The author, a regular contributor to Deadline Detroit, is a former reporter for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press.
By Joe Lapointe
After his Detroit Police Department lost a hot dog-eating contest to the Detroit Fire Department last year, Police Chief James Craig aimed some good-natured, food-fightin’ trash-talk toward the victorious smoke-eaters outside the American Coney Island restaurant downtown.
No wonder they won, Craig said. At the firehouse, they just sit around all day “eating hot dogs and playing video games.”
This prompted Fire Captain Arnie Nowicki to smile and strip off his shirt to challenge the chief to a pushup contest on the sidewalk.
Accepting the offer, Craig quickly slipped out of his dressy suit coat and dropped to his hands and toes on the pavement alongside the fire captain. While onlookers cheered and the speakers blared the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up,” Nowicki did 16 pushups.
Craig – more than a decade older than Nowicki — did 26, his necktie dragging the pavement. Craig stopped only when the fire captain playfully pretended to sit on the police chief’s back before hugging him.
“It was a friendly thing,” Nowicki said recently. “There’s no doubt that man is in shape.”
Indeed, exercising on the sidewalk of Lafayette Blvd. makes Craig – literally — a down-to-earth public official. He often puts himself on the streets of his city and in front of its television cameras, too, so much so that some call him “Chief Hollywood.”
Craig isn’t bothered by the implied insult.“Part of crime-fighting is building relationships,” Craig said in a recent interview. “And the more I’m accessible to this community – and I’m building those bridges – the greater likelihood that people will trust us and work with us when we have that horrible crime.”
Craig actually likes the nickname Chief Hollywood — or, as he sometimes puts it: “Hollywood Craig.” Although Detroit-born, his professionalism was solidified and polished in image-conscious California. His body and his ego are both healthy and people who work with him say he learns from his mistakes and constantly seeks feedback from citizens and cops. In a role recently tarnished with corruption and lack of control, he comes across as a righteous blend of Dudley Do-Right and Jack Webb.
♦ Related coverage today: Detroit Chief and Mayor Plan to Combat Poaching of Police Recruits
Craig thrives in public settings, not all as playful as festivals of hot dogs and pushups. In his five-plus years in this job, he has shown up at many crime scenes, especially when cops are injured or accused of using too much force. A 62-year-old Detroit native who spent most of his 41-year career in Los Angeles, Craig interacts — more than some in his profession — with both the citizens he serves and the officers he commands.
“That is what I like about the man,” said Nowicki. “He’s always out there. He’s got the backs of his men and women.”
Someone to last
In some ways, Craig came into his job on July 1, 2013 at an ideal time. The fifth chief in five years, his arrival coincided with the scandals and imprisonment of Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and the city’s bankruptcy. Two chiefs left after the revelation of their sexual relationships with the same woman.
The department – in a consent decree with the federal government – had been monitored for a decade by the Justice Department for excessive force, illegal detentions and shooting too many citizens. That ended in 2016 after Craig insisted on reforms.
“When I came back, morale was at the bottom,” Craig said. “Who could come in and drive change? I firmly believed that I could take the department to the next level. I’ve always been attracted to things that were broken. . . . I’ve always been one who gravitates to leadership positions.”
Craig’s self-confidence defines him, according to Kevin Williams, a former L.A. cop and one of Craig’s best friends. He graduated with Craig from Cass Tech high school in 1974. Until recently, Williams was chief of police at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.
“Chiefs are some egotistical people,” Williams said. “We’ve got big heads.”
Craig has avoided the scandals of the previous era and given the current period a sense of order. Since the chief position was established in the 1974 city charter, Craig has the second-longest tenure, behind only William Hart, who served 14 years until 1991, and then served seven years in prison for embezzling $2.6 million. (Mayor Mike Duggan, who named Craig deputy mayor in 2016, didn’t return several requests for comment in this story.)
Craig’s peers see the difference.
“The city was looking for stability and the force wanted it,” says Anthony Holt, the police chief at Wayne State University. “He took it by the reins and charged right ahead. He’s a very visible chief. He doesn’t shy away from (the hard issues). He takes action. He’s doing very, very well.”
Slings and arrows
Not everyone is so pleased with the chief hired by then-emergency manager Kevyn Orr, and re-hired by Mayor Mike Duggan.
Craig was sued in late August of this year for alleged racial discrimination by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a black Detroit cop named Johnny Strickland.
“White supervisors retaliate against black subordinates who complain,” according to the Strickland lawsuit. “Discrimination and retaliation were directed at me.”
Two years ago, a Craig-appointed committee of the police force charged much the same thing.
“The department has a growing racial problem,” said the January 2017 report.. “. . . Some department executives who’ve been at the center of most of the complaints related to racial discrimination appear to have been operating boundlessly with a feeling of immunity.”
His department has not been without scandal. His Deputy Chief Chief Celia Washington is in a federal prison in West Virginia. She was sentenced in April to a year behind bars for accepting nearly $4,000 in cash bribes from a towing company owner operating in the city.
Craig’s department also has been criticized for providing misleading and overly positive statistics about Detroit’s declining crime rate that were rejected by the FBI.
One of Craig’s signature innovations – “Project Green Light” – has been faulted for favoring businesses that pay extra money for flashing exterior green lights, closed-circuit television cameras and quick police response.
One critics is Ralph Simpson, a local lawyer, who said a crime victim can bleed to death on your front lawn while police give priority to a possible shoplifting at a “Green Light” party store up on the main drag.
And Craig is still explaining his belief that the Motor City would be safer if more citizens carried guns, a sentiment that drew plenty of criticism but also put his face on the cover of a magazine backed by the National Rifle Association in 2014.
“I expect to be attacked,” Craig said, in reference to his critics. “Because if you’re not being attacked, generally, you’re not doing a good job.”
To all the criticisms listed above, he offered ready answers, sometimes beginning them before the question was finished.
He believes positions should be filled by qualification, not race. Crime stats were never manipulated, but the records management system didn’t work well. Operation Green Light is a success, and its cameras have been used to catch perpetrators of crimes with no connection to the businesses that paid for them. And armed citizens are an asset to a community, “as long as they’re responsible and trained” and don’t leave guns within reach of children.
An ambitious Californian
Craig gave Deadline Detroit a lengthy formal interview at Detroit Public Safety headquarters, accompanied by four personal aides. He also was briefly interviewed after several recent public appearances.
His biographical details are nothing out of the ordinary: Craig’s father, a former police reserve, still lives in Detroit. His mother died two years ago. He has two adult children, a son in Los Angeles and daughter in Dallas. He wears no wedding ring and marriage is something he won’t discuss, he said.
“I don’t get into spouse questions,” Craig said. “Nope. It’s not my success story.”
Instead, he opens up about what he considers his successes in Los Angeles as he worked his way up until he sat at a desk outside the door of a mentor, Chief Bernard Parks.
“I became a sponge to learn ‘How do you run a big-city police department?’” Craig recalled. “I saw the good. I saw the bad. And I learned.”
Some of his early learning came in Watts, where he organized walking patrols of residents, business owners, police officers and community leaders to discourage the dealing of rock cocaine in the neighborhoods.
“This thing took off like wildfire,” Craig said. “There was a picture of me on the front page of the L.A. Times. I still have that picture. It became a national news story.”
When he was president of the L.A.P.D.’s black officer association – the Oscar Joel Bryant Foundation – Craig had to speak at a news conference after the new technology of the home video camera showed white police officers beating a black motorist named Rodney King in 1991.
“The media, of course, wanted me to go after (Chief) Daryl Gates,” Craig said. “And I chose – which was a wise decision – not to focus on the politics but focus on the issue of alleged excessive force by Los Angeles police officers and asking and demanding that a thorough investigation be conducted. Which it was.”
The King case was a turning point. Ever since, Craig said, “I’ve never had an aversion to the camera or talking to the media. I’ve always believed if you just tell the truth, people may not like you, they may not agree with you, but if you believe something and tell the truth, it’ll be fine.”
He fondly recalled the time a Detroit television news crew visited him in L.A. when that department was recruiting laid-off Detroit cops – just as it did 10 years before, when Craig was laid off.
The TV reporter asked Craig about his hometown and whether the transplant might ever leave California’s palm trees and beaches to come back.
Craig said he probably wouldn’t – with one exception.
“If they make me police chief, I’ll go back to Detroit,” Craig said.
“That was in 1991,” Craig said recently. “I have that clip, too.”
After Los Angeles, he spent two years as chief in Portland, Maine, and two more as chief in Cincinnati before returning to his hometown.
With only his love life off-limits, Craig willingly spoke to multiple topics, ranging from treatment of immigrants by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement police (ICE) to his love of classic cars.
“We are not a ‘sanctuary city,’” Craig said. “We will cooperate with Homeland Security or ICE if we’re talking about someone who is a felon.”
However, he added quickly and forcefully, Detroit police will not do certain things ICE does.
“We don’t make traffic stops and initiate a conversation about your immigration status,” Craig said.
Craig said such a policy would be “counterproductive” in some neighborhoods.
“I value the relationships we have in all our communities, including our Hispanic communities,” he said, “and we know the best way to build trust is that you have relationships.”
Prying into someone’s immigration status “is not what we do,” Craig said, unless it is a person involved in a violent felony.
Craig regularly attends car shows (“one of my passions”) and looks for the WDIV crew that covers them because, he said, that station lets him hold the microphone and interview fellow car-lovers on camera.
Asked if he would like to see the Dream Cruise extend down Woodward Avenue to downtown Detroit, Craig responded with enthusiasm.
“I would love that!” he said. “As the city continues its fabulous turnaround, I do see a day for the Dream Cruise. Why shouldn’t it be in Detroit? I think it makes sense. This is why I support the young people in the city who do car shows.”
When to bend, when to change
Any man who can win a pushup contest after age 60 takes pride in his appearance, and Craig is no different.
In visits to his family when he was working elsewhere, Craig saw Detroit cops wearing baseball-style caps and said to himself “If I’m ever chief here, the first thing I’m going to do is get rid of these baseball caps. It’s just not professional to be wearing a baseball cap.”
But police chief Reneé Hall of Dallas – a protégé of Craig’s when she worked in Detroit – said Craig listened to feedback from cops who said they loved those baseball caps. He also heard the men ask to wear beards.
In that neither decision cost money, and with morale in the cellar, Craig let them keep their caps and grow their beards.
“He gave them the little things,” Hall said in a telephone interview. “It resonated.”
In the lengthy conversation at headquarters, Craig often spoke of good ideas he brought from L.A. to Detroit.
One was on display in late August when Craig spoke at the funeral of Detroit police officer Fadi Shukur at St. George Chaldean Catholic Church in Shelby Township.
The 31-year-old Shukur — Baghdad-born, a Navy veteran and a newlywed — died after being hit by a speeding car while on duty.
At the end of the service, the speaker system in the church played a ceremonial police radio call, a memorial ritual that Craig borrowed from the funeral protocol of the L.A.P.D. and other departments.
A commanding police radio voice at St. George crackled to the congregation and to the department’s scout cars: “All units stand by . . . Radio calling Fadi Shukur . . .”
After a brief, silent moment, the disembodied voice added, “Negative response for Fadi Shukur.”
With tearful mourners gazing at Shakur’s flag-draped casket, the voice said:
“Officer Shakur, you are clear and en route to your final destination. Rest easy. Your brothers and sisters behind the badge will take it from here. God bless you. Radio clear.”
After the service, Craig said: “My best friend was the first SWAT officer killed in L.A. – and I remember that radio call at his funeral. And so when I came here, I thought a great way to remember our fallen officers is through the radio call. It’s very emotional. It is sobering. It’s the final call. It touches deep.”
Pride in appearance
Craig spoke outside the church while wearing his dress uniform, with lots of official decoration and a large hat. Around the metropolitan area, he dresses for the occasion, always appropriately.
At a taping for his Facebook show with teenagers at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Craig wore a light gray suit with only a gold lapel pin to signify his rank. Under it, he wore a dark blue shirt, collar open, a casual look signaling approachability.
And at Police Field Day at Wayne State University – an old-school department tradition that Craig recently revived — Craig wore dark sunglasses and a dark blue, casual ensemble with short sleeves. He lingered to pose for pictures with many athletes He enthusiastically discussed physical fitness.
“I’m 5-foot-9 on a good day,” he said, 167 pounds with a 34-inch waist. He ran the quarter-mile at Cass.
He starts every day with about one hour of exercise in his home gym, and can tell you his personal-record bench press: 350 pounds.
“I don’t miss a day,” Craig said of his workout routine. “I have to lead by example.”
Without prompting, he took out his phone and quickly called up a photograph of a page in a bodybuilding magazine from 1987, when he worked in L.A.
Under the headline “The Super Cops,” there was a picture of a smiling, young Craig in a group of fellow Los Angeles officers in workout clothing, flexing their muscles.
“At Gold’s Gym,” Craig said. “The original.”
Clearly, this is not a man given to false humility. But he also has a less-flamboyant side when it comes to his work that impresses important people in charge of watching the force.
One is former Michigan State Supreme Court Chief Justice Conrad Mallett, Jr., one of 11-member Detroit Board of Police Commissioners.
Mallett said Craig will listen to citizens complain at a community meeting about cars speeding on Outer Drive and react immediately.
“James Craig will — on his way home — drive down Outer Drive and sit there for a while so he can see for himself,” Mallett said.
More reserved was Mark Diaz, president of the Detroit Police Officers Association, the union that represents much of the force of about 2,300 members.
“We don’t always see eye to eye,” Diaz said of Craig. “We’ve had our issues.”
Primarily, Diaz said, those issues involved Craig speaking out prematurely against the actions of some officers before, the union contended, he had all the facts.
“It’s a learning process, I don’t hold a grudge,” Diaz said. “We’ve had a solid, open line of communication. He has been a great advocate for our officers.”
Willie Bell, a career Detroit cop who now is chairman of the police commission, said he also warned Craig “in some instances, you jumped the gun” about criticizing officers.
But, overall, Bell said Craig has made great strides in the concept of neighborhood policing, which Craig revived from his rookie days in Detroit when he worked a precinct mini-station.
Even more enthusiastic about Craig was Williams, the Detroit native and Cass classmate who worked in L.A. with Craig.
“I love that man like a brother,” Williams said.
They reconnected in 1984 when Williams tracked Craig down for their 10th high school reunion. Williams ended up applying for work on the L.A.P.D. Craig coached him for his interview and exam and let Williams room with him until he got settled.
When Williams offered Craig money for rent and food, he says his friend replied: “Kevin, listen to me clearly. When you get yours, I want you to help someone like I’ve helped you. Pay it forward.”
Williams did just that, with dozens of young cops. When he and Craig were together In California, Williams said, he suspected Craig would return to Detroit.
“He always had Detroit in his heart,” Williams said. “He really wants to change the image of Detroit. You can take the man out of Detroit, but you can’t take the Detroit out of the man. James Craig bleeds Detroit.”
Related coverage today:
Detroit Chief and Mayor Plan to Combat Poaching of Police Recriuits