Amid a jump in violent crime in this and other cities nationwide, Detroit residents report being much more worried about public safety than about police misconduct, a new USA TODAY/Suffolk University/Detroit Free Press Poll finds.
By an overwhelming 9-1, they would feel safer with more cops on the street, not fewer. Though one-third complain that Detroit police use force when it isn’t necessary – and Black men report high rates of racial profiling – those surveyed reject by 3-1 the slogan of some progressives to “defund the police.”
“It’s scary sitting in the house, and when you go outside to the gas station or the store, it’s possible someone will be shooting right next to you,” said Charlita Bell, 41, a lifelong Detroit resident who was among those called in the poll. Last year, when her car was hit by stray bullets during a shopping trip, she hurried home rather than wait for the police for fear the shooter might return.
“It’s always some random shootings,” sighed Rita Gibbs, 70, who is so distressed she hates to turn on the news these days. “I just can’t stand it.”
The Detroit survey was the second in a series called CityView, a project by the USA TODAY Network and the Suffolk University Political Research Center exploring attitudes of residents in major American cities toward policing, public safety and community. The first poll, which was taken in Milwaukee last month, found broad dissatisfaction with law enforcement practices there.
The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year by a police officer and other examples of brutality toward Black people, some of them caught on cellphone video, have caused massive protests demanding police accountability and a reckoning on racial justice. But growing concern about a sharp rise in murders and shootings across the country last year is also threaded through the national debate about law enforcement and criminal justice.
In Detroit, 1 in 5 residents (19%) cited public safety as the biggest issue facing the city, second only to education, named by 23%. On a list of eight concerns, police reform ranked last, at 4%.
The poll found a significant racial divide on the question. Black residents ranked crime at the top of their list of concerns: 24% cited public safety, and just 3% named police reform.
But white residents were a bit more concerned about police reform than public safety, 12% compared with 10%. Education was by far the biggest issue on their minds, named by 31%.
“I think the Detroit police are representative of most if not all police organizations in the United States, in which they structurally contain behaviors that encourage racism and white supremacy,” said Justin Fenwick, 35, a real estate agent. “It’s hard to look at a police department and say they’re doing a good job.”
The poll of 500 adults, taken July 13-17 by landline and cellphone, has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points. The poll covered all residents of Detroit, not just registered or likely voters.
A contrast: Black men and Black women
There was a striking contrast in the interactions with police reported by Black men and Black women.
Black men were twice as likely as Black women to report having been stopped and questioned by police investigating crimes, 38% compared with 17%. What’s more, Black men were twice as likely as Black women to say they weren’t satisfied with how police handled the encounter, 46% compared with 20%.
“You have some good cops and then you have some bad ones,” Derrick Wilson, 52, who also goes by the name D.J. Raw, said in a follow-up interview. At times, some of those surveyed said they had seen racial profiling in the approach police took toward them personally and toward their neighborhoods in general.
Among Black men and Black women, half said they were treated differently because of their race, and most agreed their treatment was worse. But while nine of the 208 Black women polled said they were treated better because of their race, not one of the 155 Black men surveyed said they had been treated better.
“The differences in opinion of the police along gender lines within the Black community potentially reflect the differences in the daily lives of Black men and women,” said David Paleologos, director of Suffolk’s Political Research Center. “Many would argue that this harsher feeling toward police stems from a daily routine of Black men being on guard from the very moment they leave their house. ‘The conversation,’ as it is called, that happens frequently between young Black men and their parent or guardian is very much centered on the idea that Black men are held to a different standard than the rest of the population.”
Race relations were cited by just 5% as the leading issue facing Detroit, which has the highest proportion of Black residents of any large American city. In 2019, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 78.3% of Detroit’s population of 670,000 people were African American, 14.7% white, and 1.8% two or more races.
In comparison, race relations ranked near the top of concerns in the CityView poll in Milwaukee, which has a population that is 44% white, 39% Black and 4% two or more races.
In Detroit, those surveyed found news accounts depicting police misconduct and racism across the country credible. By 2-1, 64%-26%, they didn’t believe the news media were exaggerating those stories. That is at odds with higher levels of skepticism nationwide. In a USA TODAY/Ipsos Poll this month, a plurality, 46%-34%, said they believed the stories were exaggerated.
“People are more aware,” said Wanda Jan Chris Hill, 71, a retired city employee who is Black. “Everywhere you look people are getting killed. We know there’s a history of harm against African Americans. We’re tired.”
Detroit residents gave middling grades to the city’s police department. Seven percent called its performance excellent, 33% good, 43% fair and 15% poor. That means a 58% majority rated local law enforcement as mediocre or worse.
But they also rely on the police. Eight in 10 would be likely to ask a police officer for help if they needed it. Even more, 87%, would be likely to provide information to the police about a crime they had witnessed.
When it comes to equitable treatment of different races, they gave the Detroit Police Department high marks.
More than three-fourths of those surveyed, 77%, agreed with a statement that the Detroit police “generally do a good job and treat people fairly, even if there are a few bad apples on the force.”
Only 16% said the police are “racist in the way they treat people, even if some of them try to do a good job.”
“I feel like they’re one of us; they’re not some invading force,” said Kenneth Wolfe, 74, a retired landlord. “This is a society that is based on law and order. If you don’t have people there to support law and order, then you don’t have a society. They’re the enforcement of law and order.”
After a decline, why are violent crimes rising?
Crime rates in Detroit and nationwide have been falling significantly for decades, although most residents don’t realize that. Half said, inaccurately, that there was more violent crime in Detroit compared with 30 years ago. Just 1 in 5 said, accurately, that that there was less violent crime.
But the relatively steady decline in homicides and shootings was reversed last year. While property crime declined, Detroit recorded 327 criminal homicides in 2020, up 19% from 2019, and 1,173 nonfatal shootings, up a stunning 53%. Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and other major cities reported similar spikes.
In the poll, 28% of those surveyed said they had seen an increase in murder and shootings in their neighborhoods; 35% reported a decrease.
Barbara Landrum, 66, was shocked when a young woman was shot just a few blocks from her home in the Warrendale section of Detroit this year. The retired chef no longer feels safe taking walks in a nearby park. “It’s gotten to the point where I’m afraid to do that,” she said.
By 65%-23%, those surveyed don’t support the slogan “defund the police.” They divide 49%-42% in support for the idea of cutting some funding from the police and using the money for social services – for instance, to help the homeless and the mentally ill.
Why do Detroit residents think violent crimes have risen?
The reasons are a complicated mix, they say, including the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns, the availability of guns, and a lack of jobs. Each of those three factors was cited by 13% of those surveyed.
Terrell Garner, 41, a contractor who works in construction, blames the stress of the pandemic lockdown that confined many to their homes, sometimes in difficult situations. “Now that the world is coming back open, people are getting outside and taking this pent-up frustration on whomever,” he said.
Unemployment and poverty play a part, too, said Jerome Washington, 53. “There is no money, and that’s where your crime comes in,” he said. In Detroit, “everybody is struggling.”
“It’s very dangerous now in the city,” said Melanie Taylor, 50. “I don’t even get gas in the city because of all the shootings and the road rage that’s going on on the freeways.” The mother of two sons, she worries that women and children are increasingly the victims of violence: “It seems like there is no code of honor.”