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.

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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.