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Is Detroit safer without a police gang squad? Residents say no

detroit police car
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

Detroit’s gang squad, the special police unit that fights organized street crime, is on the chopping block.

Mayor Dave Bing wants to reassign the 20 or so officers on that squad to regular beat patrol.

He says the only way the city can turn a corner on its crime epidemic is by creating a more visible police presence – and that means some tough calls, given all the recent staff and budget cuts.

Bing is also weighing whether to reassign the officers tasked with protecting city council members.

But it’s the possible loss of the city’s gang squad that drew dozens of citizens out to a community meeting on the city’s east side this Thursday.

Parents, high school principals and police officers themselves spoke with or submitted letters to the city’s police commissioners.

Several people said they think gang violence is only getting worse, and they believe it’s particularly concentrated around high schools.

One member of the city's gang squad spoke with us, on the condition that we only use his first name: George.

He admits their gang squad is relatively small, with just 20 or so officers, and reportedly just one officer tasked with gathering intelligence.

But he says in the last year alone, the squad has identified some 300 gang members and been responsible for numerous arrests.

George says that’s because they’ve been able to focus on building evidence and pulling together information about gangs, rather than dealing with unrelated police calls that come in.

If the squad were disbanded, he says all the progress would be lost.  

"We would be almost ineffective. There'd be no way to put it all together. These gangs, they spread throughout the whole city. And to split us up, it would take away our ability to share information on a daily basis."

And while some in Detroit speculate that the city’s worst violence isn’t related to gangs, George disagrees. He says some gangs are swelling to 200 members each, and he gets regular calls from parents and school administrators.

“To take gang squad away from the people of Detroit would be almost a crime. I can't think of one person who actually wants to see gang squad go away that isn't a gang member.   

Detroit's board of police commissioners still has to sign off on the reorganization plan.

Several members of the board told the crowd that they understand their concerns, and will take them under serious consideration. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.