February 5, 2012
The people of Detroit are taking no prisoners.
Justifiable homicide in the city shot up 79 percent in 2011 from the previous year, as citizens in the long-suffering city armed themselves and took matters into their own hands. The local rate of self-defense killings now stands 2,200 percent above the national average. Residents, unable to rely on a dwindling police force to keep them safe, are fighting back against the criminal scourge on their own. And they’re offering no apologies.
“We got to have a little Old West up here in Detroit. That’s what it’s gonna take,” Detroit resident Julia Brown told The Daily.
The last time Brown, 73, called the Detroit police, they didn’t show up until the next day. So she applied for a permit to carry a handgun and says she’s prepared to use it against the young thugs who have taken over her neighborhood, burglarizing entire blocks, opening fire at will and terrorizing the elderly with impunity.
“I don’t intend to be one of their victims,” said Brown, who has lived in Detroit since the late 1950s. “I’m planning on taking one out.”
How it got this bad in Detroit has become a point of national discussion. Violent crime settled into the city’s bones decades ago, but recently, as the numbers of police officers have plummeted and police response times have remained distressingly high, citizens have taken to dealing with things themselves.
In this city of about 700,000 people, the number of cops has steadily fallen, from about 5,000 a decade ago to fewer than 3,000 today. Detroit homicides — the second-highest per capita in the country last year, according to the FBI — rose by 10 percent in 2011 to 344 people.
On a bleak day in January, a group of funeral directors wearied by the violence drove a motorcade of hearses through the city streets in protest.
Average police response time for priority calls in the city, according to the latest data available, is 24 minutes. In comparable cities across the country, it is well under 10 minutes.
Citizens like Brown feel they have been left with little choice but to take the law into their own hands.
The number of justifiable homicides, in which residents use deadly force in self-defense, jumped from 19 in 2010 to 34 last year — a 79 percent rise — according to newly released city data.
Signs that vigilantism was taking hold in the city came earlier, around Memorial Day 2009, when former federal agent Alvin Davis decided he’d had enough of the break-ins at his mother’s home on the east side. She called the police again and again, but the brazen robberies continued. Davis, then a 32-year-old Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer, snapped.
Prosecutors said he spent days chasing and harassing the teenagers who were allegedly robbing his mother, even shoving his federally issued firearm into one of their mouths. No one was killed, but by the time he was done, Davis had racked up charges of unlawful imprisonment and assault. In August 2010, he was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison.
But many residents in his mother’s Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood are sympathetic to Davis, whose case is on appeal.
“He basically did what a lot of us wished we could do,” said Ken Gray, 58, who lives down the street from Davis’ mother.
One high-ranking official in the county legal system, speaking to The Daily, said the rise in justifiable homicides mirrors a local court system that’s increasingly lenient of the practice.
“It’s a lot more acceptable now to get your own retribution,” the official said. “And the justice system in the city is a lot more understanding if people do that. It‘s becoming a part of the culture.”
Detroiters are arming themselves with shotguns and handguns and buying guard dogs. Anything to take care of their own. And privately, residents say neighborhood watch groups in Detroit are widely armed.
“It’s like the militiamen who stepped up way back when. That’s where the neighborhood folks are," said James “Jackrabbit” Jackson, a 63-year-old retired Detroit cop who has patrolled the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood for years.
“They’re ready to fight,” Jackson said. “We don’t hardly see police anymore.”
The city’s wealthier enclaves have hired private security firms. Intimidating men in armored trucks patrol streets lined with gracious old homes in a scene more likely seen in Mexico City than the United States.
That kind of paid protection can run residents anywhere from $10 to $200 per month, and companies say business is good.
“We’re booming,” said Dale Brown, the owner of Threat Management Group, which along with Recon Security patrols neighborhoods like Palmer Woods in black Hummers.
“We’re paramilitary, but we’re positive. I’m not a vigilante. I’m an agent of change.”
The Detroit Police Department, grappling with deep funding cuts in a city with a spiraling budget crisis, acknowledges that response times are high and says it is working on a plan to lower them. But a spokeswoman for the department insists the rise in justifiable homicides is unrelated.
“It’s not about police response time because often the act has already taken place by the time the police are called,” said Sgt. Eren Stephens. She said citizens have a right to defend themselves.
“Anytime a life is lost, we’re concerned,” she said. “But we can‘t be on every corner in front of every home. And we know that there are citizens who will do what they have to do to protect themselves.”
That’s the terrifying position in which Kevin Early found himself in November when he was held up at gunpoint outside his home in the upper-middle-class Rosedale Park area. Neighbors called the police, but it was 25 minutes before an officer arrived.
Early, the director of the criminal justice studies program at the University of Michigan’s Dearborn campus, reasoned with the men for more than 20 minutes before he sensed they were about to shoot him in the head — then he ran. As his attackers fled in the opposite direction, neighbors emerged from the street’s stately homes with shotguns.
“All I could think of was my daughter coming home,” Early said. “I didn’t want her to see me shot dead.”
Weeks later, Early packed up his home and left Detroit. He hired Threat Management to supervise the move.
“Where else do the police come to your house after you’ve been robbed and ask you, ‘Why did you call us?