Detroit's New Top Cop Brings Hope For A Struggling Department

Detroit is one of the most dangerous cities in the country, and police officers there are being asked to do more for less money because the police force has been shrinking faster than the city's population. But many hope that a newly hired top cop will change this. James Craig spent the bulk of his career on the Los Angeles police force, but he started as a beat cop in Motor City in 1977. Audie Cornish talks to Craig about his return home and the city's tough law enforcement situation.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

As dangerous as sections of Detroit are to live, it's no easy place to be a police officer. The city is one of the most dangerous in the country, yet officers are being asked to do more for less money. The police force has been shrinking at a faster rate than the city and it's hoped that this will now change. The city recently hired James Craig to serve as Police Chief. He started as an officer walking the beat in 1977 in Detroit. And he spent the bulk of his career on the Los Angeles police force. This will be the city's fifth chief in as many years.

Chief Craig, you've promised to lower the crime rate in Detroit. How will you go about doing that considering, as we've been hearing, that much of the city's basic infrastructure, things like even streetlight outages, the basic infrastructure is so broken?

JAMES CRAIG: Right now as we approach the yearend, we're sitting on a reduction in homicides of 17 percent, in homicide which...

CORNISH: And to give people some context, 2012 the FBI said that Detroit witnessed 386 homicides.

CRAIG: Understood. Last year this time we were sitting at 377 homicides. Currently we're sitting at 313. And while I look at those numbers, I can't really get excited yet. And I'm committed and passionate that as we start 2014 we will be viewed as one of the safest cities in America.

CORNISH: Police Chief James Craig, I mean, essentially you have a police department though that has suffered from 10 percent pay cuts. You've got officers retiring at a rate of nearly 25 a month. And longtime criticism that the pay for new officers is down at $30,000. Do these initiatives mean anything if you have low-paid and demoralized officers?

CRAIG: Talk to some of our officers today. Despite the 10 percent pay cut, morale is increasing, police officers are encouraged. In fact -- and this is still on the heels of the uncertainty of their future as it relates to pensions, as it relates to health care, despite...

CORNISH: And uncertainty because of the bankruptcy filing.

CRAIG: ...because of the bankruptcy. But despite that I know this. When morale goes up, crime goes down. The officers said repeatedly to me that you know, we want to be cops again. We went into a neighborhood 1.2 square miles. It's been a neighborhood plagued with violence, plagued with an inordinate number of narcotic locations and we shut it down. We went in and executed 20 search warrants, yes, in a city that's bankrupt, and we shut it down.

And I got to tell you, the people that live in that community -- and I'm a believer that you give me any zip code, give me any neighborhood that's plagued with violence, there's always many more people that live there that are good people who want to see change.

CORNISH: So do you worry about this given that Detroit is currently under an emergency manager, Kevin Orr, that the initiative you're starting, you don't know. There's sort of an uncertain future there about how long you'll be able to finish with them.

CRAIG: I'm very confident in my longevity. It should be no secret that I was hired under the emergency manager. And I must say that the direct reporting relationship with the emergency manager has allowed me to facilitate change that could have never been done under the traditional bureaucratic nature of many political structures.

CORNISH: Given all this, can the city recover economically if crime is not brought under control?

CRAIG: I would say to you that it cannot. I do know that when a city is safe it becomes economically viable. And when I was walking in the door, the one thing that Kevin Orr understands very well, as I do as a police professional, is that if this city is not safe, we cannot realize economic vitality.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And Chief, how personal is this for you?

CRAIG: It's very personal. I grew up in the City of Detroit. I attended high school here in Detroit. I attended (unintelligible) Technical High School. And so there's a lot of pride attached here. My family still lives in the City of Detroit. And so I've never lost connection with this city. And I've always viewed this city as my home. And to be a part of this great change is humbling, it's exciting.

But the true gauge for me is not just waving a flag of good stats, but if our community members can tell me and members from our department that we feel safer, that to me is a true gauge.

CORNISH: That's Detroit Police Chief James Craig. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

CRAIG: Thank you.

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