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.”
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:
- More than 220 houses, buildings burn in January; five rigs malfunction
- First week of February: Fires kill 2 brothers burn 26 houses, rigs malfunction
- Daring rescue by Detroit firefighters saves squatter from boarded-up home
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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.