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How Midtown became Detroit's safest neighborhood

Chief Holt in WSU's public safety command center

Chief Anthony Holt, 40-year veteran of the Wayne State Police Department

A regular CompStat meeting convened by WSU Police

A CompStat meeting at WSU

Chief Holt listens at a CompStat meeting

WSU's public safety command center makes use of 850 cameras


Some say that Midtown is a city within a city. As far as public safety is concerned, there is some truth to that statement.
 
The Midtown district is one of the safest places in Detroit. According to Wayne State University, major crimes in Midtown have decreased by 52 percent since 2008, significantly outpacing the 18 percent decline citywide over the same period. According to BestColleges.com, Wayne State, one of Midtown's primary anchor institutions, is one of the 50 safest large university campuses in the U.S.
 
For years, blue lights were beacons of safety on Wayne State's campus, indicating kiosks where pedestrians could call for police assistance in case of an emergency. The blue lights are still there, but more a symbol of the past when the term "Midtown" didn't exist and many stretches of the area then known as the University Cultural Center felt ominous.
 
Chief Anthony Holt remembers those days -- when Midtown's southern section, the Cass Corridor, was an infamous hotbed for crime. (Today, the Cass Corridor moniker is a key element in the brands of several new retail locations.) Holt's tenure extends to the late 1970s, when the Wayne State police force was a mere third of its current size.
 
When Holt graduated from Wayne State with a sociology degree, he wanted to do social work, aspiring to be a community organizer. It was the 1960s, and the Black Power movement captured the imagination of his generation. But Holt says he learned that in order to achieve change, "you have to be on the inside." Law enforcement may have once seemed like an unlikely career path, but he began to recognize its potential to help him realize his ambitions. He joined the Wayne State police force after graduating. In April he will celebrate his 40th anniversary with the department.
 
Holt rose through the ranks to become chief in 2008 -- a critical point for the department as it coincided with the planning of Live Midtown, an incentive program designed to encourage employees of Wayne State, Henry Ford Health System, and the Detroit Medical Center, to move to the Midtown district with rental subsidies and forgivable loans towards the purchase of a home.
 
Wayne State police officers, who are commissioned by the Detroit Police Department, have long been responsive to needs beyond the main campus area, but Live Midtown, which launched in 2011, challenged Holt with a broader definition of his department's place and mission. He reorganized the department's resources in a way that may at first seem counter intuitive -- instead of devoting most of his attention to main campus, with about 20 percent of his resources allocated to the perimeter, he focused 80 percent on the perimeter.
 
"You cannot learn, you cannot do anything -- whether it's an educational institution or a business institution -- unless you're safe," he says. "By policing the perimeter, you confront the bad guys before they come in."
 
Today, Midtown is more than a confederation of cultural institutions. It's a village with an academic core, buttressed by two large medical complexes, enriched by more and larger cultural institutions, and filled with more residential units and more businesses.  And it's a destination for more people at all hours.
 
Increased public safety is not solely the result of the university police force's efforts -- it's the convergence of multiple levels of law enforcement, including the Henry Ford Health System and Detroit Medical Center police, Detroit Police, the Wayne County Sheriff, the Michigan Corrections Department, and others. These agencies meet twice monthly in a "CompStat" session, where they compare statistical findings, identify "hot spot" areas, and strategize around data.
 
"We've made this area safer by working hand in hand with Wayne State and the Detroit Police Department," says Rick McCarty, director of DMC Security Police. "You can't walk through the DMC without touching Wayne State, and you can't go through Wayne State without touching the DMC." DMC Security, limited to policing the medical center's property, assists with surveillance in the greater Midtown area. "We have two or three mobile units going at all times. It's not a problem for me to divert attention from main campus to go a few blocks away in hot spots."
 
The Midtown collaboration is an outgrowth of what began in 2006 with the Downtown Detroit Partnership, which brought public and private public safety resources together, says Detroit Police Captain Darin Szilagy, who administers the 3rd precinct. "Before we worked as individual operations. Now we almost work as one agency." He notes that while there can be some "partnership apprehension" when differing agencies come together in the same space, over time there will be a realization of common purpose.
 
In 2015, Wayne State received the Public Safety Partnership Award from the Detroit Public Safety Foundation. "They've been a fantastic partner," says Captain Szilagy. "It's almost like Wayne State is part of my precinct."
           
Wayne State monitors Midtown with 850 surveillance cameras, the most extensive video surveillance network in Michigan. This visibility might strike a nerve among those sensitive about civil liberties, but Holt notes that "Big Brother" is there to help, not harass. An example, "safe walks" are provided for people walking alone – they're "watched" from afar and from a local patrol car.
 
Policing is not all crime fighting, Holt stresses. The department sponsors rape-prevention training, among other programs, and publishes Campus Watch, an advisory that is circulated to 60,000 people in the greater Midtown area via email and print. Students from the WSU Center for Urban Studies organize neighborhoods around crime prevention. They board up abandoned buildings and conduct bicycle patrols.
 
Another factor that may contribute to the effectiveness of this style of policing is that many Wayne State officers are recruited from the university itself, and reflect the ethnic diversity of its students. Officers need to be able to communicate with scholars, while at the same time being able to manage difficult situations on the street.
 
Andrew Grimm, a Wayne State police officer who graduated with a criminal justice degree from the university, says, "I understand even more than a typical officer about what it's like to be a student here, with regard to crime you may face while you're here. I lived here the whole time."
 
Grimm was also a Wayne State football player. "We've had several football players since I came on," says Grimm, who is assigned to one of the department's three K-9 units. "[Chief Holt] likes our football players. They're generally good guys. They're disciplined. They follow rules."
 
It's not about brute strength, Holt says. It's about discipline and teamwork, qualities he identifies with athletes. Wayne State athletes are also required to perform a lot of community service, which in Holt's eyes represents the values he wants. "I'm not looking for the bouncer type," he says.
 
Holt also realizes the importance of diversity. "I need this department to reflect the community that we serve," he says, and backs it up by recruiting African-American, Arab-American, and Asian-American officers.
 
"We're one of the most customer-based police department I have ever heard of," says Grimm. One of his "customers" is actually the Detroit Police Department, which calls on the Wayne State K-9 unit to help with investigations several times a month. Grimm and his partner, Drago, a German Shepherd, won the 2014 Utility Team of the Year Award by the National Association of Professional Canine Handlers.
 
"Midtown is very safe," he says. "I work all over the city. The rest of the city can't be compared. It's two different universes."
 
Safety in Midtown is not only a factor of increased police and smart strategies, but the people themselves. Just as density of development creates a more vital streetscape, the presence of more people in Midtown is a crime deterrent.
 
"Density of population makes things safer," Holt says. "Let's take Noel Night. We might have 50,000 people. I have all of my officers working. Not one incident. You know why? We have all these people here...People who want to commit crime don't want to do it in dense population."
 
Safe place and safe people are Holt's objectives.
 
"I think we do a good job, but the true test is to go out into the community. They'll tell you."

Editor's note: This story previously misidentified Officer Andrew Grimm as Andrew Greer. It also stated that the Live Midtown launched in 2008, though it actually launched in 2011. 
             
This story is a part of a series of features on the impact of Detroit's anchor institutions. Support for this series is provided by a coalition of organizations, including Henry Ford Health System, Detroit Medical Center, Hudson-Webber Foundation, Wayne State University, College for Creative Studies, and Midtown Detroit Inc.
 
Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.
 
Photos by Doug Coombe.

Read more articles by Dennis Archambault.

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.
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