The state's multijurisdictional police force is driving away Belle Isle park-goers

Staying off the island

Oct 1, 2014 at 1:00 am

As so many other Detroiters like to do, Michael, 32, flipped burgers and turned hot dogs on a recent Saturday evening on Belle Isle. A boom box pumped out tunes, and his three kids played nearby while his wife and sister-in-law set out food on a picnic table under a shelter.

It was a perfect snapshot of Belle Isle, and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. But Michael explained that the group would have been much larger last summer, including friends, other siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, and anyone else from the neighborhood they happened to bump into on the island. It's where everyone went to relax.

But this year, it's mostly just Michael and his immediate family. Like many in the city, the others aren't interested in making the trip out to Belle Isle this summer.

That's strange, given the significant physical improvements to the island since the Michigan Department of Natural Resources took over its management. Grass is walked on instead of waded through. Garbage is in garbage cans. Not only are the bathrooms open, but they're clean. The fountain is on, and the picnic tables painted.

So where'd everyone go?

Like many Detroiters who spoke to Metro Times for this story, Michael attributes his relatives staying home to a fear of having their afternoon interrupted by a police force most don't think is reasonable or necessary. That just isn't relaxing, they say.

"My friends, my family — they ain't coming here as much because they don't want to be messed with, hassled. They want to go to a park. Who needs that here?" Michael asks.

By the DNR's admission, attendance numbers on Belle Isle are down. It's difficult to gauge exactly how far, since past records are considered shaky, but the crowds are noticeably thinner to anyone who regularly visits the island.

It's enough for the DNR to concede it's a problem, but it should have been predictable. No one drives through a series of speed traps to help relax, and claims that the island was ever unsafe are disingenuous.

No statistics presented support the need to deploy an aggressive multi-jurisdictional police force at the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed island park. Especially one that already had a police station staffed with officers who had a better understanding of the population they were policing.

On any given day, it's not difficult to spot seven to eight state troopers and DNR officers patrolling the island at once.

The dozens of residents and community activists we spoke with feel that's overkill, and if there was never a crime problem to start with, then there is some suspicion over the motivation to put such a force in place.

Steve Hood, a community activist and political analyst, said the state is trying to paint a picture of a new Detroit.

"They want to de-black it," he said. "I'm 51 years old. I've been hanging out there since I had driver's license, and I never had a problem. I think the state wanted to give Belle Isle a more cosmopolitan, suburban, welcoming feel."

The last shooting on the island happened more than three years ago, according to a city officer who used to patrol the island. Violent crime was almost non-existent. And state officials asked to present evidence of a crime problem could not do so.

Ron Scott, a former member of the Friends of Belle Isle and leader of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, sums it up:

"It was said that the island was unsafe, but that was a big lie," he tells MT. "It was, in fact, one of the safest areas in the city all along. The island may have been in some disrepair, but it wasn't dysfunctional."

In the first six months the DNR and MSP patrolled the island, they pulled over 1,200 motorists. The state points out that it let the vast majority of those off with a warning.

But Scott contends such measures have an impact regardless. The majority of those using the island are poorer residents who can't afford to fix a cracked windshield or fit a minor ticket into a strained household budget, let alone deal with the fines, fees, and legal hassles that come with nonpayment.

It creates tension where people come to relax, Scott says.

"People, African-Americans, tacitly, are not going out on the island because people, mostly being young black men, are being arrested," he says. "That's not the way to welcome people to the island. Public safety is not stopping people for going five miles over the speed limit."

Still, the Detroit Free Press applauded the state's takeover of Belle Isle in a six-month "report card" article with a supporting editorial — in which its editorial board labeled anyone who questions the state's policing tactics "stupid."

Even the DNR isn't that blind to the issues, and subsequent PR material from the state promoting an open house to welcome residents assured the public that "everyone is pitching in to improve the island because Belle Isle is for everyone."

But any kind of PR campaign or reassuring press release stating that the island park's environment is inclusionary would seem to debunk itself by virtue of the need for it in the first place.

The state's decision to assemble an all-white police force with recruits from places like Bad Axe to crack down on a mostly African-American population (to say nothing of this all playing out against the backdrop of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner) didn't help either.

Ron Olson, chief of the DNR's parks and recreation division, says there was no data because Detroit didn't keep track of its crimes, though comments from Detroit Police officers who patrolled the island indicate otherwise. Still, Olson says most people have welcomed the show of force with open arms, and the state is still trying to determine the appropriate number of officers on the island.

The conventional wisdom in support of heavy-handed policing is that if you don't want to be arrested, don't do anything wrong — but that brings us back to the argument that a show of police force wasn't ever needed.

The deployment of law enforcement officers to an island park with a low crime rate and low speed limits should raise concern over the use of police resources, especially when one considers the state of some neighborhoods just over the bridge.

Moreover, the Michigan Department of Transportation's electronic billboards remind motorists on Michigan's freeways with speed limits as high as 70 miles per hour that those roads have seen 500 traffic deaths so far this year — far higher than the body count on Belle Isle's Picnic Way or Riverbank Drive.

Would those cops hidden in speed traps on Belle Isle better serve the common good if they were instead out on the Lodge or I-696, where motorists have driven like Jehu for years with little care from law enforcement?

There is also little sympathy for the young people who spent their weekend evenings cruising the island, but were pushed out. They have been portrayed as "riff raff" and thugs, Scott says, and he doesn't think that's a fair assessment.

He concedes there's some marijuana was passed around on cruise nights, but that's nothing unusual. Even the city officers who used to patrol the island said there was no drug dealing or major crimes to speak of.

"These are the future urban dream cruisers," Scott says. "That's a meet-up spot, a cheap date for people who had the money to buy a car and to pay insurance. It was someplace set aside and unique. Now that's taken away from them, and that's horrible."

Putting an end to the issues wouldn't be that difficult, and an obvious starting point would be the redeployment of state cops on the island. Another good idea, Scott says, would be for the DNR to hire an African-American officer.

But, he added: "Why is it always necessary to protest things? They should have thought about these things beforehand."

Hood says the state has it wrong, and he pointed to the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy's approach to securing the RiverWalk — one of the safest areas in the city — as a model of how to provide security without intimidating or alienating residents.

He also says the state could learn from Roger Penske, who reached out to Detroiters, Detroit Public Schools, and the neighborhoods to make city residents feel welcome at the Detroit Grand Prix.

"If the state acted like Penske, we wouldn't be having this conversation," Hood says. "He reached out to the majority population of Detroit. Take some cues from Penske. Be more welcoming in general. You can stop bad behavior without hassling people. You could have initiated a campaign to invite people to Belle Isle to say, 'It's OK.'" — mt