It often seems that even the most heinous crime fails to move Detroit, a city almost numb to violence. But a series of shooting deaths in recent days have been particularly chilling. The killings have struck across all age groups: a grandmother, a middle-aged cop, a 7-year-old child. This time, outrage is building, but what will it lead to? Is there anything more substantive the city can do to fight gun violence? Can the city afford to put more officers on the streets? The city's reputation for crime needs a turning point and soon.
The most recent case began last Friday, May 14, when a 17-year-old high school student standing in front of a store in one of Detroit's bleakest neighborhoods was shot by a man twice his age for reasons that remain unclear. The boy, police said, stumbled across the street, collapsed and died. Then, shortly after midnight Sunday, Detroit police officers arrived at a two-story house not far away.
With a warrant in hand, they planned to search the house for the 34-year-old suspect. Officers say they announced their presence and then tossed a flash grenade into the front window of one side of the duplex to disorient the people inside. Then, police say, officers entered the house, where a 46-year-old grandmother in the front room allegedly struggled with an officer. Next, police say, an officer's gun discharged, fatally shooting the woman's 7-year-old granddaughter Aiyana Stanley Jones.
At a press conference Tuesday, defense attorney Geoffrey Fieger, who is representing Aiyana's family, offered this narrative: The flash grenade was thrown through the plate-glass window of the home's living room, apparently landing on Aiyana, who was sleeping with her grandmother on a sofa. Almost simultaneously, he said, a shot was fired into the house. The grandmother, Mertilla Jones, said Tuesday that as soon as the grenade shattered the window, she leaped to the floor. "I wanted to reach my granddaughter," Jones said, sobbing loudly. "I seen the light leave out her eyes, and I knew she was dead. She had blood coming out her mouth. Lord Jesus," Jones continued, "I ain't never seen nothing like that ... You can't trust Detroit police." Police officers, Fieger said, then rushed through the front door, which was unlocked.
The day before, Fieger, who once represented Dr. Jack Kevorkian, claimed he had seen videotape of the incident filmed by a reality-TV crew that had accompanied the police. He alleged that police, moreover, may have raided the wrong side of the duplex, since the 34-year-old suspect was eventually arrested in another part of the building.
Aiyana's death comes just days after a 69-year-old Detroit grandmother cooking dinner was killed by a stray bullet from a man defending himself from a carjacker. Mourning relatives recalled how they had repeatedly asked her to leave her crime-infested neighborhood. Earlier this month, five Detroit police officers were shot, one fatally, while investigating a reported break-in at one of Detroit's many abandoned buildings. The series of tragedies comes as Detroit officials have touted a drop in violent crime. Homicides decreased 25% in the first quarter of this year compared with 2009, and shootings and auto thefts are on the decline as well. Among the factors that may have helped are more stringent traffic stops, which apparently have picked up people carrying guns and lacking driver's licenses.
On Monday, Detroit police asked Michigan's state police to investigate Aiyana's death, partly to avoid allegations of conflict of interest. The department, meanwhile, says it is seeking video footage of the incident from the TV crew that was with the police who arrived at the scenes of the shootings on Friday and Sunday.
One of the many questions people in Detroit are asking: Why did police use a flash grenade? The device is intended to create a loud flash and bang to disorient potential suspects. Several years ago, New York City's police department began requiring authorization from its police chief to use the grenades. Now the grenades are rarely used, says Paul J. Browne, deputy commissioner of the NYPD. Detroit police officials say the grenades are used when officers believe there is a violent person nearby in this case, a homicide suspect. The police department's top spokesman, John Roach, said there was evidence that weapons had been inside the home. But no actual weapons have been found.
On Monday, a throng of people showed up at Aiyana's house for what seemed like an urban ritual, bearing teddy bears, brown-skinned Barbie dolls and balloons. One woman, Cora Mitchell, passed around a large photo of Aiyana blowing out candles at her sixth birthday party. "It's like the police, they're after us, and we can't take it anymore," Mitchell said, standing on the front porch of Aiyana's house. Her own son was fatally shot by police in April 2009, she said, near a gas station.
Civil-rights leaders have decried Sunday's shooting as an act of police brutality, and later this week the Rev. Al Sharpton is expected to address the case in Detroit. Detroit Mayor Dave Bing was criticized for failing to publicly acknowledge the situation until his brief comments at a Monday press conference: "We've got a young 7-year-old kid that's been killed, and we all ought to be outraged at that." It's one of the biggest challenges facing Warren Evans, the police chief Bing hired last year. Evans, the former sheriff of Wayne County, is generally viewed as having solid relations with the community. This, no doubt, will be a test. Both the mayor and the police chief have asked for federal grants to put more police on the streets.
Much of the city's outrage so far has been on media coverage of the crisis, which some residents feel is sensational. But the fact is, crime remains one of the biggest barriers to Detroit's turnaround aspirations. People will continue to flee if they don't feel it's safe to cook in their own kitchens.