detroit and you talk about crime in places like Cincinnati?

Craig: There are more unique things here. I’ve said publicly in recent weeks, Detroiters have been somewhat desensitized by violent crime. Detroit, you talk about desensitized to violence, but also the fact that we see instances of seniors being victimized. That’s kind of odd. I ‘m not saying other cities don’t have seniors who are victims.  But here, when you talk about a senior who takes a stroll to a gas station everyday, his quality of life is taking that daily walk to go get his scratch off, and he’s confronted by two armed suspects, who declare that they are going to rob him and instead of taking his wallet they shoot him.

When there’s a carjacking in other places it really rings a bell. It has been common here.  It’s almost as if people have come to accept it.

DD: What was your impression when you first came here?

Craig: I got here July 2013. You’ve got a police department that wasn’t responding to calls for service; 58 minute average response time; 11 percent clearance rate for homicides, morale was at the low of the low. Police officers lost 10 percent of their pay. The uniform police officers were forced on 12- hour shifts while their supervisors and officers in special operations units remained on 8. And that created a division. Police stations closed at 4 o’clock. Service delivery to the neighborhoods in my view was non-existent . It just wasn’t important.

DD: Did that blow you away?

Craig: It blew me away. I was shocked. Instead of having officers in the field, we had, even my office, when I got here we had people performing clerical functions.  In my view those are people that need to be in the field. Or even the former mayor’s security detail, was hovering around 23 sworn officers. And I make a comparison because when I look at a place like Los Angeles that has 4 million people. the mayor only had a security detail of 6.

Kwame Kilpatrick

DD: How many officers are on the mayor’s detail now?

Craig: I ended up reducing the former mayor’s detail down to six police officers because, to me, I felt that that was not an efficient way of using sworn police officers. I remember as a LAPD captain in LA when I was working at the (BET Awards Ceremony) and the mayor of Detroit comes up, and then Kwame, was the mayor. I must have counted 5 to 10 Detroit police officers. I thought it was odd. Then the mayor of LA rolls up sometime after and he’s got one or two LAPD officers, I’m thinking, something is wrong with this picture. So coming here, certainly that was on my radar.

DD: What year was that?

Craig: Maybe 2008, 2007.

DD: What other problems did you see in the department?

Craig: It was not uncommon in some districts, there would be anywhere between 40 to 60 runs held between shifts. So you’ve got to wonder. People didn’t get service. In fact police didn’t show up.  I’m not blaming the police officers. Police officers wanted to do police work. Clearly there was an absence of leadership, a total absence of leadership. 

DD:  You come here and you obviously see a culture that needs to be changed. Did you get a lot of pushback when you’ve tried?

Craig: Ironically, I didn’t.  From the police officers and sergeant ranks, they were supportive of change. They recognized that something was wrong here. There was no interest in doing what needed to be done to serve the neighborhoods.  They wanted to be police officers. Certainly it’s no secret the organization was top heavy. So I went quickly about the business of eliminating some of the top ranking positions.  I think we eliminated by way of example, nine commander positions. We eliminated some deputy chiefs.

DD: Did they serve a function? 

Craig: In my view, what I saw you had commanders or executive officers who had meaningless positions and so I eliminated them.  I didn’t fire anybody. Some opted to retire. Some operated from the status quo. I needed to change and look for individuals who would embrace this new DPD.

DD: Do you feel like you’ve made a dent?

No doubt. When I look back. It’s hard for me to assess the dramatic change. For me this is normal. 

For one, for example. We’re now sitting on a homicide clearance rate that’s comparable to other large cities like LA. We’re now sitting probably high 80s, low 90s.  And really I would tell you there’s no magic to it. The community, coming in the door, when I got here, had no confidence in the Detroit Police Department and the reason why is because..If they can’t call us for help they’re not going to communicate with us. They’re not going to share information about crimes in their neighborhoods with us. 

And that’s part of what was going on here. Confidence is returning, people are talking to us.

DD: Were there other reasons for the low clearance rate? 

Craig: Some of it was just lazy investigative work.  So when we took a look and bumped up to like 40 percent; it was still embarrassing.   I set a soft goal of reducing overall crime by five percent reduction and we ended the year with a 10 percent reduction in overall crime. I was excited to be able to see a decline, but we still had too many murders.

DD: Did that get you angry to see 11 percent clearance rate?

Craig: I wouldn’t use the word angry. I would just say shocked. Appalled. But again, not blaming the police officers or the line folks who do the work here. They had no leadership. It was like nobody cared.

DD: Do you feel your mass raids, that have been highly publicized, have  had an impact? Some people have applauded you and others have been skeptical, saying it’s more show than substance.

Craig: Yeah, some feel it’s staged, Hollywoodish. I would say absolutely not.  We’ve gone in, we’ve made arrests . What’s more important to me is when I look at the community’s  perception, impression of what going on today. There’s not a day that goes by that people don’t approach me and say “I appreciate the job that not only you but the police department is doing.’ We feel like a difference is being made. We feel there’s a change.

DD: You were hired by Keyn Orr.  Do you deal with the mayor right now or do deal directly with Kevyn Orr?

Craig: Both. With the new mayor, I attend weekly cabinet meetings and we communicate on a variety of issues. For example, if there’s an officer-involved shooting, I’ll call the mayor.

DD: How would you describe your relationship with the mayor?

Craig: I would describe it as positive.

DD: Do you expect to stay here after Kevyn Orr leaves?

Craig: I welcome the opportunity to continue on. I’m certainly enthusiastic, not only about the work that’s been done, just from the public safety side of the house, but the things that we see happening city wide, when you talk about blight, we talk about the strategies that the mayor is using to hold people  accountable. He’s driving the city in the direction that I think’s good for Detroit. Holding people accountable. Not embracing the status quo.

Some of the same things certainly I saw coming in the door in the police department where there was totally an absence of  accountability. So my fights with the early management team was getting that team to understand accountability.  Being responsible, being responsive. And those things were clearly not part of the regular conversation here.

DD: Let me ask you in terms of drug sales. Has the problem improved at all in the city?

Craig: What you see with drugs in Detroit is no different than any other large urban city.  Crack is really not as prevalent in Detroit now. I can’t speak about what it was before. Crack still exists but the drug of choice, frankly, in Detroit has been marijuana. And marijuana has driven a lot of crime.

DD: You see places like Colorado where the sale and use has been legalized.  Would it help for marijuana to be legal here?

Craig: I’m not for pro-legalizing marijuana. I know there’s individuals who believe if you legalize marijuana  that crime all of sudden would disappear. I don’t buy it. And I don’t embrace it. I think if they legalized it there would still be a black market for marijuana sales. There would still be crime associated with it and so I just don’t see that as the answer.

DD: Over many years there were turf wars and crack corners. Is that happening like that with marijuana?

Craig: I don’t think it is to the degree of crack. But I don’t have the body of Detroit knowledge on how neighborhoods were divided up for drug sales. Although, yes we do have gangs in Detroit, not organized to the degree you see in a Los Angeles.

DD: What kind of gangs are we seeing here?

Craig: Street, loosely organized street, cowardly gang members, and emphasis on cowards.

DD: Selling drugs?

Craig: Some sell drugs.  Some commit robberies, carjackings. They engage in a variety of different criminal enterprises. Then again, I don’t find them as structured as what you see in Los Angeles. I’ve launched a gang intelligence unit to address it.

DD: In terms of the media, as in many places,it  isn’t always kind. Some in the media gave you a hard time about the carjacking incident where you drove off.

Craig: Yeah. They did. It was unfair. As I’ve said repeatedly, it wasn’t a carjacking incident. I’m not calling it that.  Now, clearly as I’ve said in the past and I’m consistent with this: A person runs up to the side of my car, I don’t see a weapon, so should I assume that this person was going to carjack me? Possibly. I mean is it odd that someone would run toward your car stopped at a light? It’s odd. If the person came up with a gun, beating on my door, that’s clear. So if this police chief would have reacted to a person running, who I didn’t see with a weapon, what would the story have been then?

See what’s interesting about the media here which is very different in other places; Folks will take something like that and run with it. He didn’t even make contact with my car. So I made an evasive move. I’m off duty.”

DD: I think some people said, “Well, he’s the chief, he should have pulled out his gun instead of taking off."

Craig: Done what? To an unarmed person running up to my car. Really?

I’m just saying to you. Do you think, what if for the sake of argument, that this person was running to my car to ask for directions and I pulled my gun out? Would that have been a felonious assault?  Would that have been proper, for the police chief?  For  anybody?  It would not have been. For the media to continue to call it an attempt, to call it a carjacking, borders on irresponsibility. 

DD: Did that bother you?

Craig: It doesn’t necessarily bother me so much. All I ask, can we be fair?

DD: And you felt it was unfair?

Craig: I’m not whining about it. You brought up the question. I know it’s a sexy story.  If I had seen a gun or a weapon, my response would have been different.  I don’t know what more I could have done.

DD: Benny Napoleon, when he ran for mayor, said he was going to reduce most crimes by 50 percent.  Was that realistic?

Craig: It’s realistic if you have a plan to do it.  I mean it could be. I mean, what’s the plan? 

DD: That’s kind of a high number, 50 percent?

Craig: Well, 50 percent is high. I have seen and been part of double-digit reductions. For example, year to date, we’re sitting on a 35 percent reduction in robbery, as compared to last year. Carjackings, the first time, the steepest reduction since the beginning of the year: 22 percent.  Here’s another fun fact. So, first quarter of the year, the month of March, we saw 10 homicides. That was the lowest number of recorded homicides during a month since 2001. I think the other low month I think was January.  We are seeing is a slight uptick  in aggravated assaults. And the reason why we’re seeing an uptick, 3 percent, because of domestic violence incidents.

I was trying to figure out, why are we seeing an increase in domestic violence incidents  as compared to last year. And then it hit me. When I got here , 40 to 60 calls were being held. It’s reasonable to believe that we didn’t go to calls for service. If we’re holding that number of calls, how many calls went unanswered?  What I’m saying is, we go to calls now and when we go there we report crime. There’s been a history here of underreporting.

This year we set an overall goal of 10 percent reduction of crime. Year to date, right now, we’re sitting on 20 percent, that includes both violent and property crime.

DD: You’ve been an advocate of lawful citizens having guns and a lot of people have applauded you and some criticized you for that. Obviously you think it’s a good thing?

Craig: I think it’s good for people to protect themselves, their families and when necessary, protect someone from an imminent threat to their lives or facing great bodily injury.  I’m not an advocate of violence.  I do not promote vigilantism, I promoted life, I promote nonviolence, and I do promote law abiding citizens who are eligible to get a concealed weapons license, who are trained and who are responsible when faced with an imminent threat to their life. It’s the law that they can protect themselves.

DD: To play devil’s advocate, some people may say, well some of those lawful citizens might drink one night, get in an argument with their spouse and may do something foolish.

Craig: And those things could happen. Let’s change the conversation. When I get that kind of criticism, I say let’s turn that around for a minute.  Let’s talk about how we keep guns out of the hands of criminals.  Let’s talk about how we keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. Now I don’t have all the answers. How many law abiding citizens wander out committing mass shootings? How many law-abiding citizens are out committing armed carjackings, robberies, shootings? How many are doing that? I say that none are. I say that it's criminals and when you talk about these horrific instances that we read about across the nation, it generally involve the mentally ill.

Cover of the NRA magazine

DD: You were on the cover of the NRA magazine. People often have strong opinions about the NRA. What was the reaction you got for being on the cover?

Craig: If I were to do my own poll, people who have come to me, 99.5 percent are favorable. People approached me, other law enforcement colleagues would approach me, and say: “We appreciate your comment. “ My comments were focused on self defense.

DD: If you had one wish for this department what would it be?

Craig: I would want Detroit Police officers to be compensated on par with their colleagues in other major cities. Again, I’ve said publicly, Kevyn Orr did not bring this fiscal crisis to Detroit. Kevyin Orr is fixing it, giving the hand he‘s dealt. It was the greedy, dirty corrupt, status-quo politicians that destroyed this city. Certainly I’m talking about past administrations, I’m going back before Bing. They didn’t invest in this police agency, they didn’t invest in public safety, they didn’t care about it. It’s evident. I mean when you look at the dilapidated vehicles.  The blessing for us, our friends in Detroit corporate world donated 100 new police vehicles and that was great. 

DD: Do you feel comfortable getting gas here in Detroit?

Craig: I would be aware of my surroundings. As much as I tell you that I’m comfortable in telling you crime is down, that doesn’t mean that we have fixed it. I’m saying the work continues.  We started a lighthouse project out in the neighborhoods and there’s gas stations that I would feel very comfortable going to. But I would certainly, day or night, if I was going to gas station and there was a lot of loitering activity, a place that appeared to be unsafe, I certainly would be concerned.

DD: Is there something gas station owners can do?

Craig: You know every time there’s an incident associated with, say a gas station, the first question that I have is: “Have we gone by and had a conversation with management? Was the place dirty?”

You might think why is that important? Well, it’s important because when you talk about the broken windows theory, that if you allow the small things to occur, it draws in larger issues like carjackings, robberies, shootings. Just  pick a location where there’s been a number of incidents and I will tell you there are other small things that pre-existed those more serious events.

DD: How many officers do you have?

Craig: Currently we’re sitting on 2,300. We just graduated a class of 21 or 22. We’re set to start a class of 50 sometime this month.

DD: How many do you feel you really need?

Craig: I get asked that question often. One of the things that I’m in the process of doing and have done since I’ve gotten here is make sure , with fewer officers, we’re operating in a more effective and efficient way than we were, say over a year ago when we had more officers.

I’m not suggesting we’re at that magic number.  We’re making a very thorough evaluation of every single full-duty, sworn officer where they work, what jobs they’re  performing, because I’ve got to believe we still have room for improvement. And while right now our average response time is hovering between 10 and 11 minutes, we set a goal for 2014 of five minutes, which is a stretch goal. I would admit that. I think the national average for response time to emergencies, nationally is 11 minutes. That said, I’m still pushing. 

DD:  What’s your opinion of your first year? 

Craig: Excited. I certainly regard the men and women who do this job here in Detroit, the police officers, are some of the best in the nation. They were craving for leadership. Leadership was absent and so with right leadership they’re responding. The fact when you look at some of our high profile homicide cases, the tragic murder involving the CVS security guard, that murder was solved within days, which is a very different response than in the past. There’s a commitment.

All in all, I’m excited about a number of things that we’re doing in terms of serving this community. I’m excited that people come to me daily and say they appreciate the job you’re doing, appreciate the job the department is doing. We feel a change. I hear people saying, “Hey, I want to move back to the city.”


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