Operation: Restore Public Relations

Apr 15, 2015 at 1:00 am

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.