By Sharon Cohen
DETROIT: It has come to this: Even some criminals sympathize with Detroit’s cops.
Baron Coleman thought he’d heard it all in his 17 years patrolling the streets. But then came the city’s bankruptcy, a 10 percent cut in police salaries, followed by support from a most unlikely corner — the bad guys.
“When they saw us take a pay cut they were in shock. We were arresting guys ... and they were like, ‘I can’t believe your city would do you like this.’ ... I say, ‘Thanks for caring,’ ” the veteran officer says with a smile. “It’s just funny because I don’t like communicating with a person who has just committed a robbery how sad my life is.”
Detroit police officers have long known adversity: They’ve worked in crumbling station houses with busted pipes, driven run-down cars, tangled with balky radios. They’ve navigated darkened streets — Detroit has thousands of broken streetlights — chasing criminals, breaking up fights, encountering drug dealers who may be carrying AK-47s or wearing their own bulletproof vests.
As Detroit tries to rebound — a plan to emerge from bankruptcy was filed Friday — few groups, if any, have been feeling the pain of the city’s financial collapse more than the police. Despite some recent positive changes — a new chief, new cruisers, new plans — there’s worry, frustration and anger among the rank and file. Paychecks have shrunk. Morale is low. Co-workers have fled to more lucrative jobs. And those who remain face a formidable task: trying to protect a sprawling, often violent city where hidden dangers lurk among tens of thousands of abandoned houses.
Baron Coleman knows it’s hard being a police officer anywhere. In these trying times, it may be a lot harder in Detroit.
Nearly a generation ago, when Coleman traded a factory job for a badge and crisp blue uniform, he had certain expectations: a good salary, great benefits and a pension. The bankruptcy erased all that. The city’s financial future is uncertain. So is his own.
Though he still enjoys being an officer, Coleman says he never dreamed that as he approached age 50, he’d be working seven days a week — moonlighting in security jobs — to pay for two kids in school and compensate for a $15,000 drop in benefits and wages.
“Right now, the dream of what I came on for has been destroyed,” he said. “I’m worried. Is my pension going to be there? If I get injured, is the city going to cover my family? ... Before I would tell my wife, ‘If I die, I know you’ll be taken care of.’ Now, I tell her, ‘If I die, you’re on your own.’ ”
The plan by Detroit’s emergency financial manager to pull the city out of bankruptcy would give police and fire retirees at least 90 percent of their pensions after eliminating cost-of-living allowances (other city workers would likely get at least 70 percent). But that plan probably faces court challenges and hinges on proposed state funding, among other factors.
While so many issues linger, the department is under new leadership. James Craig knew all about the department’s troubles, but the former Detroit police officer who spent much of his 37-year law enforcement career in Los Angeles returned home last summer to take what he called his “dream job” — chief of police.
He is the fifth man to hold the position in five years.
In a report last month, Craig announced a sweeping reorganization and vowed to reform a police department he said had been woefully mismanaged and had “lost the confidence of the public, lost the confidence of its own officers and lost its way ...”
The department, Craig said, is now on the mend and more accountable. “The people here deserve better,” he said, “and they’re getting better.”