Colony Arms and the Detroit Police Department: a culture of mutual distrust
It was during the afternoon of November 15 when law enforcement officers began to arrive at Colony Arms. One resident observed: “I saw the Department of Correction school bus out there, […] cop cars with the sirens blocking off [East] Jefferson for about three, four blocks, […] some kind of tank blocking the back alley, at least two helicopters doing I don’t know what up there. They set up a HQ in the lobby to run everyone’s name, and the news was all up in there, making a little show of it. The officers had real, real long rifles. It was like the army or something on Jefferson. Like a invasion.”
The police action was just one in a series of raids that have been pushed by James Craig since he became DPD Commissioner on July 1, 2013. Despite Craig’s claim that he plans to “institutionalize community policing in Detroit”, DPD has consistently and boastfully employed mass raids in the poorest communities in Detroit, on both the East and West side, as a primary response to the perceived “culture of violence.” But from the perspective of someone on the inside, things look quite different.
At the time of the raid, my fiancée Cassandra Grimes was an unemployed mother of three. She had chosen to live in the Colony Arms in 2011 after experiencing domestic abuse because a friend had told her that it was a “nice, reasonable place” and because just outside the apartment building was a school bus stop, so her daughter Carissa would have a safe way to get to school. Like all residents, Cassandra was familiar with violence and tensions at Colony Arms. But one of her main worries was the culture of apathy among Detroit police. Throughout 2013, she had made dozens of calls to the DPD about “fights, shootouts, bad stuff for the kids to be around […] but [the police] never really did anything about it.” Other residents echoed her concerns. When asked how long it typically took police to arrive after receiving a call from Colony Arms, they responded: “Hours”, “an hour, and then some”, and “never”.
One example: During the spring of 2013, several members of a local gang were in the hallway on the fourth floor of Colony Arms. They were walking around with their guns out, blasting music, getting ready for “war” with a rival gang. Multiple residents called the police, but by the time the police showed up hours later, the gang members were gone, and the police left without interviewing any residents or handing out an incident report. Cassandra told me, “I know I made at least a couple of those calls. Nothing happened […] They was out there with guns, screaming. [The police] come going on a couple hours […] and if the people ain’t right there, then they just left right out.”
Marco Freeman, an unemployed 18-year-old who has lived in Colony Arms with his older sister since the winter of 2012 had this to say about the gang’s ongoing presence: “A small circle of people were responsible for the majority of the calls: The Mack Ave. Niggas. None of them got caught ‘cause the police tardy, and when they arrive they ain’t even really know who they were looking for. Unless they had your name already in the system, [the police] didn’t know nobody from nobody else.”
One resident, a single mother who has lived in the Colony Arms building since 2010—let’s call her Sierra—estimated that she was responsible for at least eighty of the six hundred calls that year. She called DPD for any number of things, including the incident described above, fights in the lobby, and shootouts outside the building. “It was mostly the same people I was calling about. They never caught them. Never. Not one. And as soon as [the police] left, the criminals came right back out. And so I kept on calling […] They ain’t never catch no one, which to me is messed up ‘cause I was calling about some people with warrants on them.” Even when a detective met with Sierra, took down her descriptions of specific gang members, and gave her his personal cell phone number with instructions to call immediately if she saw any person of interest, the results were still the same. “I had a direct line to the detective, and they still came maybe an hour later […] and ain’t never catch nobody, ‘cause really who’s gonna get caught an hour later?”
Other Colony Arms residents also echoed that one’s safety could not be trusted to the police. KP, a 21-year-old, whose baby daughter lives in Colony Arms, said, “I would have to do whatever it takes to survive if someone try something. [The police] are scared of [Colony Arms] they own self.” Dre, a father of four, said of the police: “I think they did have some kind of intimidation of the building because they never really came when they said they would.”
Once the police arrived, they quickly left the premises if the alleged criminal was not present and immediately apprehensible. The residents’ knowledge of who the criminals were and, often, where they were, rarely made it to the police because the police were hasty in their interviews of residents, if these interviews occurred at all. When asked how quickly the police usually spend in Colony Arms when responding to calls, Dre said, “They leave out quicker than bedbugs if you turn the light on.” When I spoke to Sierra, she told me that the cops just come and go without talking to residents—so “all [criminals] really gotta do is hide in someone else’s room when the cops come and they all good ‘cause [the police] don’t know what’s going on really […] if they ask around, you could probably actually catch someone.”
Detroit Police disagree. As Commissioner Craig argued, “there’s a lot of young people in the City of Detroit that have adopted this no snitch policy…. There’s this fear that if I talk, I could be hurt.” But Colony Arms residents were and are willing to talk to police. How else could you explain those six-hundred calls?
Dre said this about his willingness to incriminate gang members: “That no-snitching shit don’t play when it’s one of your people in a bad situation […] people was ready to talk on them—the cops wasn’t tryin’ to hear it.” Marco agreed: “If something happens with my family or my friends, I would go to extreme measures to alleviate the situation, such as calling the police. The code of not snitching don’t really apply [at Colony Arms]. That’s really more of a hood, gang thing. There’s kids and old ladies and pregnant women in the building. If they in danger, yes, I’ma call the police regardless who’s doing it […] If you ask me, the reason the police ain’t catch nobody is they don’t follow up on your calls in time and they don’t want to talk to people. If you ask most [residents] who’s doing the stuff, they know, ‘cause everyone be intermingling, and everyone know everybody’s business.”
Detroit Police were well aware of the high number of calls they received from Colony Arms. Indeed, when asked about the reasons for the November 15 raid, police officials repeatedly mentioned it. However, it is clear from conversations with other residents that the poor response by the police to these calls only gave rise to more calls as crime continued unchecked. Paradoxically, the justification for the raid was thus also evidence of the poor policing, which, in part, gave birth to rampant crime in the first place. Especially in impoverished areas, the toleration of small-scale crime will only lead to more criminal activity. As KP told me, “if a criminal knows he gonna be able to get away with something, […] if the police gonna take an hour, […] then he’s gonna do it. Why wouldn’t you do it if you know you’re not getting caught?”
Who was arrested in the raid?
But who was caught during the raid? Police Commissioner Craig claimed that the raid was successful. As he told the press, “there are people with outstanding warrants. Some felony suspects. A parolee for carjacking who was armed with a gun when we made contact with him this morning. This has […] been a great operation.” But despite this vague claim, DPD has yet to publicly release the names or statistics of the arrests made during the raid.
There are two major problems with the official police argument. First, most of those who were arrested during the raid had nothing to do with violence at Colony Arms. Second, almost everyone arrested was released within three days. The vast majority of arrestees were charged with low-level misdemeanor crimes or were brought in on old court writs. Marco told me, “any person with any little amount of weed on them, just their little personal weed, they was arrested [during the raid] and they made them all seem like real big criminals. That ain’t got shit to do with what’s going on here with people that really do be hurting other people.” Others agree. Here’s Dre again: “Most of the real criminals got away. All they really got was some petty parking tickets, traffic violations, writs, different things like that […] Only real way to get them real [criminals] is to catch them slipping […] the only way to do that is to respond to calls. [The police] just don’t be on they job.”
Cassandra was also arrested on a year-old charge for the possession of a nickel-bag of marijuana. Eight months pregnant at the time of the raid, she spent nine hours in county jail before being given access to medical care and released. And she was not the only pregnant woman arrested during the raid. A pregnant resident named Brianna had also been arrested on a misdemeanor charge: possession of marijuana, without the intention to distribute. Unlike Cassandra, Brianna was forced to spend the night in the jail’s bullpen. The bullpen is where all of the females arrested that day were left until they were processed. New inmates, upon entering jail, stay there for at least 24 hours. There is one toilet for everyone. Sometimes there is tissue paper, sometimes there isn’t. Showers aren’t allowed. This is not where you want to be for any extended period of time, especially if you are pregnant. Brianna was released from the bullpen the next morning without having to pay a fine.
When the police hit the right people, the peace was short-lived. Gio, one of Colony Arms’ notorious drug dealers, was arrested in the raid. “They got Gio, yeah — on some tickets, dog. On some parking tickets, dog,” Marco said. “That nigga was back on Monday, doing what Gio do.”
By my count, 30 of the 33 people caught up in the sweep had returned to the building by the following Monday. Most of those arrested were released without facing any further legal repercussions and were not even given a fine to pay or a record of their arrest. Brianna and Cassandra told me, “they just let us go — no fine, no nothing. Like it never happened.”
A week after the raid, it was back to business as usual. As Dre observed, “soon, you know, the jackboyz was put back on they masks and the traphouses were back open for business […] shoot outs too […] Within the next couple of days them 33 people is back getting they guns from wherever they hid ‘em at and back doing what they was doing.”
Two days after the raid, Cassandra received a knock on her door. It was the police. However, this time, they did not come to arrest her. The officer simply handed her a $500 gift card to Target, and would not give any explanation for the gift card. I later learned that only one other resident was given a gift card from DPD that day. She did not want me to use her name, but allowed me to say that she was also a mother who had been arrested on a misdemeanor charge for possession of marijuana and had been released the next day. Cassandra said, “I felt like it was a bribe, you know, not to say what had happened.”
Media coverage of the raid
It seems that the raid was thus prompted by a poorly executed policing strategy and failed to achieve its basic aims. Still, the press lauded it almost uniformly. The Detroit Free Press, ABC, CBS, M-Live, Deadline Detroit, Curbed Detroit, and the Michigan Chronicle published positive accounts. One common thread of the coverage was the fetishization of the violence in Colony Arms, without offering any larger context for the violence. Curbed Detroit began their article with the sentence: “Meet the Colony Arms Apartments, the east side hellhole you’ve probably never heard of.”
None of the media reports mentioned the relatively petty nature of the charges given to arrestees. Sierra explained, “[the media] got it messed up. The building does have some real serious problems […] but what people need to understand is the people they locked up is not the people we was calling about.”
One arrestee was shown prominently in the CBS report from Colony Arms. He was led away in handcuffs, wearing a t-shirt with the caption “Original Gangster”. But let me give a bit of context: His nickname is Do-Wong, and he is not even a resident of Colony Arms. Do-Wong happened to be there when police arrived, but he had nothing to do with the gang violence that residents were calling about. The media simply got their stories wrong.
Another commonality between the reports was that Colony Arms residents were always depicted to be cheering and clapping as the raid occurred. Detroit’s ABC Nightly News began their segment by stating that Police Chief Craig was “making good” on his promise to crack down on crime, and that “cops got a round of applause.” 46 seconds into the video, Marco can be seen leaning out of the building on the right of the screen. When I asked him about it, he said of the TV coverage: “That’s some bullshit. But that’s what they do: they edit.” I talked to another resident nicknamed D-Swag, who warned: “Marco actually ended up getting jumped […] Them people they arrested was right back, […] and they ain’t like that people was said to be cheering.” By portraying Colony Arms residents as allies of the police, the media put their safety in jeopardy once arrested criminals returned after a few days. Here’s Dre again: “They made a show […] The news love that. They feed off that. That to be a big ass show. But [the police] should have been discreet. The people who got arrested were back on Monday, so it just led to more problems with the people they thought was cheering on they arrest.”
Living through the raid
But there’s a bigger problem with the way the media has portrayed Colony Arms residents: We are not “innocent” or “guilty”—were are people, and we were chilled by the police actions on November 15. Dre had this to say about the raid: “For them to come to my residence like that, like I’m the enemy […] They didn’t even have anything on me, […] but my whole body was shaking. I couldn’t even talk right.” Even if paramilitary raids can be used to effectively deter crime, the trauma of residents should factor into discussions about whether or not the raid is a legitimate police tactic.
Everyone’s experience differs, but here is one person’s account of what it feels like to have your community invaded by armed officers: My own experience of the raid. I was inside my apartment, crouching in a closet. It was a pathetic hiding spot, but it was the best I could do on such short notice. Cameron, my energetic one-year-old, was asleep on the air mattress. There was more banging on the front door—only the police bang this loudly. I looked at Cameron, who had now woken up. He looked at me like only a one-year old can, and I could feel that he’s about to blow my cover. I was scared out of my mind. I thought that they were there at the door for me.
My fiancé was arrested, but I didn’t know why. She started calling my name for help, and this point, I was forced to leave my hiding spot. Four officers were standing in my apartment, dressed in all black, their guns out of their harnesses. They were like, “there’s another one.”
I did not tell them my name, but they found my Medicaid ID and called my name into their walkie talkie. A higher-ranking officer entered and asked for my consent to search the apartment. I was in a state of shock and said yes. A second later, I came to my senses: Did he even have a search warrant? The officer responded that I had already agreed to a search, so he didn’t need a warrant.
I was hiding in the closet because I had an unregistered black-market gun. A month before the raid, on the night of my 20th birthday, my fiancée and I had been robbed at gunpoint in the alley behind the Colony Arms building. Everyone in Detroit is armed because you can’t trust the police. I knew the gunman—he was a resident of the building, a member of a local crew. He pointed a shotgun at Cassandra’s pregnant stomach, at my unborn son. What I felt in this moment is impossible to describe. Cassandra was screaming out of her mind, and the gunman and I were both warning her to be quiet. Eventually, he took our money and crept away down the alley. We then entered the backdoor of the building, and coincidentally saw two of Detroit’s finest loitering on the back stairs. The cops said that they would handle it. Then they got in their car and drove away. Nearly three hours later, back in our apartment, we received a knock on the door from a different policeman, who came to follow up on Cassandra’s call.
After that experience, I knew I had to take our safety into my own hands, but because I had been imprisoned before, I could not legally purchase a gun. Hence the unregistered weapon in my closet.
Back to the day of the raid. Now, several police officers were searching my apartment. My daughter was at school but my two sons were by my side. I was sweating, my heart was about to beat out of my chest. Time seemed frozen. The police searched everywhere, but luckily they didn’t find the gun—I had hidden it under a towel. They loitered in the room for a long time, then left without telling me where and why they had taken Cassandra. I still didn’t know that their visit was part of a larger raid, but then I looked out the window: This clearly wasn’t just about Cassandra or myself.
The police were in the building all day. Gunmen stood by the elevator to make sure that nobody went in and out of any apartment. When you tried to walk down the hall, they would raise their guns and mug you: “Boy get against the wall, where are you going?” After the police left, we all emerged like survivors and traded our war stories.
When you ask Police Chief Craig about the Colony Arms neighborhood, he has this to say: “This location didn’t become bad yesterday […] It’s been years. Years. Isn’t that amazing? I mean what were we doing?” That’s a good question: What have they been doing? Is swarming low-income areas with militarized officers and TV crews, and locking up everyone with a gram of weed or an outstanding court holding a solution to the problem? Or is it a celebration of the problem?
Marco summed up the state of the Colony Arms Building: “Mice running through the hallways, bed bugs […] corrupt management […] It’s a bad environment for the kids […] And the fact that the cops is making a show about putting a fix on it, that don’t make me feel good. Coming home, I can feel the negativity all around there.” If, as Dre suggested, the raid has offered “no kind of resolution about the problems going on,” then it’s important to ask why the media universally praised the raid, and, perhaps more importantly, why Commissioner Craig continues to use large-scale raids as a primary policing strategy throughout the most crime-ridden areas of Detroit even as this tactic seemingly contradicts his stated plan to “institutionalize community policing in Detroit.”
When the officers entered the Colony Arms building on November 15th, 2013, they did so with the mindset that it was a criminalized building with criminal residents; everyone, regardless of their legal status, was treated terribly and exposed to police aggression. That day, it did not feel like living in the United States. It felt like living in a different country.
Darren Reese-Brown is a writer, father and poet from Detroit and a former resident of Colony Arms. Mark Jay lives and works in Detroit. Darren and Mark met at a juvenile detention center in Highland Park, Michigan, where Mark facilitated a poetry and theater workshop through the Prison Creative Arts Project. They have since collaborated on two poetry exhibitions.