Close call with gunman exposes more dysfunction in Detroit Police Department

This is the truck that pursued me, with a license plate number showing.

Times like these – less than a day after a gunman chased me in a pickup at high speeds through Detroit’s east side – I wonder why I still live here.

For the second time in a little over a year, I stared at the barrel of a gun.

But I get that. Spending hours a day documenting life in the city’s most underserved neighborhoods comes with dangers. A few people are bound to come undone.

What’s unconscionable, though, is for a city government to so miserably fail at its most important responsibility – protecting its residents from danger. It’s no wonder a recent Detroit News poll found that 40% of residents plan to leave the city within five years because they feel besieged by relentless crime.

Take Thursday afternoon. I was in one of Detroit’s most vacant areas – Gratiot and East State Fair – for a story on government neglect when a man in a red pickup truck aimed a handgun at me for taking photos of what he insisted was his “hood.” What followed was a frightening high-speed chase through rain, stop signs and a maze of unfamiliar streets that I swore was going to kill or seriously injure someone.

But as luck would have it, the twists and turns dumped me off on busy Gratiot, where the truck turned around and disappeared.

I called 911 and described what had happened, gave her the license plate number. But if I wanted anything else, like say an investigation, the operator said, I would need to call something called the city’s Telephone Crime Reporting (TCR) system, which handles the frontend of criminal investigations.

So I called and waited several minutes for an answer. When the operator came on, she suggested I call 911 back because there wasn’t much TCR could do. It would take 7 to 10 days before police could investigate, she said.

What about the nutcase with a gun and reckless pickup truck?

She placed me on hold and said there’s nothing else she could do. Said I should call 911 again and file a report with them. Or return to the scene and see if police respond.

“If they (police) make the scene, they gonna make a report,” she said.

(I probably don’t need to explain why I didn’t return to an area where a crazed man had just tried to plow me down.) So I called 911 back. The operator expressed frustration.  She referred me back to TCR, saying I needed to file a report with them.

By this time, more than 40 minutes had passed since the incident – and no one could figure out who files a police report.

On the phone with TCR, the 911 operator urged the agency to file a report.

“The perpetrator is still in the area,” the 911 operator pressed. “All he wants to do is make a report.”

The TCR operator paused.

“I’m going to place you on hold,” she told me, “and talk to my supervisor.”

A bit later, she picked up the phone.

“This is beyond the scope of telephone reporting,” she said.

What?

“We can’t prove he tried to do bodily harm to you,” the operator responded.

She said I had only one solution: Go to the Police Department’s Eastern District office on Gratiot and make a report in person before the doors close at 4 p.m.

Neither operator asked for my name, address or phone number.

I should have known better. When a man tried to mug me with a gun last summer, police never showed up.

Cops were too busy last month to arrest a man who walked into a fire station and confessed to a double murder.

The stories go on and on, and now the city is without a police chief because of a recent sex scandal.

So when I ask myself why I decide to stay in Detroit, I don’t have an easy answer.

But I know for certain I won’t leave – not while underprivileged residents continue to be victimized by city corruption and dysfunction.

There’s still a lot of work to do here, and I’ve lived another day to do it.

Steve Neavling is an award-winning investigative journalist and former city hall reporter at the Detroit Free Press.

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.