– Empty jail cells are normally something to celebrate, but Wayne County’s top law enforcement officials say the hundreds of vacant jail beds are not because of a drop in crime or more reasonable sentencing. Floors of the downtown Detroit jail are empty because police are arresting fewer people accused of those crimes.
Altogether, three county jails that held about 2,500 prisoners a year ago now house 400 fewer inmates.
Sheriff Warren Evans said police are so slow to respond to some calls that the crimes never get reported. Prosecutor Kym Worthy was more blunt:
“We don’t tell the truth about crime,” she said.
Detroit has lost hundreds of sworn officers in recent years. The Police Department didn’t respond to repeated requests for interviews with its top leaders, but it released preliminary statistics showing an overall decline in criminal activity this year, despite a 24% increase in homicides.
East-sider Joyce Betty, 56, isn’t buying it.
Last February, a young assailant snatched Betty’s purse, which contained $300 in cash, while she pumped gas at a Mack Avenue filling station. Surveillance cameras captured the crime on videotape, but police never responded.
Said Betty: “I have little faith in the Detroit Police Department.”
Empty cells point to police breakdown
It’s an incredible sight: In a city riddled with crime, entire floors of the Wayne County Jail in downtown Detroit are empty.
The seventh floor of the Baird Detention Facility, normally home to 128 newly arrested prisoners, is vacant. So are the ninth floor and half of the 12th floor. Another 128 beds at the Dickerson Detention Facility in Hamtramck are also closed. That adds up to more than 400 empty beds in Wayne County jails that, up to about a year ago, were filled with roughly 2,500 prisoners.
The main explanation is simple, according to the county’s top two law enforcement officials: Detroit police are making fewer arrests, a dereliction so obvious it has led some Detroiters to conclude there’s no point in even calling the cops.
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“I’ve talked to dozens, probably hundreds, of people in the community who are telling me they never made a report because the police never came,” Wayne County Sheriff Warren Evans said Tuesday. “The delay in response time is such that many, many, many crimes don’t get reported.”
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy agrees, echoing Evan’s assertion that decreases in reported crimes are misleading.
“We tell the press that crime is going down,” Worthy said. “It’s not going down; it’s going up, exponentially, and we have many fewer officers on the street. We need to acknowledge the problem.”
The Detroit Police Department did not respond to several requests for comment last week. Instead, a department spokeswoman, citing preliminary police statistics, said overall crime in the city so far this year is down 9.1%, excluding a 24% increase in homicides — a trend that, if true, would partly explain the jail’s decreasing census, especially for those awaiting trial.
In 2007, the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department recorded 20,423 felony bookings. Last year, there were just 18,261 — a drop of more than 10% in a single year. So far this year, bookings have continued to drop roughly 10%, said Undersheriff Daniel Pfannes.
But few city residents think a drop in crime is the reason. Ask east-sider Joyce Betty, 56. A young man snatched her purse, with $300 in it, out of her car while she pumped gas at Mack and Gratiot in February. Betty called 911 on her cell. Police never responded. “They made no attempt to contact me,” Betty said, even though the gas station has surveillance tapes of the incident. “It’s water over the dam, but I have little faith in the Detroit Police Department.”
Neither Oakland nor Macomb Counties report comparable declines in their own jail populations. Both counties’ cells remain full, despite innovative efforts to manage the population, Macomb County Sheriff Mark Hackel and Oakland County Undersheriff Michael McCabe say.
Pontiac, however, is experiencing a trend similar to Detroit’s: Arrests have declined as the number of sworn officers has dropped from 170 to 65 in the last three years.
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The Detroit Police Department deploys about half the number of sworn officers it did in the 1990s, and has lost roughly 1,000 officers over the last five years.
Even serious crimes aren’t getting solved. Arrests are made in only 37% of Detroit homicides, compared to more than 60% nationwide. Officers have too little time to investigate, and they work with a community that often does not trust them. Detroit’s shuttered police crime lab has raised more troubling questions about homicide investigations.
Another reason arrests are down is the closing — for good cause — of many decrepit, pre-arraignment holding cells under a federal consent decree that is mandating reforms. Six years ago, police held 350 in such lockups, compared to about 130 today. Shift supervisors, and probably officers, know when the lockups are full.
Evans said he offered to lease county jail cells for police lockups five years ago. Negotiations continue, but a deal should have been struck long before this.
Privately, some law enforcement officials also say Detroit police are frustrated by the added paperwork required for arrests under the federal consent decree. But that’s no excuse for failing to perform. The consent decree, signed in 2003, might be a headache, but it’s one the department earned by abusing the citizens it was supposed to protect, including mistreatment of prisoners in lockups and dragnet arrests of homicide witnesses. The department also had the highest rate of fatal shootings by officers among America’s big cities.
Fundamental breakdowns in other basic services also decrease public safety. Copper thieves have made land-line phone service in parts of the city, especially on the east side, unreliable and sporadic. It’s not unusual for phone lines to be dead when crime victims try to call 911.
No one is questioning the integrity or competence of underpaid Detroit police officers. They work hard and, in many cases, risk their lives daily. But the department continues to do 1970s-style policing, reacting to crime rather than using data-driven policing efforts. The Michigan Department of Corrections and other criminal justice agencies have information that would enable the department to focus its resources on people most likely to commit crimes.
“In dealing with crime, particularly violent crime, a data-driven surgical approach is the direction we need to go,” said former U.S. Attorney Saul Green, group executive for public safety under new Mayor Dave Bing. “I do believe we have some improvements to make in that area.”
Until then, floors of empty Wayne County jail cells — normally a reason to celebrate — should comfort no one.