Director of Detroit Crime Commission sees steady progress in bridging gaps

by Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

Andrew Arena is convinced that the Detroit Crime Commission (DCC) is not only needed, but essential.

“Our goal is to fill the gap law enforcement agencies are not getting to and working with community leaders to bridge those gaps. We are looking at criminal enterprises flying under the radar – insurance fraud, mortgage fraud,” explained Arena, 50, the executive director of the Crime Commission.

The commission was formed last year by Ron Reddy, a former FBI agent. Reddy brought in Arena, a 24-year veteran of the FBI who was the agent-in-charge of the Detroit office for five years. (See Grand Rapids Legal News for March 31, 2010 for an article on Arena’s presentation in the Grand Rapids area on global crime.) Arena is also an alumnus of what is now the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.

“I worked for the FBI for 24 years. You have to be in the Bureau for 20 years and be 50 years old in order to retire. I had the time in. I had a couple of other job offers. This just seemed to be something that appealed to me; I wanted to build on something like this. At the end with the specter of another move facing me (had Arena remained with the FBI) and after doing the same thing for nearly 25 years, I needed a change… To me, it was fate. The opportunity came up and I felt in my heart it was time to do something different,” he said.

Arena and Reddy are joined by Ellis Stafford, a former Michigan State Police inspector, who is the director of operations. Recently, the commission hired another investigator – Lyle Dungy, formerly of the Detroit Police Department.

In addition to these four men, the DCC has two intelligence analysts working full-time.

The commission is a non-profit 501(c)(3) that relies on volunteers. So far, several pro bono attorneys and interns from U-D Mercy School of Law have offered their assistance. The commission’s headquarters are located at 1001 Woodward Ave. in the old First Federal Building in downtown Detroit.

“We are privately funded through private donors and grant proposals. We’re not costing the taxpayers any money,” said Arena.

Having a crime commission in a major city is nothing new. According to Arena, there are crime commissions all over the nation, most prominently in New Orleans, New York, and Chicago. In fact, Arena pointed out that the Chicago Crime Commission is 100 years old.

The commission is not a substitute for a law enforcement agency, but a supplement. Arena stated that he and his colleagues with law enforcement backgrounds in the commission are private citizens. While they have permits to carry guns, they have no law enforcement authority – they cannot arrest anyone.

Instead, the commission uses civil lawsuits and raises public awareness about various problems. After the commission has investigated, it will turn its findings over to the proper law enforcement agency if it calls for it. To date, the commission has turned over in excess of 15 cases to various law enforcement agencies.

“We expose what’s going on and run with it as far as we can. Some cases take us pretty far and then we turn it over to law enforcement. We fully bake the cake (by investigating a case and doing the legwork) and law enforcement puts the icing on,” explained Arena. “People have asked us, ‘What are you guys doing? Shouldn’t we be expecting this from law enforcement?’ The reality is with the world we live in right now – all these budget cuts – we don’t have the manpower. We lost about 4,000 cops in the last six years (due to budget cuts). As a private entity, we can pick up the slack and help out – that’s a good thing.”

One thing the commission has been cracking down on is the problem of abandoned buildings, something that has become an epidemic in Detroit.

“We can’t alleviate the entire problem, but we can focus on areas where we can make a difference and focus on the slumlords who are destroying neighborhoods. A number of abandoned buildings in the city drives down property values and are bastions for crime – women are pulled into these places and are sexually assaulted – and drugs. Young kids walk by them on their way to school everyday. We have a number of pro bono attorneys to help us with civil nuisance abatement suits. A number of landlords have voluntarily said they will fix these places up – we’re holding their feet to the fire,” said Arena.

His three-year plan for the commission is to expand its manpower.

“We need to remain flexible to the needs of law enforcement agencies,” Arena says. “I keep telling everybody we’re eight months ahead of where we thought we’d be thanks to the hard work of everybody involved… I thought it would take six to eight months to get the office set up here, but they hit the ground running. When I got here, they were pretty much down the road,” explained Arena. “The acceptance we have gotten from law enforcement agencies and the community has been tremendous. We’ve done good work and that speaks to the reputation of the folks who came over with me.”