Detroit Fire Department wildly underreports arsons to FBI; investigates tiny fraction of fires

W. Chicago & W. Grand River_1239
Steve Neavling/MCM

This is part of our yearlong examination of the beleaguered Fire Department. 

When the city of Detroit issued its arson numbers to the FBI recently, something miraculous appeared to happen: The city’s arson rate dropped in half, and the city no longer led the nation in intentionally set fires.

Trouble is, the city’s numbers are incredibly misleading and represent just a small fraction of the arson fires that are decimating neighborhoods, claiming lives and accelerating the exodus of residents.

The real reason the city’s arson rate dropped during the first six months of 2014: Detroit’s understaffed arson unit is investigating fewer fires. And the only way to declare an arson is to investigate the fire.

“Only fires we investigate and determine to be arsons are reflected” in the FBI data, Executive Fire Commission Edsel Jenkins told me. “Fire Investigators are also focusing more on investigations where we can prosecute arsonists versus performing investigations in general (where there is no complainant or witness) which is another reason that number may be low.”

Related: We are documenting every fire in Detroit to provide an unflinching look at the crisis

So let’s put this into perspective. Our review of fire records shows that more than 1,000 fires were deemed suspicious during the first six months of 2014. The city told the FBI that Detroit had 164 arsons during that period, compared to 301 in the first half of 2013 and 500 in the first half of 2010.

Jenkins said that while fewer fires are being investigated, the arrest rate is increasing because of the prioritized focus on cases that have evidence or witnesses on which to build a case.

“Investigations are down but warrants and prosecutions are up,” Jenkins said.

We will be examining the arson arrests later this year.

Other stories in this series:

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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.

  • DownriverMichiganExposed

    It is all smoke and mirrors. Read the small print in all the Homeland Security grants (FEMA) and other fed money that ALL of the cities are receiving. It reminds me of a song Linkin Park wrote many years ago.. One Step Closer…..

  • RedVagOfCourage

    I got to wonder…how shitty of an arsonist does one have to be in order to get caught? I imagine doing something like video taping yourself and posting it on facebook…for the Detroit Fire Department page.

  • javierjuanmanuel

    “So let’s put this into perspective. Our review of fire records shows that more than 1,000 fires were deemed suspicious during the first six months of 2014. The city told the FBI that Detroit had 164 arsons during that period, compared to 301 in the first half of 2013 and 500 in the first half of 2010.”

    You have to look at other inner ring suburbs that are built up, preferably older ones, but just large numbers make this easy to analyze.

    I know towns of 20,000 that go years without a single fire where a house burns to the ground. They have a garage fire, a dumpster fire, a vent fire at a restuarant, stove fire in a house that is put out etc.

    Look up a couple towns that are 1/10th the size of detroit. Like livonia, dearborn, macomb, troy or clinton township. They do not have 100 fires per year.

    I know guys who are firemen, they can depending on “luck” if you want to see action, you can go years with out fighting a fire, its not unheard of to go 2 years on the clock, albeit 24 hour shifts, if you work monday and tues, and the town only has 3 fires ( in a year)and they happen on wed thur fri. Then the next year they happen fri sat sun, you can be a full time fireman and go YEARS with out a fire on your shift. That does not happen in detroit. It is pretty common in detroit to fight multiple fires per day every shift. You can pretty often fight 4 fires in one shift. You see as much action in one shift, as a guy 17 miles away sees in two years.

    All you need to do is compare the data. How can detroit in the same environment, similar building codes, etc have a rate that is hundreds of times higher.

    • javierjuanmanuel

      to add, the suspicious part is so much change in a small period with no change in anything else. Peoples homes are still worth nothing, they are still being kicked out, they will torch a house to get insurance to move to a new place, or they will torch the joint to spite the bank, or the city. Then there are surely a couple dozen fire bugs that get off setting fires in detroit, they did not just all die off the last year.

    • banmar

      Javier, I had a bad fire in the Ocean Grove national historic district in my town last Friday evening. We pulled all seven houses in my township and had mutual assistance from eight other towns. At one point we had eight towers up not just knocking the fire down but hosing down the neighboring buildings, keeping it from jumping to other wooden structures from which it was basically less than a foot away. The second and third stories collapsed into the four retail establishments below and they had to be demolished the next day. We knew the cause of the fire by Sunday. Thank God it happened in the late afternoon/early evening, because if it had happened in the middle of the night, I don’t know that we would not have had loss of life.

      How do you not investigate the cause of a fire? Every fire should be investigated. Even if the cause is found to be faulty wiring or something accidental, cases where the house is not up to code need to be referred back to code and construction to make sure the damage is fixed. And what of the people who do have fire insurance whose fires are not investigated? How are they supposed to be paid out? I hope someone from the FBI is reading your site and seeing this so they understand that things are not what they seem with Detroit’s arson numbers.

  • ““Only fires we investigate and determine to be arsons are reflected” in the FBI data, Executive Fire Commission Edsel Jenkins told me. “Fire Investigators are also focusing more on investigations where we can prosecute arsonists versus performing investigations in general (where there is no complainant or witness) which is another reason that number may be low.””

    Here’s the good news about this strategy; it will lower insurance rates.

    • javierjuanmanuel

      You may be more in touch with the details of the industry, but I think all they care is about the likelyhood, not the how, why, or what the report is stamped.

      They do not want to pay, they will even sue the city or state to enforce things the way they want.

      One of the big insurance companies sued the state of michigan because they were losing their ass on deer related car accidents, they wanted the DNR to really trim the herd of deer through hunting, through wolves, whatever it takes.

      If the city does not investigate, and the insurance company has a couple hundred grand payout, they will pay a couple times, then send out private investigator, they will find accelerants on almost all the fires, or illegal electricity hookups, and then start suing.

      It is not a sustainable approach.

      • banmar

        Eventually insurance companies will stop offering fire insurance to homes in Detroit. That’s what they did in Philadelphia (I’m originally from Philadelphia). No mortgage = no fire insurance. People were able to pay off their rowhouses or twins or single-family detacheds but then couldn’t get fire insurance without a mortgage. It’s why so many streets in North and West Philadelphia have vacant lots or only two or three now-detached rowhouses standing in between vacant lots.

  • grant.

    How is the “arrest rate” that Jenkins is talking about determined? If it’s arrests per arson, then of course it will be going up.