Law & Order: Detroit

There’s a new chief in town

May 22, 2013 at 12:00 am

“There’s a new chief in town,” James Craig said during one of the stops on his whirlwind media tour after being appointed by Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr as Detroit’s newest top cop.

Given that police departments are organized along paramilitary lines, self-assurance is no doubt an important quality for a chief to possess. When lives are on the line, the last thing you want is an indecisive leader.

Likewise, it is hard to complain when lofty goals are set. So, when Craig repeatedly says that he wants to make the Detroit Police Department a “premier” law enforcement agency, it is difficult to fault him for aiming high.

But swagger is no guarantee of success. If bravado were all it took, Warren Evans would probably still be sitting in the chief’s office. In fact, an appearance by Evans in a reality-show pilot video that showed him holding an assault rifle and declaring that he’d do “whatever it takes” to rid Detroit of crime was one of the many missteps by Evans that led Mayor Dave Bing to demand his resignation in 2010.

But Evans is just one of the people to have passed through the revolving door at the DPD since 2008.

There was Ella Bully-Cummings, a Kwame Kilpatrick appointee who handed in her resignation minutes after the big guy pleaded guilty to a pair of felonies. When Council President Ken Cockrel Jr. stepped in to become interim mayor, he called career Detroit cop James Barren out of retirement to be chief.

Just as Craig is doing now, Barren vowed to raise morale among the department’s rank and file.

“I think when you show folks you care, you’re there for them, you can turn it around,” Barren said as his appointment was being announced. He lasted until Dave Bing won election.

Bing first tapped Evans, who’d run for mayor and served as Wayne County sheriff, for the job. Among other things, Evans declared that response times had to get better.

“Our calls for service have to improve, that means our ability to relate with the community has to improve,” he was quoted saying. “I need all the eyes and ears I can get and when we respond and do well with the citizens, the citizens do well by you.”

And now we have Craig saying much the same thing.

After Evans got the boot, Bing turned to Ralph Godbee — another cop who’d spent his career in Detroit — to take over the department. He lasted two years before a sex scandal forced his resignation.

Along with reducing crime, high on the list of priorities for Godbee was getting Detroit out from under a pair of “consent” decrees overseen by the U.S. Justice Department. In place since 2003, the two consent decrees were implemented to address multiple problems, including police shootings, illegal detentions and deaths in city lockups. After the Kilpatrick administration failed to bring the DPD into compliance, costing the city millions of dollars having to pay for federal oversight, Bing vowed in early 2011 to achieve that elusive goal before the year ended.


Although big strides were made, the consent decrees remain in place. It will now be up to Craig to finish the job.

Rounding out the list of people who’ve led the force since ’08 is Chester Logan, who held the title of interim chief since Godbee’s exit. Logan recently announced that he planned on retiring.

Which brings us to Craig.

“The beauty of me is I am new and cannot be blamed yet,” Craig said in a phone interview with News Hits last  week. “I am trying to be a part of the solution, and if there is a sense of anger, it becomes nonproductive.”

Forgive us for being just a bit jaded. Five chiefs — all of them coming into the job heaped with praise and full of promise — over the course of five years can dampen anyone’s enthusiasm.

The fact that we’ve suffered whiplash watching a succession of chiefs come and go isn’t cause to doubt Craig’s abilities. But the hard truth is, with the city teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, Craig faces a Herculean task in trying to find ways to make an understaffed police department — plagued by low morale — provide the people of Detroit the protection they need.

So yeah, we’re skeptical when we hear anyone bluster about how there’s a new chief in town who’s here to clean up the mess others have been unable to.

On the other hand, the high turnover and scandals of recent years don’t mean that Craig is the wrong guy for the job.

We like the fact that he is a hometown guy who got his start in law enforcement in Detroit, but then ventured out to see how things are done in other departments. Having spent the bulk of his career in Los Angles, he certainly has much experience fighting urban crime in a difficult environment.

It’s also encouraging how much the folks in Cincinnati, where he’s been chief for two years, are sorry to see him leave. The initial response of the City Council there was to ask if there was anything that could be done to get Craig to stay.

Craig’s promise to consult with the troops out patrolling the city, to gauge their concerns and gather their insights, is also good to hear. Although no guarantee of success, not doing so would all but assure failure.

It’s an approach that appears to have worked well in Cincinnati.

“He reached out to me, and asked what the concerns of the rank and file were,” Kathy Harrell, president of the Fraternal Order of Police in Cincinnati, told us. “We got very few complaints, and smooth changes were made.”

We can only hope that, two years from now, the people of Detroit will be saying the same thing. But don’t expect any miracles.

Last week, as Craig’s appointment was being trumpeted, media in town were also reporting that 13 Detroit residents had been shot in a 24-hour span.

Welcome back, chief.

News Hits is written by Curt Guyette. Metro Times editorial intern Tommy Zimmer contributed to this week’s column. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or [email protected].