Complex Napoleon 

The MT interview with Benny Napoleon

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After rising through the ranks, Benny Napoleon, at the age of 43, became the youngest police chief in Detroit’s history. Holding a law degree, he has experience as a business executive, and served as assistant Wayne County executive. He’s currently Wayne County’s sheriff.

Metro Times:Why do you want to be mayor?

Benny Napoleon:The city of Detroit is in a very serious and critical point in its history. I believe that the person who is elected mayor during this period will shape the course of this city for decades to come. I believe the city needs leadership that is strong, leadership that is tough. Leadership that understands this community; that understands what it’s been like to live in the city of Detroit. Someone who’s experienced things that Detroiters have experienced — streetlights that have been out, abandoned homes, potholes in the streets, grass that has not been cut, exposure to the violence that we see in our community, but also someone who has real strong roots and history in this community, someone that can galvanize this community and bring it together to move it forward in a very positive way; because it’s going to take unification to do that.

It’s going to take not just the people who are coming in and creating businesses but it’s also going to take the residents to be supportive. It’s going to take the residents to stand up and do some things, quite frankly, that they may not be used to doing. In addition to that, I believe that leadership at this point in time is critical. We need someone who understands the city of Detroit, finances, understands city government. I started out as 19-year-old civilian fingerprint technician in the identification section as a police cadet. Rose up through the ranks to the lead the largest department in city government with the second-largest budget. I understand how the city has been working and I understand that there are many things that have to be fixed if we’re going to move forward. Some of the things that just come to mind immediately is we haven’t effectively utilized technology to a great extent. Our purchasing has to be changed; the permitting and licensing things have to be changed, but we must affirm the city of Detroit as a safe city. If we don’t do anything, that has to happen.

MT:There are other people in this race that have long histories in the city and experience in city government. Why you in particular?

Napoleon:None as long as I have … I’ve spent a lifetime here. I’ve spent 26 years plus in city government, [and I’ve led] the largest agency in city government. I had over 5,000 employees and a budget of $400 million. I don’t think there’s anyone else in this race who has experience in city government who can say that, so there’s a difference. The education, the leadership, the training, the experience, I have it all.

MT:When you were police chief, there was the Merrick Bobb report that dealt with problems regarding police shooting people, and problems with detention, among other things. One of the problems that was identified involved the way police shootings were being investigated by the department, and the result was a consent agreement with the Justice Department. Do you think the voters should be concerned about that part of your history?

Napoleon:Absolutely not, because first and foremost, I, along with Mayor Archer, invited the feds in. Not one of those shootings was determined to be improper, and none of the investigations were determined to be improper. That is not why the feds came in, so let’s get a clarification on that. The feds came in because of the conditions of confinement, and the conditions of confinement were issues we had known about for decades, and we had attempted to remedy for many years. It all came down to an issue of money, but not one of those shootings were determined to have been improperly investigated or not justified.

MT:Certainly the rate of shootings by police has decreased drastically since that, hasn’t it?

Napoleon:That’s possible. I don’t know the answer to the question.

MT:I mean the feds came in and instituted changes because of the way things were being run.

Napoleon:Oh, absolutely — your information is totally incorrect. The changes were geared towards the conditions of confinement; that’s the issue that they dealt with, nothing to do with shootings.

MT:The feds didn’t change the way shootings involving police are investigated, moving the investigations from homicide to internal affairs?

Napoleon: It doesn’t matter; the police are still investigating them.

MT:Evidently it does matter if the feds said it needed to be changed.

Napoleon:The police officers are still doing the investigation, and an investigation is an investigation. It would’ve been different if they said they were going to give it to a different agency, but they didn’t say that. They just said it’s going to be taken from here to here.

MT:Because internal affairs is trained and used to investigating other police officers.

Napoleon: That’s not true. They’re not trained to do homicide investigations and that’s what you don’t understand. A homicide investigation is a much different investigation than any other corruption kind of investigation. They [the Justice Department] just said, “OK just for the sake of appearance, take it out of homicide and put it into internal affairs.” That’s all  just a facade. … They never once said one of those investigations were improper and I challenge you to find out where they did.

MT:OK. What skills do you bring to the position that you think would help you succeed as mayor?

Napoleon:I’m a lawyer, I’ve been a college professor, I’ve managed 5,000 people and a $400 million budget. Those are the skills that we need.

MT:What are some weaknesses that you have that you would have to overcome?

Napoleon:I can’t think of any. You’d have to give me some time.

MT:OK. Well, maybe we can come back to that, if you think about it while we’re talking. I mean, at every job interview I’ve ever had, “they say no one’s perfect, everybody has some weaknesses.” But maybe this is an exception.

Napoleon:I’m not in a job interview; I’m in an interview with you for the Metro Times.

MT:Right, but we kind of treat it, you know—

Napoleon:I’m not interviewing for a job with Metro Times.

MT:OK. Do you think the current emergency manager law is constitutional?

Napoleon:No.

MT:And why do you think it’s not constitutional?

Napoleon:Because the essence of a democracy is the ability to elect the people who represent you. … He’s not elected by me, and his decisions do not have to be affirmed by me. He has absolutely no allegiance to me as a taxpayer.

MT:So given the fact that you think that current law is unconstitutional, what do you think the role of the new mayor should be?

Napoleon:Well first of all, that’s already in process. There’s a federal case pending on the legitimacy of the emergency manager. The federal court will determine whether this person is there legally or not — not me, not anybody else. … If the federal court determines that Mr. Orr is here legally, then obviously he has to go about taking care of the city’s finances the way he determines that is in best interest, in his opinion, for the people of the city of Detroit. If that’s determined to be true and legitimate, then the role of the mayor, I think, is to do what the mayor does — manage the affairs of city government within the financial structure that Kevyn Orr creates, if he’s determined to be here legally.

MT:What will be your administration’s top three priorities if you get the job?

Napoleon:Public safety, blight and assisting the business community in creating jobs.

MT:And how long do you think people should expect before they see results in those priorities?

Napoleon:They should start seeing results immediately. That’s why you have a transition phase. So I think that immediately you should start seeing some improvement.

MT:Since this is your greatest area of expertise, what specifically would you do to address the crime problem that’s not being done now?

Napoleon:Well, the only proven way to reduce crime in a community that is challenged is that you have to have community policing, crime prevention, problem-oriented policing, directed enforcement, and a data-driven approach to crime. Those are all terms of ours. … We’re going to put a police officer in every single residential square mile of the city of Detroit. That also will be responsible for doing the community policing and crime prevention aspect of it — the directed enforcement, problem-oriented policing and the directed enforcement, data-driven approach to resolving crime. Inside that square mile, that officer will be there every single day, taking care of those little things that impact the quality of life for citizens in the neighborhood. If you have an abandoned car — right now abandoned cars sit on the streets sometimes for months or years — this officer will get that out of there within a timely fashion. You have businesses that are in our community that are rife with graffiti and trash and uncut grass, and the folks there, this officer will be responsible for making sure that they’re going to be good business neighbors. They’re going to work with every clergy member, every neighborhood group, every businessperson, every school, to make sure that the quality of life [is improved], not in this whole big city of Detroit, but just within that square mile. You’re going to improve the quality of life almost immediately for the people in this community, and that is what will stop people from leaving and will attract people to come back.

MT: Do you have any plans specifically in regard to, at least from the numbers I see, that Detroit overall continues to lose population. Do you have any plans to help stop that loss?

Napoleon: I think that the reason that we have lost population, if you talk to folks — and I have plenty of people that are close to me and people that I know have been Detroiters for many, many years who have decided to move out. If we did an exit interview of people who left, I think overwhelmingly they would tell you that they left for three reasons: a) crime, b) the schools, c) taxes and insurance, and quality of city services overall. So it would seem to me that if you’re trying to stop people from leaving, you should address the three issues that are causing them to leave. So until you affirm the city of Detroit as a safe city, I think you will continue to see people live. Until you take care of the school system and start educating our children in the way that people believe acceptable, people will continue to leave, and until such time as we deal with the high insurance cost that we have as Detroiters in both home and auto in particular, you will see people continue to look at options other than the city of Detroit. So you’ve got to take care of the reasons people are leaving. If you ran any kind of business and you were losing customers, you’d focus on the reason that your customers are leaving.

CG: …How would you manage, because I remember under Mayor Archer, a lot of attention was focused on downtown areas in terms of revitalization; a lot was going on, and it’s worked. Things are much — there’s a lot more going on now than there was 20 years ago. How do you strike the balance, though, between — and now Midtown is on the rise — people continue to leave a lot of the neighborhoods. How do you strike a balance between those sort of different areas?

BN: I’ve had the opportunity to talk with many people in the real estate business. We have to stabilize our communities that are stable. You take those communities and make sure that you eliminate the blight. You use my one square mile initiative to make sure that neighborhoods are livable, walkable and sustainable. Downtown has great ambassadors. We have people that are doing phenomenal things between downtown, midtown, Corktown. So now we have to focus on making sure that goes, that same type of attention is paid in the neighborhoods. And that comes through my square mile initiative, where we will focus on, when we have dollars that have to deal with blight, let’s take the things that are causing the most disruption in each one of those square miles: abandoned homes, new schools. Make people become property owners — we’ve allowed people who own property in this city to disrespect this city. We have people who own buildings that are in disrepair; we’ve never forced them to bring them up to code, to get them out of disrepair and be good neighbors to folks who live in area. We need to make sure that happens, and that will change how people feel about living in our community; it will change the entire tone. I’ve been in this community all my life — I have relatives throughout this city, and they’re all complaining about the same kinds of things. So until you fix them, people will not be happy living in the neighborhoods of the city of Detroit, and you need someone who understands those are the kinds of issues that are driving people away and preventing people from coming back. Focus, attention, goals, timetables, measurements, to figure out where you’re going and how you’re going to get there.

MT: With abandoned housing, there’s been millions and millions spent trying to eradicate it, and in some ways it seems there’s more abandoned housing than ever. Is there some new approach that can be taken in order to deal with it, or is it just a matter of money? What do you think?

Napoleon: The abandoned houses that are in stable neighborhoods, you take for instance, places like Morningside, East English Village, Rosedale Park, Grandmont, Aviation, Boston Medicine, Russell Woods. All of these communities that are still reasonably stable. Any abandoned home that’s in those areas, you have to immediately work on getting occupied. If they’re bank owned, then we need to make sure that the bank keeps them up, and—

MT: How big a problem do you think that is?

Napoleon: It’s a huge problem. And if it’s blighted and it can’t be occupied, we need to put that on the priority list to get it torn down. And then you get to the neighbors and say here’s a home, it’s abandoned, it can be saved. Put it in the hands of people in the neighborhood who will say we’ll get it fixed up and you find me a neighbor. Put in on the Internet. There are people here who are doing this now in large numbers, but a lot of them are investors that are not from the city. I’ve talked to folks who’ve owned homes in the thousands that are investing from around the world. We’ve got the hottest real estate market in the world right now next to Atlanta. So people are focused on Detroit, we just don’t know that they’re focused on Detroit.

MT: And are they necessarily doing anything with those homes, or are they just buying them?

Napoleon: No, they’re buying them and fixing them up, and renting them out. They are, to the tunes of thousands.

MT: Well, when you can buy it for a thousand bucks or 500 bucks— it’s a bargain.

Napoleon: People see it for what it is. It’s a good deal. It’s like buying Microsoft when it was penny stock.

MT:Are there any issues that we should talk about that I haven’t brought up? That you think should be talked about?

Napoleon:Nope.

MT:Seriously, we’ve covered everything that you think needs to be covered?

Napoleon:… The quality education piece and the employment piece that I think that’s important is that when I was in school in this town, we had co-ops, and I worked a co-op job in the 10th, 11th and 12th grade, and from that co-op job, when I graduated from high school on a Friday night, I was working full-time at the place that I worked my co-op job, and I think that we need to go back to that. We’ve got a lot of great corporate citizens that need to be challenged to help employ the kids who are here in the city. To get them prepared for jobs when they get out of high school, and I think that we can find great cooperation in that.

MT:OK … so we have a couple of lighter questions. Are there three songs that are always on your iPod?

Napoleon:I’m more of a movie buff than a music buff.

MT:OK, do you have an all-time favorite movie?

Napoleon:Oh God. I am a true movie person, and it would be very hard for me to say what my favorite movies of all-time would be, because there are many, and they run the gamut.

MT:…What about some movie — it doesn’t have to be your favorite — that moved you deeply?

Napoleon:I couldn’t really answer that question right now because I’ve seen documentaries that have been moving and I’ve seen light stuff that I needed at the time …

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