Wild, Wild Midwest: A rash of 'justified homicides' in Detroit

Detroit'€™s police chief believes gun ownership reduces crime; but critics accuse him of encouraging vigilantism

Lumyra Mitchell, a 27-year-old cake baker and mother of two, never thought she’d ever shoot at a person. It had been years since she touched her family’s semi-automatic rifle, which they kept high on a shelf in their upstairs bedroom closet, until one evening in February, when Mitchell heard some noises on the back porch.

Lumyra Mitchell shows correspondent Lori Jane Gliha the bullet hole in her wall from the warning shot she fired. Her defense of her Detroit home with an assault rifle against three teen intruders was caught on a security camera, and went viral.
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A few weeks earlier, someone had tried to break into their Detroit home, but Mitchell said she scared the person off “just by screaming and hollering.” This time was different. Her husband was away, and she was upstairs with her 2-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter. She grabbed the rifle and yelled that she had a weapon, but the boys – one of whom had a replica handgun – thought she was bluffing.

Mitchell fired a warning shot, and then continued to fire the weapon toward the door. She didn’t hit anyone, but it was enough to convince the teens to retreat.

“Killing someone was far from my thoughts,” Mitchell said. “I didn’t want to kill anyone. I was just trying to scare them – just trying to get them away.”

But a rash of other Detroit homeowners have delivered fatal shots to intruders so far this year, and the city’s new police chief has been very public and passionate in declaring that they’re well within their rights. His statements landed him on the cover of an NRA magazine, and have drawn the ire of residents who say he’s encouraging a kind of vigilantism. 

No confidence in police

For years, Detroit has ranked the most dangerous big city in America. Although crime is down about 10 percent compared to the same time last year, there have already been more than 5,000 violent crimes in the city and more than 4,000 burglaries so far this year, according to the Detroit Police Department. And excruciating 911 response times – which grazed an hour last year, according to officials – created more of a culture of self-reliance

Detroit Police Chief James Craig
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“They’re not around the corner,” Mitchell said of the police, who she called only after scaring the teens away.  “So [the intruders] could have been in, broken in, took my stuff, hurt me, hurt the kids, then gone – long gone – and the police still is not here.”

Homeowners have shot and killed five intruders entering their homes since the start of the year, according to Jennifer Moreno, a public information officer for the Detroit Police Department. One other intruder was shot in the chest but not killed. Moreno said the department doesn’t have exact numbers showing how many homeowners, like Mitchell, fired weapons and struck no one during a home invasion.

According to Michigan’s 2006 self-defense law, homeowners who defend themselves with deadly force are protected if they “honestly” and “reasonably” feel their life is in danger. And Police Chief James Craig forcefully defends this right.

“When a person is faced with an imminent threat, and they’re a law-abiding citizen who possesses a concealed weapons permit, they have an absolute right to protect themselves,” Craig said.

Craig grew up in Detroit, but left to work as a police officer in Los Angeles and as the chief in Portland, Maine, and Cincinnati. He returned to his hometown 10 months ago with a goal of improving department morale, cutting crime and rebuilding trust within the community.

I’ve been very clear. I don’t support vigilantism. What I have continually stated is that this is about self-defense.

James Craig

Detroit police chief

“I say it’s fair to say that many who live in Detroit…had no confidence in this police department,” Craig said. “They believed and felt that if they dialed 911, the police may not show up. “

Craig said that since he took the job, the average police response time to a call for help has plummeted from an average of 58 minutes to under 11. But based on his experience in Portland, where he said there were a lot of concealed carry weapons, he also believes that gun ownership has a role in deterring crime.

“I’ve been very clear,” he said. “I don’t support vigilantism. What I have continually stated is that this is about self-defense.”

Activists accuse the police chief of making irresponsible comments that encourage homeowners to reach for their guns first. Ron Scott, the director of the group Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, said he wishes the chief would publicize alternative ways to handle the situation, like calling 911, retreating to a safer area of the house and using a non-lethal weapon.

“I think the chief thinks he’s in the Wild West,” Scott said. “We’re not opposed to self-defense where a person is in imminent danger, and we need to do that. But the chief is not highlighting options that people have taken as opposed to shooting someone.”

The death of a teen

Lori Jane Gliha sits down with Divana Webb, the mother of a 15-year-old boy who was shot multiple times and killed while allegedly breaking into someone's house.
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In April Divana Webb, a mother of nine, got the news that her oldest boy, Demontae Moorer wouldn’t be coming home.

“When they told me he was gone, I looked out the door…and I kept saying, ‘My son ain’t gone,’” she cried, tears dripping down her cheeks. “My son’s going to turn that corner in a minute…He’s going to turn that corner walking. He never turned it.”

Moorer, 15, had been shot multiple times in the hip outside a house just a few blocks away from home. The initial police report indicated he was with a teenage girl and “trying to break into” someone’s home when the homeowner shot them both, killing Moorer.

While Webb waits for the investigation to be completed, she questions whether the shooting was really self-defense. She said she believes the female at the scene personally knew the homeowner, and was breaking in to retrieve some of her own things. The homeowner did not respond to a request for an interview.

“I just wish he could’ve lived, and just tell me the truth,” said Webb, who described her son as a funny kid with deep dimples and a trademark blonde streak in his otherwise dark hair.

If the police determined that her son was actually breaking into the home when he was shot and killed, Webb said she would understand. She’s just not certain that’s what happened.

“If they didn’t step foot in that house, they didn’t break in,” Webb said.

The police chief acknowledges that some teenagers have been killed breaking into homes.

“It’s always tragic whenever there’s a loss of life,” Craig said. “Certainly, nobody wants to shoot a child.” 

But he believes those young people should make better choices, and he remains adamant that homeowners have a right to protect their lives, their families and their property with firearms.

“People in Detroit are sick and tired of being victims,” Craig said.

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