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Crime, Not Debt, is Detroit’s Biggest Problem

Two powerful women in Detroit are pushing hard for the city to focus its resources on fighting its high violent crime rate, which, in 2012, was five times the national average.

A couple months ago, Governing’s cover story, “Who Will Save Detroit?,” focused on some of the public- and private-sector folks injecting an exciting energy into the city’s economic development and revitalization efforts. But the answer to Detroit’s problems won’t be found in new business ventures or in how the city restructures its debt, say two Detroit women with stakes in the city’s future. Rather, they say, it’s in bringing crime under control and making neighborhoods livable again.

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The two women are Kym Worthy, the Wayne County, Mich., prosecutor, and state Rep. Rashida Tlaib. Both women are pushing hard for the city to focus its resources on fighting Detroit’s violent crime problem, which, in 2012, was five times the national average. Detroit last year had the highest rate of violent crime of any U.S. city with a population over 200,000. Its murder clearance rate was just 11.3 percent in 2011. For comparison, Cleveland and St. Louis’ clearance rates were 35.1 percent and 66.4 percent, respectively.

“You can have all the urban development you want and attract all the business people you want, but if the city’s not safe, they aren’t going to come,” says Worthy. “And if they come, they aren’t going to stay.”

Worthy, known for prosecuting then-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick for perjury in 2008, is the first female and the first African-American to run the county prosecutor’s office. Essence magazine recently called her the toughest woman in Detroit—and her record proves it. In 2009, Worthy made a gruesome discovery: More than 11,000 rape kits, some decades old, were sitting untested in a dusty old police storage warehouse. Since then, she’s fought for funding to clear up the backlog. So far, 600 kits have been tested and prosecutors have discovered evidence of at least 21 serial rapists. Last October, she sued the Wayne County Commission over cuts to her budget, money she needs to prosecute more than 80,000 felony cases annually. Despite reaching a $7.4 million settlement, the commission in May rejected it as too costly.

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Like Worthy, Tlaib, who represents Detroit in the Michigan legislature, believes Orr’s focus should be on public safety. Tlaib’s biggest concern is that crime is driving residents away and keeping others from moving in. She sees the toll it is taking on the city every day when she drives her two sons to school. Along with violent crime, scrap metal theft is leaving properties looking decrepit and vandalized. Stop the stripping of homes, historic churches and other valuable buildings, she says, and you can stop decay from taking root.

A daughter of Palestinian immigrants, Tlaib made history when she became the first Muslim woman elected to the legislature in 2008. She first made her mark as a community organizer.

Both Tlaib and Worthy understand Detroit’s need for better schools, more development, good leadership and, yes, a solution to the city’s long-term debt problem. But they argue that ultimately Detroit’s survival comes down to something as basic as the perception of safety.

There are many different things that different people want for Detroit, says Worthy. “But everybody wants safe streets.”

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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