Citizens grab the keys to Motor City

By Billy Briggs

Volunteers take to the streets to help police clean up one of the most dangerous cities in the US.

Detroit 300 president Eric Ford, above, marshalls the forces to help police in the battle against crime in Motor City. Photo / Angela Catlin
Detroit 300 president Eric Ford, above, marshalls the forces to help police in the battle against crime in Motor City. Photo / Angela Catlin

It is a freezing winter's day in snowbound Detroit as armed men alight from the War Wagon. Bearing guns in holsters strapped to their legs, members of Detroit 300 glance nervously up and down the street as they carry out a search with police.

We are in 10th precinct in Detroit's west side, the epicentre of a riot in 1967 that shook America and a wild place where some 27 shootings occurred last year. As we watch from inside a black van, the crackle of a police radio can be heard as a female officer checks the location is right, and when she receives confirmation we exit the vehicle into the sub zero temperature.

This is Operation Mistletoe, phase two of a major drugs raid that finished less than an hour ago when 350 officers from Detroit Police Department battered down doors and arrested 37 people. The sweep was one of the largest Detroit had witnessed for years but what is unique is that armed civilians are participating in the follow-up, their involvement part of a new strategy to reclaim the streets from criminals in an iconic city once famous for cars and Motown but now bankrupt and, in parts, a crime-ridden wasteland.

Sadly, the Motor City is one of the most violent places in America.

In 2013, Detroit suffered the same number of killings as New York - 333 - despite its population being 11 times smaller. There is little street lighting in some areas and police are so stretched it takes them on average nearly an hour to respond to emergency calls.

However, Detroiters are fighting back against the drug dealers, rapists and gangs who have made life almost intolerable for years in this embattled Michigan city. To protect themselves citizens set up Detroit 300, a controversial organisation whose armed members patrol neighbourhoods and actively hunt down criminals to make citizen arrests. The group's president is a man called Eric Ford who is here this afternoon for Operation Mistletoe.

"We are all volunteers. It is dangerous but we are just tired of all the things going on in our neighbourhoods," Ford says. "We're just regular citizens trying to make a difference. We go after individuals and help police get leads so they can make arrests. A lot of people don't like talking to the police, but will talk to us. The 'no snitching' rule isn't right when it comes to beating up on an old lady or raping a young girl. We go into neighbourhoods and we don't leave until something is done or someone is caught."

The spark for the formation of Detroit 300 was the horrific rape of a 90-year-old woman in her home in 2010. She survived the attack but died later that year. At the time, outraged locals helped police track the rapists and were credited for obtaining information leading to the arrest of three teenagers. That was the start of Detroit 300 who named themselves after the 2007 Hollywood film called 300 starring Scotsman Gerard Butler as leader of a brave band of Spartan warriors.

Ford says there are now some 1500 members including an elite armed section hand-picked from the membership dubbed the "A Team", some of whom arrived at this spot in a vehicle dubbed the War Wagon. Indeed, when a major crime occurs in the city the A Team is often at the vanguard of a concerted effort by Detroit 300 to track down those responsible.

According to Ford, the group has already helped solve 10 major crimes including an assist in catching the killer of 3-year-old Aarie Berry, who was murdered in a gang shooting in July 2011. "We went to the neighbourhood and went door-to-door to get information which we turned over to the police - and an arrest was made," Ford says.

For some people, though, the rise of a pseudo police force is a disturbing development in 21st century America, with critics arguing that Detroit 300 could become a magnet for vigilantes. There are also concerns over the relationship between DPD and Detroit 300.

 Taya James works for the Empowerment Plan. Photo / Angela Catlin
Taya James works for the Empowerment Plan. Photo / Angela Catlin

In September 2012, for example, it was reported that two women tried to sue members of Detroit 300 after claiming they were interrogated and intimidated following the death of 9-month-old Delric Miller who was shot in a drive-by shooting.

In response, Detroit 300 insists it is a non-violent community action group that fully complies with state law at all times.

The group's legal adviser is a man who uses the pseudonym, Mr Blue. He is also Detroit 300's vice-president and explains he became involved with the group after two of his brothers were murdered. "I'm an original member. I run a trucking company and a computer company," Mr Blue says. "I am a certified firearms instructor and I instruct in close quarter combat fighting. I am also Detroit 300's legal adviser. What we do in the case of the bad guys is that anyone who creates crime, mayhem, the murder of children or innocent seniors, the elderly or women - then we try to be the eyes and ears for law enforcement. We go out and get the tips to bring these people to justice. We have a 100 per cent success rate. We have taken serial rapists off the streets. In the case of babies - there were four babies murdered in drive-bys - the youngest was 9 months old - and all those guys were brought to justice."

Mr Blue explains that when people join Detroit 300 the first training they receive is in private persons arrest and that every volunteer is instructed in Michigan law, MCL 764.16.

This gives all citizens of the state the right to make an arrest in the case of a felony. People are also instructed in the rules on carrying weapons in public, both in open carry (gun on show on a person) and concealed carry (carrying a gun but hidden from sight). In fact, Mr Blue says that citizens are actually less restricted than police in what they can do in order to arrest someone. He points out they have the legal right to restrain someone and can break down an inner door, or outer door, in order to apprehend a person suspected of committing a serious crime.

"Law enforcement has to go to a judge and get a warrant but by that time there's the possibility the person you want will have slipped away," Mr Blue says. "We don't need to go to a magistrate to get a warrant. If we apprehend someone, we turn them over to a deputy's sheriff or a magistrate ourselves. What I will say is, that if you make a mistake you subject yourself to liability. So all our guys are fully trained because there could be legal action taken against them. We operate completely within the law. We are out to make our city safer. This is a mission for us."

The organisation is growing and comprises people from all sections of society including clergy, business leaders and even law enforcement officers, according to Mr Blue.

"The original call was for men who were not scared, who were not cowards - to come out and take the streets back," he says. "We are unique in America. No one else does it the way we do it. We're not much into trying to meet and compromise and have parlays or all that other stuff. We are a conglomerate of citizens although we don't disclose who is law enforcement."

Aside from policing the streets, Mr Blue says the other focus is on educating people on how to protect themselves and both he and president Ford give lectures on community policing in schools and at town hall meetings.

Today is all about Operation Mistletoe and on building community relations alongside police in the aftermath of a drugs raid that might have been frightening to many residents here. Ford and colleagues join police who hand out gifts to locals as a gesture of goodwill. As they begin knocking on doors, more unmarked police vehicles arrive and park up in the snow. I am introduced to Commander Chaplain Amy Kamm who says : "After the sweep we're going to bring some peace back to this neighbourhood because it [the raid] can be dramatic. They've seen the difficult things police do so now they're going to see the positive things that we can bring. This is part of a new strategy of community policing brought in by new Police Chief James Craig. This is a new chief, a new protocol and a new plan."

Indeed, DPD has been severely criticised in recent years for its performance but this year it hopes to reduce overall crime by 10 per cent and cut emergency response times to five minutes. It would appear that Detroit 300 has a pivotal part to play as in a recent statement Police Chief Craig outlined his thoughts on armed citizens and crime prevention. He said: "The criminal predators here are very violent. So, good Americans who are responsible who conceal weapons can make a difference. There are studies out there that show that. We're not talking about vigilantes. We are talking about good Americans who are trained. Good Americans that need personal protection. I don't care what city you talk about in America. We [police] cannot be everywhere."

- NZ Herald

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