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Detroit police feel pain of city's money woes

Paychecks have shrunk, and morale is low.

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Posted: Monday, February 24, 2014 12:00 am

DETROIT -- It has come to this: Even some criminals sympathize with Detroit's cops.

Baron Coleman thought he had heard it all in his 17 years patrolling the streets. But then came the city's bankruptcy, a 10 percent cut in police salaries, followed by support from a most unlikely corner -- the bad guys.

"When they saw us take a pay cut they were in shock. We were arresting guys ... and they were like, 'I can't believe your city would do you like this.' ... I say, 'Thanks for caring,'" the veteran officer said with a smile. "It's just funny because I don't like communicating with a person who has just committed a robbery how sad my life is."

Detroit police officers have long known adversity: They've worked in crumbling station houses with busted pipes, driven run-down cars, tangled with balky radios. They've navigated darkened streets -- Detroit has thousands of broken street lights -- chasing criminals, breaking up fights, encountering drug dealers who might be carrying AK-47s or wearing bulletproof vests.

As Detroit tries to rebound -- a plan to emerge from bankruptcy was filed Friday -- few groups, if any, have been feeling the pain of the city's financial collapse more than the police. Despite some recent positive changes -- a new chief, new cruisers, new plans -- there's worry, frustration and anger among the rank and file. Paychecks have shrunk. Morale is low. Co-workers have fled to more lucrative jobs. And those who remain face a formidable task: trying to protect a sprawling, often violent city where hidden dangers lurk among tens of thousands of abandoned houses.

Coleman knows it's hard being a police officer anywhere. In these trying times, it might be a lot harder in Detroit.

Nearly a generation ago, when Coleman traded a factory job for a badge and crisp blue uniform, he had certain expectations: a good salary, great benefits and a pension.

The bankruptcy erased all that. The city's financial future is uncertain. So is his own.

Though he still enjoys being an officer, Coleman said he never dreamed that as he approached age 50, he would be working seven days a week -- moonlighting in security jobs -- to pay for two kids in school and compensate for a $15,000 drop in benefits and wages.

"Right now, the dream of what I came on for has been destroyed," he said. "I'm worried. Is my pension going to be there? If I get injured, is the city going to cover my family? ... Before, I would tell my wife, 'If I die, I know you'll be taken care of.' Now, I tell her, 'If I die, you're on your own.'"

The plan by Detroit's emergency financial manager to pull the city out of bankruptcy would give police and fire retirees at least 90 percent of their pensions after eliminating cost-of-living allowances (other city workers would likely get at least 70 percent). But that plan probably faces court challenges and hinges on proposed state funding, among other factors.

While so many unresolved issues linger, the department is under new leadership. James Craig knew all about the department's troubles, but the former Detroit police officer who spent much of his 37-year law enforcement career in Los Angeles eagerly returned home last summer to take what he called his "dream job" -- chief of police.

He is the fifth man to hold the position in five years. But he is undaunted.

In a report last month, Craig announced a sweeping reorganization and vowed to reform a police department he said had been woefully mismanaged and had "lost the confidence of the public, lost the confidence of its own officers and lost its way."

Or as Craig puts it more succinctly: "The bottom line -- the department, like the city, was broken."

Some troubles have been general: The department has operated under a federal monitor for a decade because of accusations of abuse, including excessive force. That oversight is coming to an end. Other embarrassments have been more specific: A member of an elite police squad now awaits retrial -- the first jury was deadlocked -- in the 2010 shooting of a 7-year-old girl killed during a chaotic search for a murder suspect. The events were captured by a reality TV crew.

Craig said when he took over, he had three goals: reduce violence, improve morale and restore credibility. The department, he said, is now on the mend and more accountable.

"The people here deserve better," he said, "and they're getting better."

© 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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