A surge in arrests, a court docket jammed with weapons charges: How Detroit responded to an uptick in gun crimes
Arniez had been a legal gun-owner for 48 hours when he was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon after a traffic stop at a busy intersection in Detroit.
He had tried out his new pistol and thought that it was misfiring so he was taking it to the gun store where he bought it. It was a Tuesday in May of 2020, and even though a still-mysterious virus was ravaging the country, Arniez was feeling hopeful. He recently started a job working in executive protection as a security guard. He used part of first paycheck to buy a gun that he was required to have for the job. (We’re only using Arniez’s middle name because he’s concerned that he could face retaliation for sharing his story.)
As COVID-19 swept the country, so did a wave of gun-related crime. In Detroit, an increase in shootings was met with a sharp rise in the number of people arrested for carrying a concealed weapon. Defense attorneys in the city say the additional enforcement has been heavy-handed, burdening an already backlogged court system and further eroding trust in police during a time of additional scrutiny of their work in Black communities, following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
“If you’re Black and you got a gun”
Arniez felt he had taken all the proper measures when it came to his gun. He bought it legally, registered the weapon at a local police station, and applied for a concealed carry license in his home county. He hadn’t yet gone through the classes that would teach him exactly how to legally transport a weapon in his car, but he was doing what he thought he should do by taking the gun apart and locking it in his glove compartment. Arniez didn’t have any ammunition in the car or a criminal record. And yet, he said, his heart started racing when police signaled for him to pull over, flashing on the lights of their patrol car.
“It kind of makes you feel like you're doing something wrong if you have a gun, even if it's legally yours, like if you're doing everything right,” Arniez said. “It's a sense that, like society or police put on you like, if you're Black and you got a gun, that's wrong.”
The officer who approached his window told Arniez that he’d run his license plate and found that it was registered to a different vehicle. But instead of asking for his license and registration, Arniez said the officer asked him if he had a gun in the car.
Arniez remembers being stunned silent for a moment. “It was like a slight hesitation because, you know, like you see videos where people get killed.” Many of those people were young Black men like himself who were shot by police officers during seemingly routine traffic stops. Specifically, Arniez told Michigan Radio, he thought of Philando Castile, a 32 year old who was shot and killed by a police officer outside of Saint Paul, Minn. after he told the officer that he had a gun.
Arniez couldn’t believe that he had been pulled over and asked about his gun in the brief time he had owned it. But he told the officer the truth: He did have a gun in the car.
Moments later, he was at the back of his car in handcuffs. Police retrieved his gun from the locked glove compartment. Arniez was charged with carrying a concealed weapon, a felony in Michigan that applies whether a gun is purchased legally or not.
An increase in gun-related arrests
With the onset of the pandemic, gun-related crime across the country rose to levels unseen in the last two decades. According to the Detroit Police Department, homicides increased by nearly 20 percent and non-fatal shootings increased by more than 50 percent from 2019 to in 2020. Those numbers declined in 2021, with a 4 percent drop in homicides and a 9 percent drop in non-fatal shootings.
During a year-end overview of the city’s crime statistics last week, Detroit Police Chief James White, who has headed the department since June, said the force confiscated 7,850 guns over the course of 2021. “You can't measure something that didn't happen and police work,” he noted, “But I can assure you, getting 7,000 guns off the street, there's likely a large number of funerals that did not have to happen.”
Kristine Longstreet, a supervising attorney with Neighborhood Defender Service, sees it differently: “The police are targeting citizens,” she said.
Her organization, which represents people in Wayne County who can’t readily afford a lawyer, analyzed publicly available arrest records after noticing an increase in gun-related charges.
Before the pandemic, Neighborhood Defender Service found that Detroit police arrested around 300 people a quarter for carrying a concealed weapon. That average more than tripled during the pandemic. Longstreet believes the increase suggests a change in policing.
“It had to be some sort of concerted effort,” she said, in which “individuals who fit maybe a certain demographic who are in a certain area” were pulled over in seemingly routine traffic stops where the first question police asked drivers was, "'Do you have a weapon?’” Longstreet said her office has seen an increase in cases from people like Arniez who are young, Black, and were asked about a gun soon after being pulled over.
As a sergeant with the Detroit Police Department, Marcellus Ball said he too started to notice a significant increase in arrests for carrying a concealed weapon as the pandemic waged on, with many of them resulting from stops over minor traffic infractions including driving a vehicle with tinted windows.
Ball served 35 years on the force before he retired last year. As a sergeant, he regularly reviewed arrest warrants to ensure that they were carried out in accordance with the law.
In instances where a concealed weapon was found in a car with several passengers, Ball said, “Everyone in the car would be arrested or charged, regardless of the circumstances.” He said it would be hard to prove that each person in a vehicle would know about a firearm in the trunk or glove compartment. When he asked patrol officers about the increased gun arrests, Ball said they told him, “They were just following orders” that came from further up the chain of command.
“Some of them didn't have a problem with it,” Ball said, “but a lot of them did, especially some of the Black officers.”
The former sergeant said that when he raised these concerns with his superiors, he was assigned to a different role. In July, he filed a whistleblower lawsuit charging that his transfer was “retaliatory." He said he remains concerned about concealed weapon arrests being made in a biased manner and without probable cause.
Detroit Police Chief James White said the force has numerous metrics in place to ensure it’s policing the community “constitutionally.” He attributed these monitoring efforts to an 11-year period during which the department was overseen by an independent monitor as part of consent decrees put into place in 2003. When asked by Michigan Radio if there has been a concerted effort to target people for guns-related charges following stops for minor traffic infractions, White said no.
“What we're trying to do is change behavior and hopefully people make better decisions,” he said. “If they make better decisions, they don't have to encounter the police.”
A backlogged system
The increase in arrests for carrying a concealed weapon have contributed to an increase in cases in Wayne County’s Third Circuit Court.
A temporary closure of the Court due to the pandemic as well as the challenge of bringing together juries due to COVID-19 has meant cases from as far back as 2019 have yet to be heard, said Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy. Previously, she told Michigan Radio, a majority of individuals her office brought charges against would be in court within 180 days.
“It's stressful for us all,” said Worthy, who has served as Wayne County prosecutor since 2004, adding that many of the attorneys in her office are handling five times as many cases than they would under normal circumstances.
Still, she said the backlog would be a lot bigger if her office pursued every weapons case brought to her by all the police departments in the county.
“We don't even issue a lot of cases,” Worthy said. “We are trying to divert some cases and in a lot of cases, we offer the misdemeanor from the felony if [defendants] choose to take that.”
Even so, 27 percent of felony cases in Wayne County’s Third Circuit Court this summer saw individuals charged with only one crime: carrying a concealed weapon. The increase is part of an upward trend that coincided with the beginning of the pandemic. In the two years prior to 2020, only about five percent of cases involved individuals whose only charge was carrying a concealed weapon, according to data analyzed by the Neighborhood Defender Services.
Fifteen months passed before Arniez, the security worker, got in front of a judge for the first time for his arraignment hearing. The charge that he had been carrying a concealed weapon was dismissed on a technicality since the prosecutor didn’t provide evidence that his car had a trunk where he could have more safely stored his gun.
While the decision was a relief to Arniez, it was far from vindicating. He had spent three days in a crowded jail cell in the early months of the pandemic. He was barred from having the gun he needed for his job while he awaited trial, forcing him to rely on family and friends for financial support,
The arrest left a lasting impression on Arniez, making him unnerved whenever he sees a police car. The same is true for his young son. “Every time [we] see cops, [he’s like] ‘Oh dad, is the cop going to arrest you today?’”
It’s a question that crosses his mind a lot too.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that concealed pistol license holders can be charged with a felony for improperly storing a gun in their car. The story has been updated.