Amid a pandemic that has sickened more than 80,000 people across the state of Michigan and killed more than 6,000 people, an epidemic of a different kind is growing in the state’s largest city: The arrest of people whose only crime appears to be carrying a concealed weapon without a permit.
As of July 29, 451 people had been arrested in Detroit for violating Michigan’s concealed carry law during the month of July. That’s a year over year increase of 190 percent. July’s figures are not an exception. While police arrested seven fewer people for concealed carry violations in March than they did during the same month in 2019, arrests have skyrocketed since then. In April, 37 percent more people were arrested than in April 2019; in May, there were 145 percent more arrests, and in June, 170 percent more people were taken into custody than in June 2019.
These numbers are the result of The Appeal’s analysis of data taken from the City of Detroit Open Data Portal RMS Crime Incidents webpage.
While firearms crimes have risen overall during the COVID-19 crisis, attorneys say that the arrests resulting in single charges of carrying a concealed weapon aren’t related to the gun violence the city says it’s trying to cure. Police are stopping people “indiscriminately,” according to Lillian Diallo, vice president of the Wayne County Criminal Defense Bar Association. Diallo has access to police body and dash camera footage as part of her work defending poor clients.
“When they start the body cam, it starts with, ‘Come over here,’” as an officer stops and searches a person who is otherwise just going about their business, she said of the CCW-only arrests of most of her clients.
In one case, Diallo said, her client was stopped for an alleged traffic offense and he refused permission to search his vehicle. The officer in the case replied that the way the client had moved his head constituted permission for a search. That client, Diallo added, had a permit for his weapon but was charged for not carrying it in “a certain way.”
“After looking at the video, that case got dismissed because you don’t leave your constitutional rights at the door,” she said.
The dramatic increase in arrests serves as a mixed message in a city where Police Chief James Craig has publicly encouraged residents to own and carry firearms, according to one attorney who represents poor clients in the city. “If the police have been on record encouraging people to arm themselves within their constitutional rights, then for the police to also aggressively arrest folks for CCW, when it’s the only charge, and there’s no other allegations of violence, there’s a disconnect there,” said Chantá Parker, managing director of the Neighborhood Defender Service.
In a seeming reversal of his earlier position, Craig told the Detroit Free Press this month that his department had been trying to reduce the city’s recent rise in gun violence by confiscating guns. There were 535 more shootings in the city from March through June 2020 than occurred in 2019, according to data provided to The Appeal by Priyanka Goonetilleke, a PhD student working to compile and update “Covid-19 and Crime in U.S. Cities,” an ongoing report by the University of Pennsylvania Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice. In the week prior to the July 22 report, Craig said, officers had confiscated more than 110 guns.
One of Diallo’s clients spent a week in the Wayne County Jail and is facing a felony charge because his license to carry his gun had expired. Parker said that Neighborhood Defender Service also has cases where the client had encountered difficulty getting licensed for their firearm prior to being arrested.
“I think that that’s an issue that we certainly will litigate in these cases where people were arrested” after purchasing a gun and then learning “the mechanism by which I was trying to do that is shut down because of COVID,” Parker said.
Lori Dougovito, a spokesperson for the Michigan State Police, told The Appeal that the agency has been processing concealed carry licenses “all along,” but that a backlog has developed since county clerk offices have reopened after being closed because of COVID-19. “However, applications are not going over the 45- or 30-day statutory requirement,” she said.
Neighborhood Defender Service and the Wayne County Criminal Defense Bar Association have attempted to meet with Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy in a bid to convince her to dismiss the cases, which have disproportionately affected the city’s Black residents. In 2018, the last year for which FBI data are available, Black Detroiters were nearly twice as likely to be arrested for weapons offenses as white Detroiters. Neighborhood Defender Service serves roughly 25 percent of poor defendants in the city, but Parker said that the racial disparity among her clients arrested for a concealed carry offense has been rising—from just under 90 percent Black to more than 96 percent.
A hoped-for meeting with Worthy last Wednesday didn’t happen. Parker told The Appeal she believes that Worthy’s office will avoid the issue until after Tuesday’s Democratic primary.
“We would like to see these cases dismissed,” Parker said, adding that the majority of cases involved defendants who haven’t been accused of a violent offense and who have no criminal record. “It makes more sense from an efficiency perspective” to dismiss the cases, Parker said, “rather than shackling people who may not have a criminal record with a felony or a misdemeanor.”
A spokesperson for Worthy told The Appeal that the prosecutor’s office would continue to follow its standard procedure for evaluating CCW-only charges.
“It is against the law in Michigan to carry a concealed weapon on your person or in a car without a permit,” said Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Maria Miller. “At this time there is an extraordinarily high rate of gun violence in Wayne County, but that doesn’t change our procedure for these cases.”
Miller added that if there is a “significant mitigating circumstance that was not known at the time of charging, the attorney for the person can present the facts to our office and that can be taken into consideration to come to a resolution of the case.”
Worthy’s opponent in the primary, criminal defense attorney Victoria Burton-Harris, said that officials should take into consideration situations that could cause a gun owner’s license to expire during the pandemic and that a desire to reduce gun violence does not justify indiscriminately singling people out.
“Reducing gun violence is a good and necessary thing. However, we need to be mindful of technical violations like someone’s license lapsing during a pandemic when they can’t renew it,” Burton-Harris said. ”If we want to reduce gun violence, are we measuring the removal of guns, be it on technical violations like I just mentioned, or not? Is that actually effectively reducing gun violence? And removing illegal guns certainly should not be used as an excuse to harass or stop and frisk innocent people.”
Burton-Harris is running on a reform platform that includes eliminating cash bail for low-level charges and the elimination of juvenile life without parole sentences.
Parker and others say the recent arrests seem to be almost completely disconnected to the rise in gun crimes across the city. Out of more than a hundred CCW-only open cases on their books, Parker said, “less than a handful were instances where police were called into the situation. And so the rest really seems to be police doing some sort of traffic stop for a minor violation.”
Parker also contends that the police department’s escalation of arrests of people for CCW-only alleged offenses has actually “harmed” public safety because of the risk of exposure to COVID-19 when they are taken to the Wayne County jail—and community exposure risks when arrested people are released pending trial. The jail, a target of lawsuits over its “deplorable” conditions, was most recently sued after 30 incarcerated people tested positive for COVID-19.
Diallo told The Appeal that, as a defense attorney, “we’ve never seen anything like this,” and added that she wonders whether the people being arrested are being targeted by the police.
“I don’t know how in the hell this stuff happens,” Diallo said. “Are they having these … enforcement pushes on the street where you’re told, ‘Okay, go out there and find guns?’ And then they make up reasons for how they got into a car to find a gun. I don’t know. We’re missing something though.”