In an effort to make Detroit safer, city officials have been begging residents to speak up and report crimes. However, when I, a Detroit resident, witnessed a crime, I found out speaking up was not as easy as it should be.
"There's a lot of young people in the City of Detroit that have adopted this no snitch policy," Detroit Police Chief James Craig said recently. "There's this fear that if I talk, I could be hurt."
"We've got to change the way people think."
If you have heard it once, you have heard it a million times in Detroit. The only way to stop the no snitch culture and put the bad guys behind bars is to speak up. In other words, if you see something, you have got to say something.
That is why when I saw some punk firing a gun down a city street in broad daylight, I called 911. However, I did not get the response that you would expect, and I did not get the response you deserve.
I stopped at USA Petro, the cheapest gas on the east side of town, and I saw a group of guys giving a little guy a hard time. They were going back and forth. One guy with his pants down around his ankles was just giving him the hardest time of all, just yelling all kinds of obscenities at him. Conflict resolution skills being what they are in Detroit, you knew this was going to go south.
Eventually these guys got into a green Taurus and they started going down Kercheval. They were still jawing at this kid. He got out in the street and gave them the what for. They were still giving him a hard time, so he flashed his gun.
He reached out and fired two or three shots at them as they were going down Kercheval. By now, I had turned to the guy next to me, and he said, 'This is the last time I get gas here.' I said, 'I hear you.'
I finish up, got in the car, pulled out into traffic and I saw him go down this alley, and he was going kind of slow looking back over his shoulder. As he was walking up the alley, I called 911.
911 OPERATOR: Detroit emergency 911, what's your problem?
ELRICK: Had a young man just firing two shots at Chalmers and Kercheval. Shot at a green Taurus.
So I figured this kind of thing happens all the time. A couple of knuckleheads start talking, somebody fires some shots, but I figured somebody has got to stand up.
ELRICK TO 911 OPERATOR: Looks like he's a teenager. He's got a white T-shirt, black jeans and a black hat turned out sideways, kind of a square fitting hat. Young black man.
I was just sort of slowly tracking him, talking to 911, giving them a detailed description and asking them if they wanted my name as a witness.
ELRICK TO 911 OPERATOR: Do you need any information from me in case you guys grab him?
OPERATOR: Nope, we already got it, sir.
ELRICK: Okay, so you don't need any witnesses or anything?
OPERATOR: Nope. Somebody else called in, too.
I could not believe it. The guy said no, we are all set, somebody else called. I thought two witnesses are better than one, right? But he said no, we are good, so that is kind of where it ended.
Then I started thinking, well, maybe I will just turn the corner and see what he is doing. Maybe I will roll up on him and ask him is this how you resolve conflicts in Detroit? But then I thought the only story is going to be dead, stupid reporter, so I decided just keep on going downtown.
But I wasn't done, not by a long shot. I got that other 911 call.
911 OPERATOR: Detroit emergency 911, where's the problem?
CALLER: Kercheval and Chalmers. Someone's firing a gun.
OPERATOR: What do you mean fighting with a gun?
CALLER: Firing a gun.
OPERATOR: Oh, Firing a gun. Can you see who's firing?
CALLER: Well, right now I'm kinda crouched behind a car, so... No, he took off. I don't see him anymore.
"I listened to the tape. You gave a great description," said Commander Todd Bettison with the Detroit Police 911 Call Center.
ELRICK TO 911 OPERATOR: Yeah, he ran in the alley just between Chalmers and the next block down. In fact, I see him, he's half way down the block between Vernor and Kercheval.
"I though you were a trained law enforcement officer they way you related the information," Bettison said. "The name should've been taken. It's rare when we get folks who actually say I want to be a witness, I'm going to leave my name. So frequently folks don't want to get involved, but with you wanting to leave your name, he should've took your name."
I asked Andy Arena with the Detroit Crime Commission what happens when somebody says I tried to help once, they wouldn't take my name.
"They're likely not to call back the next time. They're going to talk to their friends and family and neighbors and say, hey, this is what happened to me. They don't really care," he said.
"When it comes to the point where the system needs them to come forward, it's like, well, I tried to come forward before, so now what's the use," said Detroit resident Clayton Gardner.
"We will be instructing all of our folks, our 911 call takers and everyone, if somebody offers their name, by all means take their name," Bettison said. "If it reoccurs, then discipline will be appropriate."
"Everybody's on notice," he added. "It won't happen again."
It should be noted that my cell phone number did show up in the 911 call center's records. However, even Bettison said that is not good enough because you never know who is using that phone, and cops would much rather have a witness' name as they work a case.
Detroit Police did respond to these reports of shots being fired within ten minutes.
Bettison also provided a PowerPoint presentation on how to improve relations with 911 operators. Click here to view it.