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Detroit's first responders, at the breaking point

Detroit Firehouse
via facebook

Detroit’s first responders say they’re under siege from all angles—and some officers say their ranks are reaching a breaking point.

Detroit’s police and fire departments have taken some steep cuts in the past few months. Police officers in particular have taken major pay and benefit cuts, and are now working twelve-hour shifts.

And relations with city leaders have turned downright hostile. At a community meeting with Detroit Mayor Dave Bing last week, that anger boiled over.

Shouting matches drove city officials offstage early, exiting to mock applause and shouts of “Cowards!” Police officers continued shouting their grievances at anyone who would listen—and even argued with frustrated residents.

“This is Detroit. This is Detroit,” said one disgusted officer observing the scene. “They don’t care about the police department. All communities that care about the police department, don’t have [Detroit’s] crime problem.”

One woman, a member of the citizen patrol group Detroit 300, was furious with officers for ending the meeting before everyone had a chance to speak.

Another officer tried to reason with the woman, noting that officers have had their wages reduced up to 30% while working longer hours under dangerous conditions. The officer said he was recovering after being shot in the leg on the job.

But their conversation, too, dissolved into a shouting match, with the woman shouting, “I’m out there fighting for y’all every Thursday!”

The officer responded: “I’m out there every day, not just Thursday.”

The Detroit Firefighters Association is also furious with city leadership. The union is suing the city, claiming cuts to that department—which include closing engine houses--have jeopardized firefighter and citizen safety, in violation of the city's charter.

Union president Dan McNamara says the perception is Detroit has become a “free burn zone” with “more fires, of more intensity, more often” as fewer engines respond to fires over longer distances.

McNamara accused city officials of deliberately “marginalizing areas of the city.”

“We used to say they’re rolling the dice,” McNamara said. “But now we know that they know what they’re doing. They’re well aware of what’s going on in the city, and they’re purposely making these decisions.”

Mayor Dave Bing and top fire officials have said the cuts are an unfortunate, but necessary step to manage the city’s ongoing fiscal crisis.

They’ve insisted that despite the reduced manpower, the department can respond to fires in accordance with national fire prevention standards by using better management and “data-driven” decisions.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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