Should we stay or should we go: A reporter’s notebook on living with crime in Detroit
All this week, Michigan Radio and the Detroit Journalism Cooperative are looking at city services and quality of life issues in the city of Detroit. Michigan Radio's assistant news director, Sarah Hulett, is a Detroit resident and brings us this essay about living with crime.
If you’re on the fence about staying in Detroit or moving out, there’s an absurd and irrational sort of calculus you do when it comes to crime.
First, there are the numbers. The most recent FBI numbers suggest things are moving in a good direction. Violent crime is down, although not enough to knock Detroit off those “most dangerous cities” lists. New York City last year, with 8.4 million people, reported the same number of homicides as Detroit, which the Census Bureau now puts at 688,000 residents.
The Detroit Police Department, under the control of emergency manager Kevyn Orr, says it’s improving things. Police Chief James Craig has set a goal this year of cutting 911 response times to five minutes for high-priority calls, and says the average response time now is between eight and 11 minutes – a dramatic improvement over the 58-minute average response time for high-priority calls in 2013. And he says the department is doing a better job of solving murder cases.
But there’s more to the equation than just the numbers.
I’ve lived in Detroit for the last 15 years. When I moved here, I knew that living in a city raised my chances of being a victim of crime. But the benefits, I thought, outweighed those risks. I loved – still love – the energy of the city, the history, the people.
Then I had two kids. And the calculus changed.
A holdup, a mugging, a break-in
I live in a tight-knit neighborhood on the city’s northwest side. We all look out for each other, and when someone’s car gets stolen or a neighbor gets robbed, news travels quickly.
Within the past several months, there have been three troubling incidents that hit too close to home.
Back in December, I heard about a terrifying incident that happened right around the corner from my house. Two of my neighbors were out walking their dogs, like they did early every morning.
A car pulled up alongside them. A man got out, and pointed the barrel of his shotgun between Cathy’s eyes. He demanded money. “We don’t have money, we’re out walking our dogs,” Cathy told him. He became agitated. He threatened to shoot the dogs, and kill them. Cathy says she tried to push her house key deep into her pocket. She was afraid he’d demand to go into her house across the street, where her kids were sleeping.
Cathy escaped the holdup unharmed, physically. But after 19 years in the neighborhood – where she volunteered for just about every community event, coached soccer, and raised money for the neighborhood – she put her house on the market almost immediately.
She moved on February 1.
That very same day, my 81-year-old neighbor was mugged in her driveway.
And a few months later, I was at home on the computer when a friend sent me a link to a news story. “Isn’t this near your house?” she asked. It was a story about a home invasion. There was a shootout, and one of the suspects was killed. It happened a dozen houses away from mine.
A big question for my family
When it comes to crime, there are two kinds of conversations Detroiters tend to have.
The first kind is with the people who don’t understand why anyone would live in Detroit. In those conversations, I probably won’t talk about our car that got stolen, or the rock that came sailing through our dining room window one evening. I figure I don’t need to confirm your worst ideas about the city I call home.
And then, there are the conversations we have at our kitchen tables, with our neighbors or spouses.
I’ve had several of those conversations with my husband, Brian. We talk about those too-close-to-home incidents, and I ask him: What’s the first thing that goes through your mind when crime happens close to us?
“That I’m crazy for living here with my family,” he tells me. “And I wonder, what am I doing? I need to do something about it. I need to move before something happens. Because if I don’t and something happens, I just… I don’t know how I could live with that.”
And then things settle down, and the weeks are flying by, and pretty soon it’s been another year.
And a lot of the time – even most of the time – I’m really glad we’re raising our daughters in Detroit. I feel like they’re getting rich cultural experiences. I like that they’re around kids from families with different backgrounds and perspectives. And we want our girls to grow up with a sense of responsibility to their community, to believe that you don’t just leave because things aren’t perfect, or easy.
But with every frightening story I hear, it gets harder to do that calculus and still arrive at the conclusion that the correct answer, for us, is to stay.