Operation: Restore Public Relations

On Nov. 15, 2013, Detroit's fifth police chief in as many years stood outside a public housing complex on East Jefferson Avenue where more than 150 law enforcement officers gathered for a large-scale raid. The address of the complex was called the "most problematic" in the city, and the raid, code named Operation Clean Sweep, was aimed at curtailing violence there.

With an impromptu headquarters set up in the barren lobby of the Colony Arms complex on the city's east side, the team of SWAT officers in bulletproof vests headed inside and began busting in doors with firearms drawn. A helicopter hovered overhead. Federal agents joined police officers in the warrant sweep, a spectacle tailor-made for the 5 o'clock news.

For years, Colony Arms carried a reputation as a dilapidated hellhole, home to rampant crime and anything but peace. The historic Joseph Berry subdivision across the street, with its posh, six-figure homes and family-friendly potlucks and hayrides, may as well be in a different world from its neighbor: In 2013 alone, residents of the four-story, 161-unit complex at the corner of Jefferson and McClellan called police 600 times.

"As we approached this morning, people started to clap, started to clap with excitement," Chief James Craig said, describing law enforcement's welcome arrival, the result of a 10-month buildup that culminated in the largest sweep in Detroit in some 20 years, according to the department.

Laudatory media accounts noted 30 people were arrested that day, including a carjacking parolee who was found inside with a gun.

"Dozens of men and women with felony warrants were arrested and loaded into a police bus," The Detroit News reported. "Some joked with officers and the media. Some asked for cigarettes. At least two suspects bragged they would be back on the street within a few days."

"Residents cheered through open windows and from nearby street corners as Detroit police filed out," the Detroit Free Press wrote.

Craig, adding apocryphal layers of detail to the affair, said one arrestee, with his hands tethered behind his back, told the chief he was doing a good job.

"This starts the wave of what the new DPD is about," Craig said, doing his best New Sheriff in Town impression.

Detroit has endured a dreadful set of years of law and order, or the lack thereof. From the consent decree signed with the Department of Justice in 2003, to the moniker of Murder Capital of America, to an endless stream of headlines that seem to get more grisly by the day, the history isn't good and the facts are the only things more outlandish than the anecdotes.

A revolving door of police chiefs — James Barren, Warren Evans, Ralph Godbee, Chester Logan — have tried and failed to address those problems, and each one has said the same thing walking into the job (before being unceremoniously ushered out): Crime must go down.

Craig was no different when he arrived.

"This is not normal," Craig told reporters at the time. "The level of violence in this city must stop."

The sweep of Colony Arms that day in 2013 was the beginning of Operation Restore Order, his attempt at stemming that tide of failure. It would be a long-term initiative featuring high-profile raids across the city every month or so targeting troubled streets and neighborhoods.

But 18 months and 17 raids later, the violence hasn't stopped. And for all the media coverage and gaudy stats, one has to look no further than Colony Arms itself, the site of the first raid, to evaluate what Operation Restore Order has actually accomplished.

"That raid," Colony Arms resident Sarleatha Stove says today, "was only to put on a show."

Among the 30 people arrested in Operation Clean Sweep was a longtime resident in her 60s known to her neighbors as Ms. Peaches. The quiet woman, who doesn't drive anymore, had a traffic warrant dating back some time.

"They took that old lady out here for a ticket dating back [years]," said Sherman Jones, who's lived at Colony Arms for five years.

She, of course, was back home a few days later.

And while the news focused on the residents who cheered, plenty of others MT spoke to recently have different versions of that day's events. Even with 150 officers on-site, a few residents had property stolen from inside their apartments while the raid was going, according to two of the residents.

"While the raid was going on, and they was taking people away, a couple people's doors got kicked in," said Jones.

And the man who supposedly told Craig he was doing a good job? Pure sarcasm.

"Yeah, he was like, 'Yeah, you dumbass,'" said the man's friend, Kelvin Parker-Bell. (The man, like Ms. Peaches, was also arrested on a traffic warrant, records show, and was released within a few days.)

Within months of the 2013 sweep, residents began to quietly raise issues in one of the scant criticisms of Craig's operation, an essay published on the online magazine The Periphery, penned by Darren Reese-Brown, a former resident of Colony Arms, and writer Mark Jay.

Residents clearly wanted to live in a safe environment — again, they called 911 over 600 times in the months leading up to the raid — but the gusto police displayed on the day of the raid ran in stark contrast to how they responded before: Sometimes cops wouldn't come until the day after a call, if at all, according to residents who spoke to MT, facilitating an environment where crime remained unchecked.

"The next day, day after that," said one female resident, who declined to give her name, when asked about police response time.

And those 30 people who were arrested when the cops deigned to actually show up? Here's the official party line from Assistant Chief James E. White in an interview with VICE magazine:

"I would venture to say more than 30 people were stopped that day in the Colony Arms. I would venture to say those people that did not have petty crimes or warrants out for their arrest were not arrested. But those people who had missed court appearances, some people had felony warrants, those people were arrested."

There's a problem with that assertion: It's not true. Ms. Peaches was not the exception.

Of the 30 arrested at the Colony Arms, 21 were taken into custody for traffic warrants, according to a city document obtained by MT. Of the remaining nine, three were arrested on felony warrants; two on alleged probation violations; two on misdemeanor charges; and two on domestic-related cases.

And the kicker: None of the nine were ever convicted. (A couple were prosecuted, records indicate, but their cases were eventually dismissed.)

Speaking generally about Operation Restore Order, David LeValley, deputy police chief of the Detroit Police Department, said some arrestees scooped up in the initiative are those who skipped out on court hearings.

"Our plan for the operation was, those individuals need to be re-arrested," he said. "Our theory is that those individuals — in particular, the ones who have guns crimes, assault crimes — that those individuals, when they don't show up to court and they're left out on the street without us pursuing them, are free to commit additional crimes."

Even if those individuals aren't found, LeValley said, family members "may likely share information or inform the person, 'Hey, the police were here.'"

"Even if we don't arrest the individual that day, us making active attempts to apprehend them, I think, has an impact," he said.

Back at Colony Arms, nearly everyone returned to the housing complex after a brief two-or three-day sabbatical courtesy of Craig and the "biggest crime sweep in 20 years," and everything returned to normal at the problematic address.

"The criminals here are out of control and the raid did NOTHING to stop them," an employee of the Colony Arms' management company wrote in a Feb. 24, 2014, email to Chief Craig's office and obtained by MT. "The real criminals are here at night and you can't throw a rock in here without hitting someone wanted for something."

Craig has a different view, naturally.

"A story initiated by Channel 4 last year visited the Martin Luther King homes [the target of another raid] and the reaction was positive by the residents interviewed," he wrote to MT in an email. "Another great example is the change that has occurred at the Colony Arms. As a suggestion you may consider what it was like prior to our operations in these two high-profile locations."

Issues did persist after Craig's team left — resident Stove described the atmosphere as "horrible" — and when the environment did quiet down eventually, it had nothing to do with the trumpeted raid nor the small-scale sweep police conducted a week later. It was only after the building manager, the one who emailed Craig's office, started evicting problem tenants.

"If it wasn't for her," Stove said, "this building would be infested with those fellas doing what they do, kicking in those doors." (The building's management company declined to comment when reached by MT.)

Not only was there a lack of tangible results — quite literally, nothing changed — but the raid also left an emotional scar on the residents the department claimed they were trying to protect. Everyone, it seemed, was treated as a suspect simply for living at Colony Arms.

"For them to come to my residence like that, like I'm the enemy. I was nervous, I was shaking," one resident said in The Periphery essay. "They didn't even have anything on me, but my whole body was shaking. I couldn't even talk right."

One hundred and fifty law enforcement officers went into the building with what amounted to a "blanket search warrant to tear apart" the place, said attorney Marvin Barnett, who represented the parolee convicted of carjacking who was arrested in the raid. "They started to search the place, going door by door, like it was a foreign country or something."

In that case, police found a gun that belonged to the man's mother, but his probation stipulated he couldn't be anywhere near firearms. Still, he walked free because on three separate occasions, a police witness present at the man's arrest failed to appear in court.

"The fact the police didn't show up, I'm not going to presume anything, but that's a bad sign," Barnett said. "Why wouldn't you show up to the court to defend the search warrant?"

Operation Restore Order has resulted in over 1,000 arrests, according to the department. The public's expectation, given those numbers, would likely be some sort of corresponding uptick in prosecutions.

That's not the case, however.

"Our office simply has not received an influx of cases from these raids," Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy told MT. "We are awaiting the results of these raids in our office, in terms of warrants being brought there."

In the most recent raid on March 3 (Operation River Walk II), for example, the more than 200 officers involved made 24 felony arrests, 10 arrests for probation violations, and 13 for narcotics.

"We're not talking about misdemeanor theft suspects," Craig told reporters. "We're talking about people engaging in violent crime."

When reached by MT weeks later, Worthy's office couldn't identify a particular case that was brought as a result of those arrests.

LeValley said there's not a "hard number" on success, as it relates to the operation.

"So it's maybe a combination of a lot of those factors; so if we went out and arrested very few people, but our presence reduces crime in the area, that would mean we would consider it a success," he said. "If we went out and we apprehended a large number of people, who were wanted on outstanding warrants and brought them to the next step of the criminal justice system, we would consider that a success too, because we're responsible for those outstanding warrants.

"So it's hard to put an actual number to measure the success, but I think that overall continuing the reductions in violent crime and property crime that's one of our biggest measures of success."

If there's not a bevy of new charges, then, what Operation Restore Order has produced is a massive seizure operation.

To date, Detroit police have seized 339,213 grams of narcotics as a result of the raids. Ninety-nine percent of that total — 336,750 grams — is marijuana. (MT's analysis of statistics did not include DPD's broad category of "pills," of which nearly 6,000 have been seized since the inception of Operation Restore Order.)

Detroit residents overwhelmingly voted to decriminalize the drug in 2012, approving a measure that allows adults over 21 to possess up to an ounce on personal property without risking criminal prosecution. The state of Michigan also legalized medical marijuana in 2008.

Outside of weed, the department has impounded 1,064 vehicles, issued 15,497 tickets, and seized $215,389 in cash, and 175 weapons.

It's unknown what drives DPD's decision to seize property; the practice of asset seizures by police departments across the nation has been a subject of controversy in recent years. Last year, agencies across the state seized $24 million in property from Michigan residents, many of whom were never charged with a crime, a recent investigation by the Detroit Free Press found.

If the purpose of those figures is to illustrate the success of the operations, they fail to support that claim, and the numbers themselves are misleading otherwise.

Last month, Craig touted Operation Restore Order to reporters, saying 1,172 arrests had been made since its inception, including the apprehension of 18 homicide suspects.

But there's a discrepancy with those stats: Records sent to MT by the police department don't corroborate what Craig told news outlets, though a spokesperson emphasized that was indeed the case. The records show 1,881 arrests have been made, of which 21 were homicide suspects, as well as 72 being arrested for carrying a concealed weapon, 20 for criminal sexual conduct, and 46 for breaking and entering. Further requests for clarification were not returned.

And though media reports indicate the police department amassed those 1,172 arrests through 17 high-profile raids, that's also not true: The initiative and that arrest total are seemingly a compilation of every warrant that has been executed since November 2013, not just those from the raids.

"It is important to note that Operation Restore Order efforts also take place on a weekly basis, on a much smaller scale within each of our precincts," a DPD spokesperson told MT.

The essential operations division in each precinct designates a day where officers go out and "try to pick up people on outstanding warrants within the precinct," said LeValley. "And then once a month we designated we would have a large-scale operation where we would combine efforts, get everybody together in one location, have some outside agencies participate," he said, including Michigan State Police and the FBI's Detroit bureau.

High-profile operations (the ones familiar to the public) are given names depending on where they're located or the time of year. Those, LeValley said, have "a lot of narcotic raids associated with them in addition to the outstanding warrants."

"The whole idea of Restore Order was there would be a day a week designated that all of the crews would go make active attempts to apprehend people who were capias [an arrest warrant if you fail to show up for a court proceeding, or for the purpose of ensuring they appear in court], who didn't show up for court who were wanted on outstanding warrants in all of the precincts," LeValley said. "So you see weekly numbers, those are a compilation of all of the precincts send in their stats that they dedicate resources to Restore Order for that week."

To be clear, some residents in Detroit's neighborhoods and experts interviewed for this story believe Craig has delivered results, particularly by increasing police presence in the city. The sight of additional officers on patrol is unquestionably welcome.

And, in general, crime dropped citywide in 2014 under Craig's watch — but, so far, the first three months of 2015 has brought a 25 percent increase in homicides and a 6 percent increase in aggravate assaulted, compared to the same period last year. Still, LeValley noted that year-to-date compared to 2014, violent crime is down 4 percent, property crime down 19 percent, robberies down 22 percent, and carjackings down 27 percent.

But the long-term raid operation itself — touted as one of the police department's chief crime-fighting tactics — appears to have definitively produced very little other than some nice PR, an evidence locker stuffed with marijuana, positive headlines, a terrifying show for some residents, and some empty stats.

In the Detroit Police Department's overview of 2014, Operation Restore Order is described as "responsible for removing a large amount of weapons, narcotics, and violent criminals from city streets."

What the overview doesn't say outside of the arrest total, however, and what DPD doesn't appear to track, is how many "violent criminals" were put behind bars because of the raids.

MT requested the names of individuals who were arrested and the disposition of each arrest under Michigan's Freedom of Information Act. That request was denied by the city's legal department, which wrote, "In order to comply with your request, the DPD would have to compile, summarize, or make a new report."

The state's FOIA law doesn't require the department to create new reports, but officials later explained DPD would have to go to great lengths if it chose to fulfill such a request — suggesting no records exist of arrestee names who were eventually charged with crimes as a result of the raid. (How DPD then arrives at an exact figure of arrests like 1,172 is correspondingly unclear.)

Without such records, it's impossible to analyze whether arrests in raids actually lead to convictions, which is at least one barometer with which to measure their success.

The city also made clear that no record exists of those who were prosecuted and convicted following an arrest in a raid.

"Based on information provided by DPD personnel, it is our understanding that in order to fully comply with your request, they would have to research the requested information and make a compilation, summary, or report of the requested information from multiple sources, including the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office and the court," wrote Ellen Ha, the city's FOIA coordinator, in a letter to MT last month.

The lack of data bridging the two departments — police and prosecutor — likely stems from how police measure success as it relates to an operation, law enforcement experts who spoke with MT said.

"The prosecutor doesn't measure success in arrests, because anybody can be arrested in a sense," said Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor. "The police aren't necessarily looking at that next step — well how many people did you really get? Or, how many prosecutions were there really? To the police, that's almost irrelevant. But for public safety, it's not just arrests, it's successful prosecutions."

That last part of the equation, while not the only way to evaluate the department's efforts on crime, is important given how giddily it touts the first part of the equation.

"The common sense logic would be if you're putting together an operation like this, and you're going to be making such a big deal of it, you're going to be having some people asking some questions" and need the records to answer, said Stuart Henry, a professor of criminal justice at San Diego State University and the former chair of Wayne State's department of interdisciplinary studies. "With that many arrests in 17 raids — that is huge. You cannot do that and say, 'We haven't any data on what we just did.' You've got to be accountable on that."

Stephen Downing, former deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, said large-scale drug raids create a vacuum of activity that, eventually, will be filled once more.

"Does it do communities any good? My answer is no," Downing said. "It only feeds the spiral of violence and crime, and it also feeds the breakdown of families."

Cynthia Johnson is a local talk-radio host who lives in the Petosky-Ostego neighborhood on Detroit's west side, an area that was targeted by Operation Mistletoe in December 2013. She's among those who have seen some positive outcomes under Craig's watch.

As a result of the chief's efforts, "I think you have more people who are willing to speak up," she said.

Some of the lingering issues in the neighborhood remain prevalent, however. Driving with a reporter down her block on Montgomery Avenue, Johnson came to a full stop. "Do you see this shit?" she said.

She threw her finger toward a house on Montgomery's north side and stared in disbelief at a two-story home that she says was in fine shape only a week prior. Now, it looked as if a bomb exploded inside. Garbage and clothes were strewn about the yard.

The drive continued up the street to Whitlow's Barber Lounge, a mainstay of the neighborhood that recently celebrated its 52nd anniversary.

"We're a tight-knit community," said barber Frank Stoner.

It's a common refrain echoed in the shop: Everyone looks out for one another, and that's what helps residents stay safe. Stoner offers one explanation for why, according to him, crime in the neighborhood has dropped in recent years: There are nowhere near as many people living there anymore.

"In essence, I'm saying less people, less crime," he said.

But the opportunity for squatters to stake out a home and cast a presence on the neighborhood has caused problems for others. Angela Young, who lives across the street from Johnson, said a few years ago she was robbed while she was out of her home. Now, under Craig, there's a noticeable difference — only because apparent troublemakers operate under the radar.

"I'm not naive, but it's still going on," she said. In Johnson's estimate, as many as four drug houses operate in her neighborhood.

Still, Young said Craig has made drug dealers uneasy, and that's fine in her opinion.

"I'm all for what he's doing," she said. "I don't want him to stop. I don't want anyone to get comfortable."

In what's perhaps the most emblematic example of Craig's ability to win over the community, Barnett, the attorney who represented a Colony Arms resident and who is largely critical of DPD's usage of search warrants, even commends the chief.

"He really is an excellent police chief," Barnett said. "You have to be able to show people that they're knocking down doors, and that's always going on ... But it's been much better now."

Asked if that opinion conflicts with the issue he takes with warrants, Barnett said, "The people who are poor, they catch more flak than anybody. That's just the way of the world and the ones who the need the police the most, the ones whose constitutional rights need to be protected, they most are often the ones whose rights are not protected."

Henry, the San Diego State criminal justice professor, said cuts in recent years to social welfare programs by the federal government, compounded by years of neglect in the city of Detroit, has created a "toxic social environment" in some communities like Detroit.

The substantive point that should be raised, he said, is the impact on society when those threads are weaved.

Since 2012, Detroit police have employed a so-called "broken windows" policing strategy, in a partnership with the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a New York-based conservative think tank. The policy, according to advocates, involves a zero-tolerance crackdown on low-level crimes in order to prevent larger ones.

The approach can be counter-productive, as Henry described it. Not just that, but there's nothing to suggest broken windows is a superior method that has achieved lower crime rates; other cities have implemented less aggressive strategies and have achieved similar drops.

"The irony is, when the police end up being called for small incidents, they don't have the resources to go into areas and deal with [larger issues] early on," Henry said. "What happens is that stuff builds up over time."

The larger systemic issues continue to manifest, Henry said. And as in the case of Colony Arms, years of problems go neglected until one day you get a big response like a raid led by 150 officers.

"That's ass-backwards," Henry said. "You wouldn't have the problem to solve if you dealt with the increasing decline of those community infrastructures. You've got a systemic problem, you've got to deal with it at a broader level rather than say, 'Let's launch a raid.'"

The problem is cyclical, experts said: The nation's policies have supported the militarization of police departments, in tandem with the increased frequency of raids, now with more than 40,000 annually in the United States. In turn, a system of mass incarceration has been fundamentally established, which recent studies indicate has done little, if anything, to deter crime. Meanwhile, the government has trended away from supporting investments in education and the social safety net, spurring lower incomes, said Michele Jawando, vice president for legal progress at the Center for American Progress, a Washington D.C.-based think tank.

"People don't want to talk about long-term investments," she said. And while scholars have historically debated the correlation of poverty and crime, studies indicate systemic poverty is a chief factor that leads to crime — to which the nation has responded by policing more aggressively and incarcerating more individuals at an ever-increasing rate. In other words, we've facilitated the creation of dilapidated hellholes.

As a result of aggressive policing strategies, professor Henry said, crime is not eliminated, rather it's just displaced — and then moves elsewhere into the community. "You're not dealing with the problem, you're just dealing with the symptoms," he said.

In that sense, when DPD boasts that Operation Restore Order raids "eliminate the criminal elements from the neighborhood," the claim ultimately becomes fuzzy.

"Our perspective, when somebody's arrested, even if they don't stay in jail a long amount of time, just the simple fact they were arrested, there was enforcement action taken," said LeValley, Detroit's deputy police chief. "Even if they're traffic warrants and they spend one or two nights in jail before they make their bond, I think that that still has an impact."

Individuals are scooped up and arrested, sure, but they are also released in short order. They move elsewhere. And after one day and a big show of force, the police move on too, to Operation Next Block Over.

About The Author

Ryan Felton

Ryan Felton was born in 1990 and spent the majority of his childhood growing up in Livonia. In 2009, after a short stint at Eastern Michigan University, he moved to Detroit where he has remained ever since. After graduating from Wayne State University’s journalism program, he went on to work as a staff writer...
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