Why Detroit is breaking up its Gang Squad

Mar 5, 2013

When gang violence breaks out in the roughest parts of Detroit, even the police call for help.

The gang squad is a special, paramilitary unit of the Detroit Police Department.

They're either necessarily tough, or notoriously brutal, depending on who you ask.

But if the city’s Mayor and the Police Chief have their way, the squad's days are numbered. 

Big guys with big guns

Think about it: big guys, with big guns, cruising the city’s toughest streets in the name of law and order. You know what we have here? A reality TV hit.

But dang it, a quick Google search shows the National Geographic Channel beat us to the punch.

Their “Inside Detroit Gang Squad” aired a few years ago, with all the dramatic music and drug raids you’d expect.

"I don't want to say [us gang members] laugh at police, but they know that the police is the police. And the gang squad is the gang squad. They will beat you up."

Still, even without the cameras, the Gang Squad is famous. Maybe even infamous.

Tagg is a senior at Denby High School in one of the most violent neighborhoods in the city.

"I don't want to say [us gang members] laugh at police, but they know that the police is the police," he said. "And the gang squad is the gang squad. They will beat you up."

That’s why Tagg wants us to use his “stage name,” rather than his real name.

He’s been focusing on music more and more, he says, as he tries to transition out of gang life.

He and his friends call themselves the “nerd gang” because they make clean music – no expletives in Tagg’s verses, at least.  

Life and death in Detroit's gangs

But Tagg used to be part of a different gang, a real one.

He was never a major player, he says, but it was hard not to get increasingly pulled in just by being around his friends and fellow gang bangers.

Ultimately, he says, he got out for a simple reason: he had seen too many people die. 

He says first his cousin was shot and killed by robbers pretending to be police when Tagg was a little boy.

Then in middle school, one of his closest friends was fatally shot so the shooters could steal his sneakers and earrings.

This happened just moments after the friend had asked Tagg to go around the corner with him to pick up the new sneakers, but Tagg's family was just leaving to visit their grandmother. Tagg couldn't go with him.

In middle school, his friend was fatally shot for his sneakers - just moments after he asked Tagg to come pick up the shoes with him.

In high school, he says he watched a random passerby walk into a shooting and bleed out next to the neighborhood basketball court.

Here’s the thing, though.

We’re talking about all of this – shootings, gangs – at his school.

In his student government teacher’s office, to be specific. The students and the teacher in the classroom next door know exactly what we’re talking about, they know Tagg’s history, probably the guys still in the gang, the shootings, all of it.

And that’s just one indication of how far this is from your Hollywood version of gangs.

If you think it’s still just the Bloods and the Crips and official initiations and sophisticated drug networks, you’re wrong.  

Now, gangs are arguably more pervasive, but far less organized. 

"Gangs start off with friends or family,” he says. 

Your gang is just the other guys on your block, or your older brother's friends, or in Tagg's case, the guys on your middle school basketball team.

“Growing up, you gonna hang around them. And we’re boys, we play fight. But after that it gets serious. And then you got older siblings that are in gangs. I'm from Seven Mile, so it's like, Seven Mile Bloods."

"And what about the gang squad?" I ask. "How much do you think they know about what's really going on?"

"I think the gang squad knows everything," Tagg said.

In city's roughest schools, gang intel is crucial

That’s exactly what Tagg's principal, K.C. Wilbourn, is counting on.

She says when her students walk out of Denby High School, they walk into what’s essentially a war zone.

"We've had two killed, and at least 12 shot. At least twelve,” she says, when asked how many of her students have been shot (off campus, of course) since school started in September.

It’s not clear how many of those shootings are gang-related, if any.

But the odds are good that plenty of the violence in this neighborhood is between gang members.

Every time Principal Wilbourn walks the halls at Denby High School, she's grilling guys about gangs - their tattoos, their older brothers, their fights. 

One teacher points out a student who was made to do push-ups in the hall - punishment for acting up in class.

Wilbourn pulls him away from the band practice room and the cacophony of trumpets and saxophones.

"You said you were shaping up," she says. "What is going on with you?"

The kid is big – linebacker big.

And Principal Wilbourn is a petite, pearl-wearing 4'11". She used to carry a baseball bat around, just to even things up a little.

For one thing, there are a million interactions exactly like this one in Principal Wilbourn’s day.

Despite its rough reputation, Denby’s building is gorgeous, a big, ornate piece of period architecture straight out of the 1920’s-1930’s.

The halls look clean, warmly lit, and they’re almost completely empty when class is in session.

That’s partly because if Principal Wilbourn wants to chew you out, it will be painful - and long.

This student’s just finished telling her that he’s got his act together now. He’s not smoking, and he’s not going to fail this semester either.

“I’m going to accomplish my goals,” he promises. “I’m going to play for Notre Dame. Like Ray Lewis, one of the greatest linebackers of all time. Ain’t nothing going to stop me from accomplishing my goals.”

"So what’s with the fighting then?"

"That last beef? Oh, that was when I got jumped.”

“You didn’t get jumped, you won,” Wilbourn says.

So who was it who jumped him then?

By that she means, which gang? She rattles off the options: six mile, seven mile?

Nope, the students says. “That was them Hustle the Ball boys. They ain’t worth nothing to me," he pledges.

Back in her office, Principal Wilbourn says stuff like this is why she needs the gang squad around.

"[The gang squad members] know where all the bodies are buried. They speak the language of the kids."

"They know where all the bodies are buried. They speak the language of the kids," she says. "They're able to infiltrate or penetrate different organizations to the degree that they can almost single handedly dismantle it. And their presence is so different that kids are at least paying attention to who they are."

More beat cops means a safer Detroit, says mayor

But the city is under a crazy amount of pressure to get more cops on regular beat patrol. 

And for that matter, they also need more police officers investigating the homicide cases that are way backed up.

So last month, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing made an announcement: he's reorganizing the police department.

Starting with breaking up the gang quad and transferring them to beef up other departments.

"What we're doing is putting the gang squads, or those officers back into the precincts,”  Bing said. "It doesn't mean they're not going to watch and give information as far as gangs are concerned, and we think we can help solve the problem by putting the officers into the precincts where a lot of this is going on."

Both the Mayor and the interim chief of police say this move actually makes tough neighborhoods safer. They say more cops on beat patrol means police arrive sooner, and they're more visible.  

"No way to put it all together," squad member predicts

But members of the gang squad are not happy with this.

They say once they're disbanded, there will be no centralized gang intelligence.

George is an intel guy on the gang squad. He was the only squad member willing to go on the record. He says he's talking because he's retiring soon, after tearing a ligament in his wrist while on the job.

"We would be almost ineffective," George says. "There'd be no way to put it all together. These gangs, they spread all throughout the city. And to split us up...there'd be no way for us to share info on a regular basis."

George then asks me to turn off the microphone while he shows me binders of gang intelligence – mug shots and charts of gang hierarchies, tons of Facebook photos of shirtless teens showing off the gang tattoos on their chests.  

George says the whole reason the gang squad knows all this stuff is because they don't have to answer any other 911 calls that flood into the Detroit police.

He says that, of course, will be history once they're disbanded.

"To take gang squad away from the people of Detroit would be almost a crime. I can't think of anybody who actually wants the gang squad to go away that isn't in a gang," George said.

Squad is no stranger to controversy: "Ain't no cameras around."

Actually, that's not entirely true.

One man in particular is very happy to see the gang squad break up.

Ron Scott is with the Detroit Coalition against Police Brutality.

He says the gang squad is so rough, 30 percent of police brutality complaints are about the squad.

"They were thugs," says Scott. "Nothing but thugs."

He admits the squad may have had some positive impact, but he says it’s never been anything long lasting.

"Now if they got the big gun and the big body, you can doggone bet that may have a temporary impact, but in the long run it doesn't change the neighborhood."

"Now if they got the big gun and the big body,  you can doggone bet that may have a temporary impact, but in the long run it doesn't change the neighborhood," he says.

Back at Denby High school, I run this police brutality stuff by Tagg, the former gang member.

He says it’s definitely true that the squad is rough. He’s been handcuffed and roughed up, he says. But he says his 15-year-old cousin had it even worse.

"He came home with a little scar over his eye saying they hit him with a flashlight in the alley," Tagg said.

"Wait, was it like they hit him because they wanted to stop him from running?" I asked.

"No. No. They had him in handcuffs, and then they beat him up. Ain’t no cameras around.”  

Still, he does not want to be here once the gang squad's gone.

I ask him, once school is out and the squad is disbanded, what will it be like in this neighborhood this summer?

"With no more gang squad? Ooh. It'll be hell. It will be hell. It's gonna be crazy," Tagg says.

Political skirmish, impending emergency manager adds complications

The big transfers in the police department are set to start this week. 

Of course, anything political in Detroit is never that simple.

The civilian board that oversees the police, the Police Commissioners Board, wants to force the police department to delay the transfers.

Both sides disagree over who has the ultimate decision-making power in this situation. They each point to the city’s charter as validating their own arguments.

Last week, the civilian board passed two resolutions about this. One reemphasized the board’s authority in these matters, and the second was a warning to the interim police chief.

If the chief goes ahead with these change without the board’s consent, the resolutions say, the board will take any necessary actions, including legal ones.  

Interim Police Chief Chester Logan does not seem to be shaking in his boots.

Members of the police commissioner’s board said Monday that they believe Chief Logan is going right ahead with disbanding the special units, including gang squad, regardless of the board’s wishes.

Board Chairman Jerome Warfield says he and other board members will be meeting with their attorneys to talk about legal options this week.

Of course, on top of this mess, now you have to throw in a looming emergency manager – one who will, of course, have the power to rewrite police contracts.

Meaning that once again in Detroit, nothing is certain.