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Commentary: Benny Napoleon on crime and Detroit

Benny Napoleon knows law enforcement. He joined the Detroit police force almost by accident when he was an 18-year-old shoe salesman looking for something to do with his life.

That was back in 1975. Twenty-three years later, he became police chief, and violent crime dropped by 30 percent over the next three years. He retired when Kwame Kilpatrick became mayor, and taught and practiced law.

Two years ago, he was elected Wayne County Sheriff. And now he is thinking seriously about running for mayor of Detroit. My guess is that he may well be the favorite, whether or not Dave Bing runs again.

Napoleon is a lifelong Detroiter with a charismatic personality and an infectious grin. But he’s deadly serious about saving Detroit. He knows there are astronomical budget problems, and billions of long term liabilities that the city is probably never going to be able to pay.

Nor does he claim to have the economic answers, certainly not yet.  But the city’s biggest problem, he believes, is violent crime, especially the soaring homicide rate. “The reason for that,” he told me this weekend is the “especially violent narcotics trade in Detroit, and the gang activity,” and an extremely aggressive young male culture.

Napoleon strongly believes there could be no better use of what limited resources the city has than to crack down on violent crime. He once headed the city’s gang squad. He’s never been shot, though bullets have whizzed past him; he’s never shot anyone, though several times, he’s had to come close.

Detroit’s population has fallen by 300,000 people since he was police chief. “If you ask people why they left, the overwhelming majority will tell you it’s because of violent crime,” he said.

“You know, we have to see our citizens as customers. If you are losing all your customers due to a single problem, you have to address that problem.“ Yet the city has failed to do so, year after year. If we were a sports franchise, we‘d be out of business,” he said. Benny Napoleon understands that the way things look now, it is possible, even likely, that the city will be under an emergency manager well before the citizens vote for mayor in November.

Would he still want to be mayor even under those circumstances, if it meant being largely a figurehead?

“Yes, I would,” he told me. “Because I would hope that person, (the emergency manager) would be wise enough to make use of my 38 years of law enforcement experience. And at least I would have a seat at the table. Emergency managers are meant to be temporary, and I would be there to take over when control was returned to Detroit‘s citizens.”

Napoleon says he hasn’t yet definitely decided to run, though it’s hard to imagine he won’t. He is looking now to see if campaign money is there, and whether people would vote for him. “But I can tell you this,” he told me. “If I were to become mayor, I wouldn’t use it as a stepping stone to anything. This would be it.”

And at the end of the day, “I will have left everything I have on the streets of Detroit.” That, after all, is where he’s always been from.

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