Detroit Police are acquiring new equipment and retrofitting vehicles that respond to mental health crisis calls while the department develops a larger strategy to overhaul its response.
Detroit Police Chief James White said a “comprehensive strategy” for the department’s Crisis Intervention Team will be presented to the City Council in the next 90 days. The plan, which will involve new policies and the use of non-lethal tools, is spurred by an ongoing surge in crisis calls that contributed to at least two high-profile incidents where officers shot and killed people experiencing a mental health crisis.
The initiative will involve “significantly more dollars” and “more vehicles,” White said during the council’s formal session last week.
“We’re not going to chase shiny objects,” the chief said. “We’re going to chase solutions.”
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Meanwhile, the department is implementing small changes, like retrofitting roughly a dozen vehicles used by the Crisis Intervention Team to make them more comfortable for passengers and equipped with a secondary set of green lights, which are less stressful than the traditional red and blue lights, White said.
“Those (green lights) have been shown to be less intimidating to those who are in crisis,” White said. “It creates an environment where they can connect with that mental health responder and not be intimidated by the interaction.”
Detroiters reported 24% more mental health-related calls last month compared to January 2022, according to DPD. There were 1,231 total calls last month, including 269 calls for a non-violent mental health crisis and 349 calls related to suicidal threats. Department leaders, White said, are visiting other cities and studying academic research to help inform strategy changes.
White provided the updates last week while the City Council questioned the chief about his progress toward purchasing new non-lethal equipment unveiled during a public demonstration months earlier. Council President Pro Tem James Tate he was “extremely excited” about the life-saving potential of tools that were shown off at the demonstration last December.
White promoted an array of equipment, including BolaWrap restraining devices also known as “remote handcuffs,” weapons that shoot pepper balls and foam rounds, police drones, remote cameras and virtual reality training tools.
City procurement officials said they are in the process of finding vendors for some of the equipment, though a remote camera shown during the December event was a prototype that’s not available to purchase. Tate said he was disappointed that DPD is not further along with implementing the tools.
“It just feels like we had a big press conference and there’s this huge delta in between when these items will actually potentially be deployed,” Tate said. “I was hopeful it would be through the pipeline a lot quicker.”
More unmarked cars, police bikes
The council last week also approved $1.1 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding for a contract to purchase 50 unmarked police vehicles for DPD’s homicide division and directed $80,643 in city funds toward the purchase of 50 police mountain bikes.
White said the unmarked vehicles will be assigned to detectives in the homicide division to replace run-down police cars within DPD’s fleet of 320 general assigned vehicles. Detectives use the cars to discreetly meet with community members while investigating cases, he said.
“Being able to get to these neighborhoods and respond to the citizens that need to talk to police from an investigative capacity is super important,” White said. “You can’t do that in a marked scout car, it creates problems for (witnesses)…if they’re reporting a crime, particularly as it relates to domestic violence crimes.”
The contract with Jefferson Chevrolet Co. for the unmarked cars fits within the city’s spending plan for its $863 million share of ARPA funding, which showed replacement of police vehicles as part of DPD’s gun violence intervention strategy.
DPD Lt. Joseph Peck said that the additional police mountain bikes are also needed because the department doesn’t have enough for the growing number of officers certified to use them. Peck told the council there are 106 bicycles in the DPD fleet – 91 were purchased between 2018 and 2019.
Peck said bike-trained officers patrol residential areas, parks, commercial business and entertainment districts and that the bikes are used to transport officers to and from their posts. Bikes have also been assigned to Neighborhood Police Officers since 2018. White said the bikes, which cost roughly $1,600 apiece, include lights and sirens and have heavy frames.
“Sometimes when people see police officers on bikes, they think of ‘Reno 911!’ or ‘Paul Blart’ and I know that’s not what this is,” said Council Member Coleman Young. “This is serious policing here.”
District 2 Council Member Angela Whitfield-Calloway told DPD officials during the meeting that she hasn’t seen officers on bikes in her district. She asked that the contract be delayed until the department provided a written commitment to assign patrol officers across the council districts.
“I usually see them downtown and Midtown, but I’ve never seen any in the inner city where folks live, where a lot of the crimes take place,” Whitfield-Calloway said. “I’m asking that of 50 bikes, that a couple of them be assigned to each district so we have something to look forward to and our citizens can get excited about seeing more police presence in our neighborhoods.”
Council President Mary Sheffield first agreed to postpone the vote, but later in the meeting White urged the council to reconsider and members unanimously approved the contract with Wheelhouse Detroit. Sheffield said DPD would still be required to submit a bike patrol plan that touches all council districts.
DPD is seeking even more funding for new equipment in the 2023-24 fiscal year. A presentation this month to the Board of Police Commissioners shows the police budget is expected to total $424 million, an increase of $57 million from the previous year. New funding requests include $11.9 million to fill 140 open positions and $8.6 million for new tasers.
The budget plan also seeks $147,000 for two SUVs used for the department’s community services unit and $200,000 for four vehicles used by the Secondary Employment Unit. The SEU program allows local businesses to hire off-duty police officers as security.