DETROIT Sept. 28, 2009— -- Detroit Police Chief Warren Evans was traveling in an unmarked police car on one recent shift when he spotted a Chrysler mini van run through a red light.
Evans and his driver, Lt. Eric Jones, turned on their police lights and sirens to quickly pull the driver over. When asked for his license, the driver admitted he didn't have one.
Evans then did what is unthinkable for most police officers. He let the man go without even issuing a citation. The chief's only show of disapproval was a stern "drive carefully" as he walked away.
That one stop in so many ways illustrates the challenges facing the Detroit PD. The force is trying to secure the city's dangerous streets with extremely limited resources.
There are not enough beds in the city jails so some suspects are released, or minor offenders, like the minivan driver, often are not taken in. The in-car cameras and computers in most squad cars don't work so officers can't record traffic stops, run license plates and check for warrants. Officers, even in high crime areas, must leave their patrols to file police reports.
"He certainly is a legitimate arrest," Evans said of the minivan driver. "But is it worth being out of service for an hour and a half in an area where the priority runs could be significant in that hour and a half?"
When Evans took over as Detroit's top cop back in July, he inherited one of the most challenged police departments in the country. Detroit led all large cities in murders per capita last year with 375 homicides. This year, more than a thousand people have been shot.
Officers complain they are overworked and underappreciated. A recent study by a Wayne State University professor found the suicide rate among Detroit cops is higher than that of New York City, Chicago or Los Angeles officers.
In an unusual tactic, Evans goes on patrol twice a week. It was on one such patrol that he stopped the mini-van driver.
"It gives me an opportunity to get close to what citizens are seeing and feeling and what officers are dealing with," Evans told ABC News on a ride-along on patrol recently.
Detroit PD Has Lost 800 Officers
They are dealing with plenty. Police buildings are old and falling apart. And in an embarrassment for the city, the police force has been struggling to comply with six year-old court-mandates reforms following accusations officers mistreated prisoners.
"I don't think there's any excuse that is a realistic one for being as far out of compliance six years down the line," says Evans, who has vowed to bring the department into compliance.
A Detroit News review of police and medical examiner records found that the Detroit Police Department systemically undercounted homicides in its 2008 annual report to the FBI. In combing through police records, the paper found that one man who died of multiple stab wounds was not listed in the city's homicide count. Another man determined by the medical examiner to have been beaten to death was classified by police as having died by accident. Even a man who was shot in the head was excluded from the tally. Evans has called for truth in reporting.
"I think there have been tendencies to be more worried about how high the number is instead of the solutions to fix the numbers," he said. "It's a bad thing that we're in this condition, but I think also it's a bad thing to lie about the condition. We're trying to be as straight up with the public as we can and hopefully they will develop the same level of righteous indignation that I have about us being in this situation."
The economic depression battering Detroit doesn't help make police work any easier. Over the past decade the force has decreased by at least 800 officers. Evans says optimally he needs about 1,000 more officers to cover Detroit's large land area.
"Can we do a great job with less? Yes, but it's going to be several hundred more. There's no question about that," he said.
Like so many police departments in today's economic environment struggling to do more with less, Evans says he hopes smarter police work can make a difference. He wants to improve officer's response time, close down drug houses based on violations of occupancy codes rules, and increase the department's partnership with federal law enforcement to eliminate illegal guns and protect the schools.
Detroit Police Chief Wanted to Be Mayor
"I'm not going to take the position that there are things we can't do because we don't have the resources," said Evans. "You cannot make chicken pie out of chicken feathers. You've got to have something to work with, and we're trying to develop that in extremely lean times."
Increased resources for the police department are not likely coming anytime soon. The city is facing a budget deficit of nearly $300 million.
Evans knows Detroit. He is a licensed attorney, grew up in the city and is the former sheriff of Wayne County, Mich. He knows there are major institutional changes needed within the department, but also he knows relations between the cops and the community must improve.
"You have to engage the community. One of the reasons officers are working as hard as they are is because there's a general reluctance by a large part of the population not to be particularly helpful or cooperative with the police," said Evans. "We'll never be successful until we bring them back."
The chief noted that his officers are called upon to go above and beyond their traditional role of serving and protecting the public. "People want the police to be so much more than we are," he said. Evans talked about the need for community leaders and churches to help improve the city.
"We're not parents. We're not school teachers. We're not ministers. We're not social workers. We're police officers," said Evans.
With more than 1,000 people shot in the city this year, Evans speaks with a sense of urgency about cracking down on gun violence. On the issue of guns, like so many other issues, Evans knows he needs help from the community.
"One, you've got to get the guns off the streets. Number two, you've got to get the community involved because the shootings would go down if the closure rate on the shootings go down," he said.
Evans says improvements won't happen overnight
After Detroit's scandal plagued former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick left office last year, Evans ran against Mayor Dave Bing in a special election. Evans finished fourth in the mayoral election, but Bing tapped him to succeed popular police chief James Barren.
Detroit Is Ground Zero For Recession
Evans ruled out the possibility of another run for mayor. "I'm happy to finish out my career as the chief of police in the city of Detroit with a police department that is far more effective than the one we have here today," he said.
Detroit is truly ground zero for the nation's recession. The unemployment rate hovers around 30 percent. Economic despair makes police officers lives more difficult, Evans said. "When the economy is bad and crimes are being committed based on the economy, it's the perfect storm for crime."
Though the task is enormous given Detroit's lack of resources, Evans thinks his new ideas and outreach to the community can make a difference. On the job for less than three months, he's optimistic things can improve, but realistic about how long it will take.
"I knew what I was getting into. I was getting into the biggest challenge of my professional life," he said. "It's going to be an ongoing project that will take a long time. But you're going to see incremental changes as we go along."