November 10, 2009
Council locked and loaded -- literally
BY ROCHELLE RILEY
FREE PRESS COLUMNIST
Come January, a majority of the Detroit City Council will be packing.
When seven of nine newly elected or re-elected council members held their first joint conversation with the news media, they talked budget cuts and efficiency. But three also revealed that they have concealed-weapons permits and carry guns. A fourth confirmed later that he does, too.
And the Rev. Andre Spivey, pastor of St. Paul AME, said he plans to get his CCW permit before Thanksgiving.
"My members have been telling me for years to get one, before I even ran for council," he said. "It's not an indictment upon the citizens of Detroit but just for my own personal assurances. I was concerned that the city of Detroit not turn into the wild, wild West, but I've talked with several incumbents, and the office presents some challenges. I don't feel I have to use it, but I'll feel more comfortable having it."
The disclosures that Gary Brown, Kwame Kenyatta, Charles Pugh and James Tate are usually armed (Pugh was wearing his gun in the WWJ studios for last Thursday's conversation) arose as members answered questions about whether to save the city money by giving up council security details.
Personal police protection
The Free Press reported in February that, despite the city's $300-million budget deficit, the council has a full-time, nine-officer police unit. Eleven cities surveyed by the Free Press with populations and government bodies about the size of Detroit's limit security for their members mostly to council meetings. None have a designated unit.
Former council President Monica Conyers' security team traveled with her on business trips to San Francisco, Atlanta and Orlando because the council president gets security service from the time he or she leaves home until they return at night.
Council members also can request individual security when they feel threatened.
Pugh said he has received death threats, and Kenyatta said that members sometimes must ward off irate citizens. Tate, who like Brown is a former police officer, said that as the spokesman for the department, he used to be mistaken for a homicide detective.
"If good-hearted people can confuse me with an officer, then people with ulterior motives would mistake me for one as well," he said. (He has had his permit for two years.).
Council members Brenda Jones and JoAnn Watson said they have neither permits nor guns. Watson, who with member Ken Cockrel Jr., didn't attend the conversation, said later that her "preference of protection is spiritual."
Cockrel said personal security is a private issue.
"That's just one of those damned if you do, damned if you don't questions," he said.
Like Pugh, Cockrel said he has received death threats, though most came last year "from people who saw me as out to get the mayor."
No laughing matter
The disclosures elicited some nervous laughter in the WWJ studio in Southfield last Thursday. But newly elected Saunteel Jenkins was not laughing about the gun issue at the session sponsored by WWJ and the Detroit Chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists.
Jenkins, whose 14-year-old brother was a victim of gun violence, said carrying guns sends the wrong message.
"When I say I'm anti-violence I mean it," she said the next day. "It's an indication of the failure of leadership in this city when people think that the only way to protect themselves is to strap on a gun. That's exactly where we don't want to be in this city, taking the law into our own hands. It made me kind of sad.
"I wished I had spoken up" at the studio "and said, 'This is no joking matter.' ... We don't want this to be what we become."
It is quite the conundrum: To carry or not to carry in a city where gun violence is as prevalent as Temptations music, so mundane that children are used to it.
"I know firsthand the impact of gun violence," Jenkins said. Guns are "why we have a greater level of violence than any other industrial country because we have more guns on the street. You can't do a drive-by stabbing. Seven kids at a bus stop wouldn't get stabbed. Part of the solution to Detroit's problems is getting guns off the street."
But Spivey said the matter may be a practical one.
"I'll be coming home later more often," said the minister, who added that his wife will be trained with him in firearm use and safety. "I hope no one will be out to hurt me or any councilperson. But we're in a different age."
So a new council that has appeared determined to get along and to agree on most issues may have one that divides them: whether to leave their guns at the door.
Thoughts? Rochelle would like to hear from you on this issue. Please send your comments directly to her e-mail below. Contact ROCHELLE RILEY: firstname.lastname@example.org
Free Press staff writer M.L. Elrick contributed to this column.