What Happens When Oligarchs and Vigilantes Take Over Public Safety in a Big City
Highland Park is a tiny 3-square-mile municipality located within Detroit. Extremely dangerous, blighted, and 94% black, Highland Park is a concentrated example of the conditions in Detroit’s poorest neighborhoods—what some call the “Detroit of Detroit.”
In late 2011, the impoverished little municipality was so deep in debt to its public electric company, DTE Energy, that the local government was forced to decommission all streetlights on its residential streets. Not only did DTE cut the power to street lights in Highland Park, it sent out workers to physically dig up and remove nearly 1,000 light-poles from the neighborhood. Highland Parkers now live in permanent, debt-induced darkness.
Six miles away, in Detroit’s rapidly gentrifying downtown area, DTE Energy runs a very different public policy. The same company that repossessed 1,000 streetlights from Highland Park, condemning its residents to permanent darkness, has recently launched a pro-bono security program in the increasingly white area.
On its own dime, DTE operates a public “bait car” program. It buys and sets booby-trap cars out on the downtown streets, outfitted with up to 18 hidden cameras, to lure and ultimately deter potential car theft. A partnership with downtown police assures that cops will be on the scene within 90 seconds of when the bait car is entered.
“We want to be part of something good about changing perceptions of the city of Detroit,” DTE’s chief security officer boasts of the bait-car program, “We want to be part of the revitalization of the city.”
Safety is a privilege in Detroit. Like all privileges, it gravitates toward the white and wealthy.
Decades of budget cuts to public safety services alongside concentrated investment downtown has created two Detroits: downtown, white and professional, bathed in state-of-the-art private security; and the “neighborhoods,” poor and black, where public safety has become a do-it-yourself endeavor.
Turning out the Lights
In Detroit’s black neighborhoods, public safety has been sacrificed to the gods of austerity. With the city government too poor provide basic security, safety has become a private commodity, accessible to the wealthy, but far out of reach for the majority of Detroiters.
The slow but massive exodus of capital and residents over the last half-century has left the Motor City broken down and overgrown in municipal debt. By the time Detroit faced its financial day of reckoning in bankruptcy court, years of budget cuts had already dismantled its most basic public services—police, fire, even streetlights—to barely functional levels.
The steady, long-term disinvestment in public safety shows through in crime rates.
In a given week, Detroit averages seven murders, 226 burglaries, 92 robberies, 169 aggravated assaults, 228 cars stolen, 331 larceny thefts, 12 rapes, and 279 violent crimes — the vast majority occurring in the neighborhoods and leading to no arrests. These dark accolades have earned Detroit the most dangerous city in America honor five out of the last seven years.
Absurdly underfunded emergency services are unable to keep up with the city’s record crime. In 2013, the same year Detroit led the country with 333 homicides, its police department took a $75 million— or 18% — overall haircut. Emergency Medical Services has taken similar hits. In 2005, Detroit had 303 paramedics working the streets. By 2010, the working paramedic count was cut to 188 to match a shrinking budget. The result: laughably bad 911 response times.
In a city that is perpetually on fire, the poverty of the Detroit Fire Department is the stuff that writes books. Two years ago, Detroit journalist Charlie LeDuff shadowed a fire company and found pathetic underfunding. Even the fire alarm in the firehouse was broken. Since no one had come to fix it, the men had to jerry-rig a contraption where the paper pushed out of a fax machine set off a Rube Goldberg series involving a door-hinge, a screw, and an electric pad to finally ring the alarm bell.
So exists the department facing the highest arson rate in the country. A 2012 budget cut closed one-fifth of firehouses and reduced fire investigation staff by half. Now one third of the 3,000 intentionally set structure fires each year in Detroit go entirely uninvestigated. Some crumbling buildings on fire on nearly abandoned blocks are not even put out.
In the poorest neighborhoods, the disinvestment piles up. When Highland Park was slapped with its first appointed emergency manager in 2001, he fired its entire municipal police force, outsourcing patrols to county officers. In 2007, the little city managed to muster up the funds to revive its police department— well, sort of. In 2012, author Mark Binelli found that the Highland Park Police Department was “headquartered in a mini-station at a strip mall, where the jail is a makeshift chain-link cage.”
Now Highland Park mixes extreme poverty, improvised policing and an imposed blackout into a dangerous cocktail: some of the highest crime- and lowest arrest-rates in the country.
Private Protection for the Privileged
While budgetary neglect has produced “wild west” conditions in Detroit’s black neighborhoods, downtown Detroit, with its influx of corporate cash and young white people, is doubling-down on public safety.
When DTE Energy launched its bait car program in 2014, it joined a corporate movement in Detroit to secure and patrol the small, but rapidly gentrifying downtown area, the star of Detroit’s “comeback” story.
Dan Gilbert, founder of Quicken Loans/Rock Ventures and owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, is the architect of downtown’s revitalization. He has single-handedly purchased 75 downtown properties and poured $1.6 billion into the revival of a single square mile of Detroit’s downtown. Along with his business ventures, he has launched housing subsidy programs to get mostly young, white professionals to move into the area and has also been a primary player in developing a new rail system linking downtown to the moneyed suburbs.
While huge swaths of black neighborhoods are left to anarchy, corporate Detroiters like Dan Gilbert are throwing money at protecting the whitest square mile around.
Gilbert’s Rock Ventures has installed more than 500 surveillance cameras in and on its buildings over the last five years. Some are fixed. Others are movable, "pan, tilt, zoom" cameras. All video feed runs directly to the Quicken Loans/Rock Ventures security command center in downtown Detroit's Chase Tower.
Rock Ventures also contracts a fleet of nearly 200 private security guards who patrol both public and private spaces. As private security, they are not permitted to take crime fighting into their own hands, but they do systematically report criminal behavior to the Detroit Police Department.
It is not unusual for corporations to patrol their own property. What is unique is that private corporations like Rock and DTE are taking the liberty to expand their security programs beyond their own corporate campuses. Sometimes corporate security gets overambitious. Rock Ventures has recently been accused of installing video cameras on buildings it does not own and the ACLU filed a suit earlier this year claiming that different private security guards illegally shut down a protest rally in a public park.
Still, not too many complain about the extra protection. Downtown is certainly a safer place than it was a decade ago, in large part to the heightened surveillance. Given the Detroit Police Department’s chronic poverty, some consider it the best kind of corporate responsibility.
But the security that private companies like Rock Ventures and DTE provide is limited to the few square miles it is concerned with. As you drive outward from downtown, you see how quickly the corporate investment in peace and security disappears. Detroit’s heartland is left to fend for itself.
DIY Security for the Underclass
Where official policing is MIA and corporate Detroit couldn’t be bothered, there are residents like James “Jack Rabbit” Jackson. Jackson, an ex-cop, heads up an unofficial vigilante justice system in his south-east neighborhood, complete with home-camera video taping and public beat-downs. Other neighborhoods run their own systems, some organizing citizen patrols that cruise the block with baseball bats to deter crime. Even the city’s police chief, acknowledging the limits of his under-funded department, recommended Detroit residents carry concealed weapons for protection.
But lasting, reliable public safety systems require investment. Poor communities that cannot raise funds themselves are left with few options but charity to fulfill once-guaranteed services.
When the fire department’s Ladder 22 was robbed last year of two crucial chainsaws, it had to sell T-shirts to raise the funds to purchase new ones. The fundraised saws were soon stolen again, this time off the truck while the firefighters were busy putting out flames in an abandoned home.
After their debt-induced blackout, a Highland Park community group called Soulidarity began work to bring light back to their streets. The plan is to purchase and install solar-powered streetlights throughout Highland Park that would not depend on the neighborhood’s financial status to illuminate the neighborhood. But absent of any public funding, the group has to depend on donations — an IndieGogo crowdfunding campaign and an “Adopt-a-Streetlight” program.
So far, the project has managed to replace exactly one streetlight in Highland Park out of the 1,000 DTE Energy removed four years ago.
Last week, Christopher Reed took his two young sons to a Wendy’s on Detroit’s West side for milkshakes. With most of the streetlights on the route broken, the drive was mostly through darkness. At the Wendy’s drive-thru, Reed was robbed and then shot for no apparent reason. His older son called his mother after the shooting. She arrived at the scene before any emergency responders and drove her bloodied family to the hospital, where Christopher Reed died.
There were no functioning security cameras in or around the Wendy’s to capture or deter the crime. By the time the understaffed Detroit police made it to the scene, the murderers had long since disappeared into the local blackout.