Commentary: Detroit's police force

Oct 22, 2012

If I began exhibiting clear signs that I could no longer take care of myself, eventually something would happen.

I might get myself killed or locked up. Thousands of people suffer such fates every year.  But in more fortunate cases, incompetent people have legal guardians appointed for them.

Sometimes, they are declared wards of the state. The idea is to prevent them from doing themselves, or anyone else, any harm.

Which brings us to the extremely delicate case of the City of Detroit-- a place whose agony and problems are tied to and tied up with the oldest of America’s problems: The problem of race.

The fact of the matter is this: Detroit can no longer govern itself in any realistic sense. The city doesn’t have the money to provide the most basic services.

The streetlights don’t come on, crime is rampant, and the police force is stretched far too thin to do much other than eventually show up at the scene of the worst crimes.

Morale among Detroit’s police officers is horrible, and small wonder. There are too few officers to do the job.

Those who remain are not only poorly paid; they’ve recently taken a 10-percent pay cut and an even bigger hit to their pensions.

Detroit police officers now risk their lives daily, some for less than $30,000 a year. Suburban cops and sheriff’s deputies make more. State troopers make $16,000 a year more.

The police union’s contract with the city expired four months ago. The city itself is expiring in many ways, including as a guarantor of public safety. The Detroit Free Press yesterday indicated that the only neighborhoods beating crime are those few that can hire private security sources and pay off-duty Detroit cops to patrol in uniform.

Detroit is, meanwhile, nearing collapse for a lot of reasons, chief among them inability to pay its bills and an irrational and xenophobic city council, which recently contemptuously and crazily rejected the state’s offer to make crumbling Belle Isle a state park.

Some of the council members said they feared a state takeover. But the fact is that cities are creations of the state -- and the legislature could legally dissolve Detroit. The city isn’t working. Nor is there any sign that it can fix itself. The yearly budget is still in the red. Detroit has, Mayor Dave Bing told me recently, $12 billion in unfunded pension and other obligations it can never pay.

Without minimally adequate public safety, any city would be on the point of collapse. It may be politically incorrect to say this, but it is both inevitable and necessary that the state assume responsibility for Detroit, by whatever appropriate means.

That can’t happen till after the election, and it will be far easier if the Emergency Manager law is restored. But in any event, what’s important isn’t maintaining a particular political unit.

It’s about saving the people, and providing a minimally adequate foundation for life in a civilized country.

Somehow, there’s been far too much attention paid to what various political actors think of all this, and too little to the citizens. This is a lifeboat situation. And the earlier someone intervenes, the better. Fortunately or not, that’s a job only state government can do.

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