Obeying stop signs is no longer optional in the city, and police now are pulling over motorists for violations like cracked windshields or busted tail lights.

Detroit police often overlooked such infractions in the past, but Police Chief Warren Evans has ordered officers on his Mobile Strike Force to stop motorists in high-crime areas for any legal reason in hopes of finding unregistered guns.
In addition, officers on the strike force, made up of specialized units like the Gang Squad and the Fugitive Apprehension Team, are knocking on doors of known parole and probation violators and their relatives in high-crime areas.

The tactics have been credited with cutting crime and getting guns off the street, but civil rights advocates say the aggressive policing may be crossing the line and has led to an increased number of civilian complaints against the department.

Evans says the proactive effort targets neighborhoods that have shown a statistical spike in crime. The effort has resulted in a drop in crime and an increase in confiscations of illegal guns and drugs during his first six months as Detroit’s top cop.

To emphasize the point, Inspector Eric Jones, who leads the Mobile Strike Force, sent an e-mail to a sergeant last month, warning that officers who don’t make enough traffic stops will be disciplined.

“Low producers will be administered WRITTEN progressive discipline,” Jones warned in the Feb. 2 memo.
Critics say Jones’ email amounts to a quota, which pressures officers to pull over motorists without cause if no legal reason can be found. But Evans and Jones stand behind the e-mail, pointing out that suburban police regularly stop drivers whose vehicles have cracked windshields or for other violations.

“We’re asking officers to make legal stops of cars that look suspicious that have broken traffic laws,” Evans said. “Is that too much to ask?”

But Ron Scott, director of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, said Evans’ approach could lead to racial profiling or other abuses. “What do they deem suspicious — young African-American men who happen to be driving in a high-crime area?” he said.

Guns, drugs off the street
Evans insists his methods are working. Detroit police confiscated 20 percent more unregistered firearms in 2009 over the previous year, 2nd Deputy Chief John Roach said. Cocaine seizures are up 479 percent, while there has been a 115 percent increase in the amount of heroin confiscated during that time, Roach said.

Meanwhile, murders have dropped since Evans took over. There were 379 homicides in Detroit last year, up from 375 in 2008. But in the first six months after Evans became chief in July 2009, there were 179 murders in the city — a 20 percent decline from the same period in 2008.

Sending the wrong message
Using specialized units like the Gang Squad and Fugitive Apprehension Team to stop motorists in areas that show spikes in violent crimes sends the wrong message to citizens, Scott said.

“These are special paramilitary units that are trained to go into situations expecting a problem,” Scott said. “I think in this current economic environment, where so many people are without jobs, it’s a bit ridiculous to have the Gang Squad stopping someone for a cracked windshield.”

Elizabeth Stevenson of Atlanta said police stopped her without cause on the city’s east side on Dec. 23.
“I wasn’t the only one; there were four or five other cars sitting there they also had pulled over,” said Stevenson, who was in Detroit visiting relatives for the holidays. “I asked them why they pulled me over, but they didn’t tell me. I had a can of Red Bull (energy drink) in one of my cup holders, and there was an empty cup in the other holder. The police said there used to be alcohol in the cup.

Read the rest of George Hunter and Charlie LeDuff’s story at The Detroit News.

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