Underreporting arsons? Fire Department to change figures after our report

First Unitarian
The blaze that devoured the First Unitarian Church on Woodward was one of more than 1,000 suspicious fires in the first half of 2014. Steve Neavling/MCM

Detroit is about to rejoin the nation’s leaders in arsons after we revealed last week that the city dramatically underreported the crimes to the FBI.

The Detroit Fire Department will soon issue revised figures that are about twice what the city originally reported for the first half of 2014. When the FBI last month released crime rates for that time period, the number of arsons in Detroit plummeted from 301 to 164.

When we first asked Executive Fire Commissioner Edsel Jenkins about the improbable dive in the arson rate, he said fewer suspicious fires were being investigated because of a stronger focus on cases with the highest probability of leading to prosecution. He also said the city experienced a 20-year low in suspicious fires.

But hours after our story was posted last week, Jenkins responded that the city was submitting new figures because the arson numbers “were based on preliminary data.”

He also said that “the final number of reported arsons for 2014 will be similar to the final number reported in 2013.”

“Due to a manpower shortage in the Arson Unit during the first half of 2014, not all reports were approved for submission to the state by the deadline for the preliminary reporting period,” Jenkins wrote us in a statement. “This issue has been addressed.”

Our review of city records found that the fire department handled more than 1,000 suspicious fires during the first half of 2014. Even with the revised numbers, the city is still declaring less than a third of the suspicious fires as arson.

“Only fires we investigate and determine to be arsons are reflected” in the FBI data, Jenkins said.

This report is part of our yearlong examination of the fire crisis in Detroit. We are documenting every fire and taking photos of each fire-damaged structure, which are viewable at Motor City Mapping, an interactive map with pictures of every parcel in Detroit.

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.

  • Tim Burke

    with that many fires you would think they would catch somebody, odds alone with 1000 fires set should yield at least 10 arsonist’s caught do we have a serial arsonist or arsonist’s or is there a gang being paid to set these houses and buildings on fire. makes it easier for developers to have a burnt structure removed than an intact one. take a look at the old Piquette market Fire 9 yers ago and what is there today a vetrans housing center. follow the money, or don’t because that rabbit hole a person could get lost in permanently.

  • banmar

    Congratulations, Steve, on Pulitzer-quality work. You’re the only journalist who is looking out for the people in your city and using the results of your investigations to shame the FD and city officials into admitting they cooked the books. Your work is and will continue to save lives and bring comfort to the families of those victims whose deaths were not investigated.

  • bebow

    Strong work, Steve. The same strategy is likely applied to official reporting of other crimes, too, wherever possible. The liars aren’t concerned about the reality of Third World Detroit, because they don’t live here. It’s all about a payroll check and a pension after marking the required amount of time. If reality isn’t engaged, then there’s less work to be done and less risk of performance failure.

    Our elected and appointed leaders don’t seem to realize their deviant behavior gives a green light signal to individuals perched on branches of the hierarchy below them, which then trickles down into the streets. It’s very difficult for clean individuals to exist in corrupt situations. The clean will leave or succumb to the deviance.

    Since the players always want to put on their anthropologist wannabe hats (See Flashpoint), it only seems appropriate to point out the origin of the so-called cultural problem. How many individuals fell in behind Kwame-the-Liar and followed his deviant trail directly into ruin? Kwame was the king of trickle down deviance. We’re still paying for his lies.

    Let’s not do Kwame again.