Detroit's Black residents seek more police presence yet often see slower 911 response

·8 min read
Nick Symonette and son Nick Symonett III, daughter Nadia and wife Nateesan march in Detroit last summer after George Floyd's murder by a police officer in Minneapolis.
Nick Symonette and son Nick Symonett III, daughter Nadia and wife Nateesan march in Detroit last summer after George Floyd's murder by a police officer in Minneapolis.

If someone was to simply look at the headlines, YouTube videos and social media posts in the past year, since George Floyd's murder, it could be easy to think that the Black community writ large has zero faith in the police and is uncomfortable with law enforcement presence in their neighborhoods.

But according to a new USA TODAY/Suffolk University/Detroit Free Press Poll and an exclusive review of Detroit police's 911 call data, the truth is not so clear.

In fact, 77% of Black residents in Detroit said they would feel safer with more police officers on the job in their neighborhoods compared with 62% of white residents.

For years, sociologists have discussed the paradox of especially poorer areas of Black communities being both overpoliced and underprotected.

A USA TODAY analysis of more than 1 million 911 calls for service from September 2016 through July 2020 found that ZIP codes with higher numbers of Black and fewer white residents were likely to see police response times on average double what they were in the city's downtown area, which includes newer high-rises and more white businesses.

Those ZIP codes with higher numbers of Black residents and longer response times made up more than half of Detroit's few dozen ZIP codes.

By and large the city's west side saw generally faster response times than the east side, though there were pockets of neighborhoods with bad crime in the west and to the north, near the 8 Mile Road to the north, that also had markedly slower police response times.

The analysis excluded police-initiated calls, which have a response time of zero, and those that lasted less than 10 seconds or more than four hours, to account for traffic stops and other outliers like officers who forgot to report back from a call.

"We talk a lot about how Black people in these poor disadvantaged communities are disproportionately arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned, but we tend not to focus on this neglect aspect they feel," said Paige Vaughn, a postdoctoral fellow at Yale Law School’s Justice Collaboratory.

More on the survey: Exclusive poll finds Detroit residents far more worried about public safety than police reform

Detroiters get real about city's crime: What they said in new poll

The neglect can be systemic and may take the shape of police failing to enforce the law in predominantly Black neighborhoods, Black victims receiving less advocacy and resources for their cases, and the fact that for many Black communities, "crime simply remains a constant threat," Vaughn said.

For 2019, the last full year of data provided by the city, urgent "priority 1" calls for crimes like assaults and robberies saw a 15-minute average police response time in an east side neighborhood. The less urgent calls averaged about 55 minutes. That's in contrast to roughly 12 minutes for urgent calls in a west side neighborhood and 31 minutes for less urgent ones.

Police response in the city's revitalized Downtown area averaged 11 minutes for urgent calls and 20 minutes for less urgent ones.

Poll respondents repeatedly cited the police department's slow response to crime reports. They discussed shootings where either the police didn't respond for hours or there were doubts whether they would ever come.

When 41-year-old Charlita Bell's car was shot up last year while at a store in the Brightmoor neighborhood, which data shows has one of the longest 911 response times, Bell said she was so scared she didn't even wait for the police because "they take too long to come" and she didn't know if the shooter would be coming back.

A 2016 national survey of more than 800 crime victims that found that only 1 in 4 victims reported getting help from the police. The No. 1 reason for people not reporting crime was feeling that the police wouldn’t do anything to help them.

Other respondents talked about the lack of resources for lower-income neighborhoods and inadequate police focus in quality-of-life issues, for example, an increase in hot-rodders racing through neighborhood streets.

"We’re in the neighborhoods, and it’s intimidating," said Wanda Jan Chris Hill, 71, a retired city employee who is Black and has lived in Detroit all her life. "It goes on all day and all night. It’s not something new. The police need to do something about it.”

Police response in Detroit has improved over the past five years under Police Chief James Craig, who left the department earlier this year.
Police response in Detroit has improved over the past five years under Police Chief James Craig, who left the department earlier this year.

To be sure, police response has improved over the past five years under the stewardship of former police chief James Craig, who has taken a data-driven approach to understanding crime stats likely learned from his three decades with the Los Angeles Police Department. Craig left the department this year and is expected to try to challenge Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as a Republican.

That data has shown a steady decrease in overall average 911 response times each year, from 43 minutes in 2016 to 26 minutes in the first half of 2020.

That may also explain why Detroiters of all races generally expressed satisfaction with how police ultimately handled their calls for help, according to the survey results, even though only about half believe Detroit police use force only when necessary. That's because, at least in terms of police showing up, there were some years over the past decade when that was not at all a given.

Detroit police commission chair Willie Bell, one of 11 commissioners who sits on the police department's civilian oversight body, said that the police force has "drastically improved" over the years and that given an increase in shootings, the city is doing "pretty good under the circumstances."

He noted that non-patrol officers were paid overtime to address Downtown crime to avoid taking resources away from other areas. Bell also added that there has been a greater effort to focus on priority 1 and 2 calls.

"The biggest issue we have is more request for police presence," Bell said, referring to the higher crime and lower-income 9th Precinct, on the east side of Detroit. "People want to see police rolling through their neighborhoods. When they see police rolling through their neighborhoods, they feel like there's more prevention."

Detroit Police Deputy Chief Todd Bettison, center, takes a knee along with Rev. W.J. Rideout III, right, and protesters in front of the Detroit Police headquarters in Detroit, May 31, 2020.
Detroit Police Deputy Chief Todd Bettison, center, takes a knee along with Rev. W.J. Rideout III, right, and protesters in front of the Detroit Police headquarters in Detroit, May 31, 2020.

The survey found that nearly 60% of Black residents said Detroit is a fair or poor place to live, while nearly half of white residents called it excellent or good. And while most Black residents felt public safety was the No. 1 issue facing Detroit, for white people education topped their list and public safety was fourth, after affordable housing and jobs.

Those numbers likely help explain why Detroit's population has gone from being 84% Black in 2010 to roughly 78% Black, according to the latest 2019 U.S. Census data. The data is evidence of not only the influx of white and Latino residents but also the departure of middle-class Black residents to the suburbs.

Bell noted that he lives half a mile from the affluent eastern suburb Grosse Pointe, which abuts much higher-crime areas in the city. He said that the volume of violent crime is far lower there and that criminal activity is frequently property crime.

That's one reason, he believes, why middle-class Black people have left for the suburbs. "I have family members who moved out because of the crime issue," Bell said, adding that crime was so bad it was hard to even safely purchase gas.

Close to 60% of Black residents felt the city had more violent crime compared with 30 years ago, while close to 60% of white people felt there was less violent crime.

Victor Rios, a professor of sociology at UC Santa Barbara and MacArthur Endowed Chair who first wrote about the paradox of Black and Latino boys being overpoliced and underprotected a decade ago, noted that there has been a vast decrease in crime historically to the point where, relative to the 1990s, it's under control and people can consider other priorities.

But for "residents of the inner city, crime never really left," Rios said. "There's still that sense of being abandoned by the state. There's a lack of resources, so you still have the consequences."

Still, fewer of those surveyed were in favor of defunding the police. And for those that were, slightly more white residents, or 28%, were in favor of it, compared with 24% of Black residents.

David Merolla, an associate professor of sociology at Wayne State University in Detroit, noted that Black people are more likely to be victims of crime.

"Frankly, a lot of (Black) people live in dangerous neighborhoods," Merolla said. "What defunding the police means, and especially the way it's been characterized, I think it's reasonable that ... the idea that police would go away is terrifying."

Bell said that since Floyd's death last summer in Minneapolis, Detroit police have tried to focus on de-escalating nonfelony encounters that have frequently led to the deaths of Black Americans around the country. He noted that Floyd died after allegedly providing a counterfeit $20 bill.

"It doesn't make any sense," Bell said.

But that reality adds to the ambiguities communities of color have in their encounters with police, Rios said. They don't know whether the next police encounter will be negative or positive, and yet they may also be victims in dire need of the police.

"The same people who need the most protection often times get the worst policing," Merolla said. "It really is (a paradox) because the police, while serving a necessary purpose, oftentimes the perception is they have an animosity toward the communities they're supposed to be serving."

Contributing: Jasmin Barmore, Sam Fogel, Dana Afana

Tami Abdollah is a USA TODAY national correspondent covering inequities in the criminal justice system, send tips via direct message @latams or email tami(at)usatoday.com

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Detroit's Black residents seek more police yet are under protected

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