Warren Evans once thought he might tame scandal-plagued Detroit City Hall as mayor. As the new police chief, he’s focused on bringing order to streets he has called the “wild, wild West.”
After tackling budget, manpower and equipment issues in one of America’s poorest and most violent cities, Evans — who has raised cattle, owns horses and considers himself sort of a cowboy — spends a couple evenings each week on patrol.
“I was a soldier a long time before I was a politician,” Evans said of his career in law enforcement, while riding through some of Detroit’s most battered neighborhoods. He wore a bulletproof vest and had a semiautomatic handgun holstered at his side.
“I’m still a certified police officer,” said Evans, 60, who was serving as the elected Wayne County sheriff when Detroit Mayor Dave Bing tapped him in July to lead the city’s 3,000-officer force. “I make arrests. I go out in the street and I still enjoy it.”
Among the nation’s largest cities, with just over 900,000 people, Detroit is near the top in homicide and violent crime rates. The city and police department also have struggled since 2003 to comply with federal decrees to correct how officers use force and how prisoners are housed.
Many police buildings are in poor condition, including its aging headquarters. Most patrol cars aren’t even equipped with working in-car cameras or computers.
There is little hope for a quick improvement. The city is going broke, faced with a deficit approaching $300 million and possibly hundreds of layoffs. State cutbacks means prisoners are getting paroled more quickly back into the city.
“The national economy, our local economy, parole releases, the fact that the Wayne County Jail is reducing its population and the prosecutor doesn’t have resources enough to prosecute the cases we bring to her … we’ve got the perfect storm right now,” said Evans.
“I can’t afford to just try to plug the dike because we don’t get any better.”
Evans was ushered in as the “new sheriff in town,” a play on the job he held before taking the $156,000-a-year Detroit job.
The licensed attorney, who is single with two adult daughters, rides big Honda motorcycles and is about as comfortable in a saddle as he is in a police car. He owns and rides quarter horses and started the sheriff’s mounted unit in the 1970s.
Evans helped raise beefy Black Angus on family-owned land in South Carolina, “always moving them from pasture to pasture.”
“I like to work cattle. I like cowboying,” he acknowledged.
But Evans, who lives in Detroit, also knows the city — street by street.
“I’ve worked narcotics and task forces with the city of Detroit (as a sheriff’s deputy),” he said. “I’ve worked on internal affairs investigations with the city.”
Out on patrol one recent evening, he stopped and lectured a young driver about rolling through stop signs and questioned a teen he saw peering through a home’s window.
He also questioned a man walking between houses who was wearing a heavy down coat and sweat jacket in the 80-degree heat. “I’m not strapped. I’m not strapped,” the man told the chief, opening up his coat. The man was left to go on his way.
Some officers, whose major concern is getting the job done on the street, say they are taking a wait-and-see approach to Evans’ plans.
His to-do list for the department includes adding computers to cars so officers can file reports without stopping at precincts, and finding a better dash-cam system.
So is assigning more officers to higher-crime areas. Evans wants to tow vehicles belonging to unlicensed drivers in those areas. At least three in 10 murders in Detroit are committed during drive-by shootings, Evans said.
“What it will do is stem the flow of shootings in certain areas,” he said. “We’re getting four to six shootings a day.”
Evans began as a deputy in Wayne County in 1970 and was appointed undersheriff 17 years later. He was named sheriff in 2002, then won two elections, the latest in November. As sheriff, Evans earned $128,768 a year.
After Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick stepped down last year as part of a plea in two criminal cases, Evans was one of several candidates who ran in a special mayoral primary in February. He finished fourth and has said his pursuit of elected office is over, preferring to focus on his new job.
That commitment impresses 38-year-old Detroit resident Kevin Rice, who recognized Evans while the chief was on patrol on the city’s northwest side.
“To see him out here means he’s not just collecting a paycheck,” Rice said. “He’s actually trying to see what he can do to solve some of these problems.”