More than 800 people were shot in Detroit in the first six months of this year, a 70 percent jump in gun violence that experts and police blame on a variety of factors, from upheaval and scarce resources in the police department to high unemployment rates among young males and a hip-hop culture that condones gunfire to solve disputes.
Although there’s no simple explanation for the dramatic increase in gun violence from one year to the next, the impact is clearly ravaging families and eroding any suggestion that Detroit’s violent history is behind it.
“We have our own war over here, we don’t have to go to Iraq,” said Monya Lyons, 49, whose family has been stung by almost two decades of gunfire. “Over the years, I have gone to more funerals than graduations.”
One of her three sons, Venoy Lyons, was 21 when he was shot and killed in 1995 by two teenage carjackers. His brother Darnell, then 18, was shot in the back as he left his job.
Her youngest son, Mitchell Lyons, 24, was shot in his right leg by a robber at a gas station July 5.
Her brother was shot in another robbery attempt 19 years ago when he was 16.
A food services manager for Detroit Public Schools, Lyons said her family has hung together through faith and an insistence on leading productive lives. But she deplores the violence.
“We are losing so many young men; we are killing each other off,” Lyons said.
The increase in gun violence this year goes against a 6.9 percent decrease in violent crime in Detroit over the same time frame, a statistic aided by an overall decrease in assaults and robberies.
A July 18 monthly police analysis of all Detroit murder crime scenes showed 81 percent were caused by gunshots. The analysis showed 26 percent of murders were drug related.
Police and other experts say drug-related figures are higher—between 65 and 70 percent—because the initial analysis is based on whether drugs are found at the crime scene when police arrive.
“Shootings are over territorial disputes, among drug factions, and drug rip-offs,” veteran homicide Lt. William Peterson said. “As for this year, so far we’re looking at over 40 percent of those investigated are drug related. We’ll get to at least 65 percent range by the end of the year.”
Police Chief Ella Bully-Cummings, former department executives and local criminologists say factors such as societal breakdowns, violence bred by drug trafficking and turmoil in the Police Department have contributed to the upsurge in gun violence.
“One major area is conflict resolution. People too readily pull out guns to settle arguments,” she said.
Bully-Cummings said another factor is the high unemployment rates among young men, those most commonly involved in gun violence.
Detroit lost 36,300 jobs this year, more than any other U.S. city, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Whether a loss of jobs is a contributing factor, Detroit’s declining population certainly may be, said Daniel Kennedy, a University of Detroit Mercy criminal justice professor.
Detroit lost more than 116,000 people between 1990 and 2000, but the population of 17- to 25-year-olds remained steady, according to U.S. census figures.
A violent combination
Recently retired Cmdr. Charles Barbieri said multiple victims shot by accident, the hip-hop culture in the city, police emphasis on improving response times and the lack of sufficient resources all play a role in the surge in shootings.
“One of the last shootings I had in No. 5 (Jefferson Precinct) left six people shot with three dead,” he said. “That was one person shooting at someone he was mad at.”
That type of incident is spurred by what Barbieri called the hip-hop adoption of the gangster image, in which young people, instead of firing once, shoot a gun until it’s empty and a lot of people get hit in the crossfire.
In one such incident, 42-year-old Donald Murphy was among nine people shot by a man allegedly upset over a woman during the June 23 Freedom Festival fireworks in Hart Plaza.
He was found dead Aug. 2 of complications from his gunshot wound.
His mother, Dorothy Murphy, has two words for young people: Respect others.
“You are entitled to go somewhere, like the fireworks, and mind your business and not have anything happen,” she said.
Barbieri said the department needs more manpower, especially since precinct officers are called in to staff an increasing number of major events downtown.
Changes on the force
Robert Homant, a University of Detroit Mercy criminologist who specializes in aggressive behavior, said upheavals in the Police Department in the past two years may also play a role.
“There has been a great deal of turmoil within the Detroit Police Department in this period,” Homant said. “Along with this management problem, there has also been a strong message coming from federal investigators that the Detroit Police Department was using too much force, interrogating and holding witnesses to squeeze them for information. How helpful these heavy-handed methods (no longer used) may have been in suppressing violence, or whether the elimination of them is a factor, is an open question.”
Earlier this month, in the largest shake-up in department history, Bully-Cummings reassigned 30 of the department’s top command. Five precinct commanders were given inside assignments and replaced, and two changed precincts. New commanding officers were assigned to the Criminal Investigations Bureau, Major Crimes and the Homicide Section.
Benny Napoleon, police chief from 1997 to 2001, blamed former Chief Jerry Oliver Sr. for the current gun violence.
“He totally dismantled the crime-fighting machine I had put into place, and the city has never recovered,” Napoleon said.
The Gang Squad
Napoleon’s policing plan created a 400-member narcotics bureau that staged 20 to 30 drug raids daily. A 2001 Detroit News report showed 99 percent of those cases were relatively minor and two out of three defendants got probation. Nearly one-half of the Gang Squad was reassigned at that time to the narcotics bureau. In the last two years of his term, 2000-01, the city recorded 3,485 shootings.
The Gang Squad normally worked undercover on city buses, in neighborhoods and in downtown crowds.
Napoleon’s successor, Charles Wilson, who held the job for six months, continued the reassignments of the remaining Gang Squad and members of other specialized investigative units to precinct uniform and patrol duty.
Two weeks ago, Bully-Cummings transferred 15 officers into the Gang Squad, boosting it to 70 members.
Oliver, who succeeded Wilson, is now a special assistant to the Arizona attorney general. He attributes Detroit’s violence to poverty.
“People are out of work, they have no place to live, people are living from hand to mouth every day,” he said. “When you have people with a lot of time on their hands, that’s when crime occurs.”
Oliver said community policing is the best way to minimize shootings.
“They have to show a consistent police presence on the street, not a token presence, and get the churches involved with the police and the community,” he said.
Bully-Cummings, a career Detroit police officer and a lawyer, took over the department last Nov. 23 following Oliver’s resignation.
In response to the shootings, Bully-Cummings has:
* Created a new bureau to coordinate citywide investigations of shootings and homicides.
* Introduced Operation Gunstop, a reward program to pay residents who report people carrying guns.
* Reorganized community policing to get officers and their superiors interacting more closely with their communities.
Last week, Bully-Cummings met the new head of the Detroit FBI, Daniel D. Roberts, to devise plans to combat shootings and gangs.
Indian Village, one of the safest neighborhoods in the city, has a security committee and has hired a patrol service, and 150 of the residents keep in touch daily by e-mail.
Recently, the residents picketed police headquarters over problems they had with the precinct commander who would not meet with them.
Resident Steve Wasko said five days after their meeting with Bully-Cummings, the chief named Cmdr. Madelyn Rakowski to take over the 7th (Mack) Precinct.
“We’ve had three meetings already with her and couldn’t be more pleased,” Wasko said.
Monya Lyons, reflecting on how shootings have wracked her family, said parents must do their part and keep their kids in school.
“I did not raise any bums. My sons all graduated and are working, my daughter is a nurse at Henry Ford,” she said. “I had to keep my boys straight and other parents need to do the same. All the males in my family are gone except my boys. By the grace of God, I keep on going.”