What Detroit’s Incredible Crime Problems Show Us About The Bleak Future Of Police

As budgets are cut in Detroit, police presence and response times are plummeting. What the city is doing to try to ramp up security while keeping costs low may be a dystopian vision of all our cities in the future.

What Detroit’s Incredible Crime Problems Show Us About The Bleak Future Of Police
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In 2012, Detroit’s homicide rate set a record: the highest in two decades.


In 2013, Detroit continued to gut its police force.

Sadly, Detroit has more pressing concerns to deal with than violent crime. Specifically, the city is broke. So broke that the state appointed Kevin Or–a lawyer who helped Chrysler through its own bankruptcy turn-around–as the city’s “emergency manager,” effectively handing him the power to overrule elected officials and break agreements with unions. Police officers and firemen are reportedly retiring “by the dozens” rather than face (further) cuts to pay and benefits. The force is a fraction of what it was 10 or even five years ago, and as a result low-level crimes are often ignored.

How does a city fight crime while cutting its police force? The answers are less innovative than desperate.

First, the police department is scaling up volunteer patrols. They took them over in 2011 and are reportedly trying to start three more each year.

The clearest advantage of volunteers is that they’re cheap. The cost of running 25 patrols is roughly equivalent to three officers’ salaries. But you also get what you pay for. “Research into town watch type patrols has shown pretty weak crime prevention outcomes,” says Robert Stokes, a Drexel University sociology professor who studies policing. They tend to be unsustainable in the high-crime neighborhoods that need them most, and are a poor substitute for police officers. “You can have all the volunteer patrols you want, because all they’re going to do is call the police when they see something,” he says. “If they call the police and the police don’t come, what’s the point?”

A second tactic is privatization. The Jefferson East Business Association has been shelling out a comparable $200,000 a year to pay for a two-man, full-time patrol of off-duty cops for the relatively affluent neighborhood. According to the Wall Street Journal, their impact has been hard to demonstrate: “The program is credited with helping to push crime down in one problematic section by 11% in the first year, though the overall rate for the corridor barely budged.”


With many cities in dire financial states and the prevalence of what Stokes calls a “copycat mentality,” he expects we’ll see more such experiments. I asked him where that would take our cities. “It takes us to Brazil and South Africa, right?” he said, half seriously. “It takes us to these incredible bifurcated places where basically the wealthy and the poor are separate from each other. That’s what a lot of planners fear.”

Stokes isn’t that pessimistic–in part because it isn’t clear that private security can provide a true substitute to a uniformed officer. (This is one reason the Jefferson East Business Association hired off-duty police officers rather than a private security firm.)

But Stokes isn’t optimistic about Detroit’s future either: “Without large-scale pension reform among public employees, this is the fix they’re in,” he says.

About the author

Stan Alcorn is a print, radio and video journalist, regularly reporting for WNYC and NPR. He grew up in New Mexico.