91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Facing the ugly truth about crime in Detroit


Terrence Berg was taking his trash out in Detroit Thursday night, when two young men approached him. One said they didn’t want to hurt him; they just wanted to go inside his house. When Berg said no, they shot him in the leg.

They then ran away.

You might not ever have heard about this story, except for one detail. Berg is a federal judge. Prior to that, he was a federal prosecutor for more than twenty years.

He graduated with honors from Georgetown University, and is a member of the legal elite.  He also happens to be white. Not many high-powered white attorneys and judges live in the city anymore, and fear of incidents like this is one reason why.

Over the weekend, the Detroit Free Press devoted a vast amount of space to the story. The newspaper emphasized that the judge’s next door neighbor, an African American emergency room physician, came right over to help.

They repeatedly quoted the judge’s wife as saying

“this is not a reason to hate Detroit.”

Rochelle Riley, a columnist who is a big Detroit booster, wrote about what she called “ the resiliency and spirit,” of the Detroit neighborhood where this happened.

Unfortunately, while much of this may be true, it misses the point. Of course, Detroit has wonderful people. Of course, there are also terrible people and murderers in Grand Rapids and the Grosse Pointes. No question about it.

But the fact is that Detroit has a huge underclass. These are people who are not involved in the system of education and jobs and home mortgages and rewards for hard work.

Detroit has thousands of adults who have never officially been in the labor force, who are functionally illiterate, who do not engage in planning for the future, who prey on the vulnerable, whose lives are mostly nasty, brutish and short, and who are dangerous.

Nor, in many cases, is law enforcement able to penetrate the depths of this world. Four teenagers from Grosse Pointe were parked on a Detroit street one night a few days before Christmas when a man sprayed their car with bullets. One girl died.

No arrests have been made.

There are many other such murders. No, the point is not that Detroit is evil.

It is that there are many people there who are not affected by the gentrification of midtown, by young people moving into lofts, by sophisticated jobs coming to tech town.

Nobody thinks much about them. But we need to figure out how to help them or neutralize them as a threat, or Detroit has little hope. We will never know how many people will read about what happened to Judge Berg and conclude there is no way they would ever live in Detroit.

“This really is the story of Detroit,” the judge told a reporter Saturday. “It doesn’t mean Detroit’s safe.

But it is part of what Detroit is – very, very good people and some not so good.” That’s certainly true. But until Detroit IS a whole lot safer, people who put their garbage out and walk their dogs at night are mostly not going to live there.

And unless that changes, Detroit has no hope of being a truly livable city again.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

Related Content