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For years, police in Detroit have dealt with both low wages and one of the nation's highest crime rates. Now as the city moves through bankruptcy, there's talk of eventually raising police officers' pay, which may come too late for many on the force, as Quinn Klinefelter reports from member station WDET.
MICHAEL CROWDER: Control 142, we're secure over here - no home invasion.
QUINN KLINEFELTER, BYLINE: In a Detroit Police squad car, Officer Michael Crowder cruises through one of the city's more well-to-do neighborhoods. But he notes that these are tough economic times in Detroit. And that's affecting everyone here, including the police.
CROWDER: We've had food drives where the community comes up to the precinct. They'll give us baskets of food. Two, three years now, we've had officers depend on Goodfellow packages.
KLINEFELTER: Crowder has more than 16 years on the force, and his ties here are too deep to make him think of leaving Detroit. But he says for other, younger officers, who are contemplating a future in a city struggling to climb out of bankruptcy, loyalty takes a backseat to finding higher wages.
CROWDER: I have a couple friends that has left, that has gone to different cities to work 'cause of the pay, the benefits, and his wife was laid off he said. So he had to make some move. A lot of our officers are working secondary employment, believe it or not.
KLINEFELTER: Detroit Police saw their paychecks cut by 10 percent two years ago. Now the police union is negotiating a new contract with the city, whose bankruptcy exit strategy calls for increasing the size of the force by more than 12 percent over the next decade. The force lost roughly 400 rank-and-file officers in the past half-dozen years because of budget cutbacks, attrition and early retirement. Mark Diaz heads the Detroit Police Officers Association. He says the officers that remain are valuable, battle-tested professionals.
MARK DIAZ: The City of Detroit Police Department has become a training ground for other municipalities, other law enforcement entities because of the level of crime that our officers actually handle.
KLINEFELTER: From Texas to Toledo, police recruiters are noticing that and trying to entice Detroit's officers to move. At a job fair in the Detroit suburb of Pontiac, Officer Mark Slade touts the benefits of a career with the Houston Police Department.
MARK SLADE: And we're not here to steal officers away. We just want to let the Detroit police officers know that there are other viable opportunities available.
KLINEFELTER: Slade notes that senior rank-and-file officers in Houston can earn nearly $74,000 a year. In Detroit, patrol officers currently top out at about $47,000 a year, only a little more than the starting salary of cadets in Houston.
SLADE: It's almost a slap in the face. They have a tough job. The city of Detroit is undergoing a lot of change, and they've been forced to do a lot more with just a little.
KLINEFELTER: That's not quite what Detroit Police command officials want to hear. In the years since Chief James Craig took over the department, Detroit Police have decreased response times and reduced the city's homicide rate. But Craig has also complained loudly about other cities poaching Detroit's finest. And with officers considering employment elsewhere, some Detroit business owners say they have to take matters into their own hands.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Rob.
UNIDENTIFIED CASHIER: Can I help who's next?
KLINEFELTER: At a Gulf gas station on Eight Mile, Detroit's city limits, owner Kaid alg Ahmi says more police stop by the his store now than before Chief Craig took over. But Ahmi says drug dealers still often gather outside his door, and says that means owners like him sometimes have to confront them directly.
KAID ALG AHMI: You have to kind of, like, take your store back because if you see it and they know you're watching it and you still allow them to do it, that's it. They'll run amok. They'll bring in more friends - hey, you guys, look how much I made at the Gulf gas station. Hey, you guys, you know, let's go there. Let's go there. That's when it's over.
KLINEFELTER: That lesson is not lost on those investing in Detroit's comeback. Companies here routinely supply their own security force. And even as bankruptcy proceedings continue, other cities are still trying to recruit Detroit police to protect and serve in their communities. For NPR News, I'm Quinn Klinefelter in Detroit.
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