Last October, I participated on my neighborhood radio patrol's special Angel's Night crew. A Channel 7 news team rode with neighborhood activist Sheila Ward and me as we drove slowly through Detroit's Green Acres area. The reporter asked me about the importance of patrolling that particular night. I said that every night was important: If something bad happened, it didn't matter which night it was. The radio patrol in my neighborhood operates year-round.
I bring this up because last week the Rev. Ronald Griffin, former chair of the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners, presented a plan that includes an Angel's Night-like deployment of volunteers on a regular basis. Griffin first introduced the plan — which focuses on police working better with the community — last October, when he was commission chair. He says he resigned three months ago because he couldn't move the board forward on the plan.
I think a lot of people around here are feeling the pain of less-than-ideal police-community relations right now. The recent spike in high-profile shootings and killings has many people grieving and asking questions. It doesn't matter whether it's a 12-year veteran police officer, a grandmother, a 7-year-old girl or a young man of 17 — all of them have loved ones who mourn their loss.
First in this cluster was Police Officer Brian Huff, who was shot dead on May 3, while four other officers were wounded; next a grandmother was shot and killed by a stray bullet fired by a man retaliating after his vehicle had been carjacked; 17-year-old Je'Rean Blake was killed outside a party store; the next day 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, was killed by a policeman during a raid to apprehend Blake's suspected killer. Each incident seemed to demoralize residents more, and each added a national image of Detroit as the place you want to avoid.
"When there is fear, people look for more reasons to be afraid," says public relations consultant Greg Bowens, who served as press secretary under former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer. "Each one of these situations feeds into people being afraid."
What scared me the most last week was Detroit Mayor Dave Bing seeming to throw up his hands about the violence, saying that city officials "don't know how to stop it." It was a moment of honesty and angst from a mayor who doesn't seem to enjoy the public spotlight and had been criticized for not quickly responding to the killing of young Aiyana.
Obviously the police are trying. We've heard feel-good reports from Police Chief Warren Evans about arrests made, illegal guns confiscated, drugs taken off the streets. But when you witness the number of senseless killings we have over the past few weeks, it makes you wonder just how effective police tactics are.
Bowens, as guest host on WCHB-AM's popular Mildred Gaddis Show last week, moderated discussions and call-ins on the subject that everyone seems to be talking about.
"The sense that I get is that people are reacting to two messages," says Bowens. "They keep getting bombarded with stuff from the city that crime is down and police are on the move doing what they need to do. That's against a backdrop where you have a grandmother, a police officer, a 17-year-old and a 7-year-old killed. What they hear and what they see aren't matching up. Are we safe or are we not? Can we trust the people in government to tell us the truth? When you send out mixed messages like that, your credibility gets questioned."
Ron Scott, president of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, took major heat when he questioned the effects of police policy immediately after Huff was killed. A couple of weeks later, especially after Aiyanna's death from a policeman's bullet, maybe people will find what Scott has to say more useful.
"We need to try something new because what we are doing isn't working," says Scott.
Which brings us back to Pastor Griffin; his plan focuses on police-community relations to help stem crime, and for volunteers to patrol neighborhoods.
"The patrols are very effective," says Stephanie Young, director of the Mayor's Office of Neighborhood City Halls, which oversees and funds neighborhood radio patrols. There's not a lot of money there. Young says the budget for radio patrols is $300,000. The amount that goes to my Green Acres neighborhood patrol is $8,000, less than every other patrol in the city. That's not much money as far as crime fighting goes, but when you have volunteers keeping an eye on their own neighborhoods, it stretches the resources far beyond just hiring a couple more cops.
"They're one of our model patrols," Young says. "That speaks to the commitment of the members of a patrol and the sheer numbers of volunteers in that neighborhood."
Last week, Bing said we need to change the culture in Detroit. I agree, but I include the culture of city government and the Police Department. Both of them could be enhanced by using community organizing techniques. If people are engaged in the process of setting policy, they will be more inclined to accept it and defend it. Bing seems to be ensconced in his offices with the corporate brain trust trying to get a handle on the city's finances. Evans seems to believe his tough-on-crime approach will make people feel safer. Neither seems to be looking at community involvement for answers.
The real answers will come when Detroiters get active and get heard. People like Minister Malik Shabazz of the New Marcus Garvey Movement. Shabazz and his crew have held demonstrations in front of drug houses to get dealers to move away. They have mediated neighborhood disputes in ways similar to Scott's Peace Zones that I discussed in my previous column. Shabazz and the Rev. Horace Sheffiled III showed up at the scene of a state police shooting of a crime suspect over the weekend because they feared unrest in an area near where Aiyana was killed. That's pretty much the same thing Scott did when Huff was killed.
Over the weekend, the Rev. Al Sharpton spoke at Aiyana's funeral. He said that the child's death was the "breaking point." I'd like to think that statement is true, but I don't believe much in breaking points in these instances, at least not at the community level. There are individual breaking points, and people quietly get up and leave when they can't take it anymore.
But I do take stock in something else Sharpton said: "I'd rather tell you to start looking at the man in the mirror. We've all done something that contributed to this."
Then, like a slap in the face, two more innocent children were shot this past weekend.
We do need to look at ourselves and take responsibility. Rather than lock our doors and hide when we see illegal, destructive behavior taking place, we need to do something about it. I don't mean you should run out into the streets and get yourself killed. But I do mean that everyone in Detroit should get more involved in community organizations, whether it is joining a block club, a radio patrol, the New Marcus Garvey Movement, the Coalition Against Police Brutality or some other group.
Talk to your neighbors. That's a start. If city leadership doesn't know what to do, maybe somebody down the street does. We are the people and our own best resource.Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org