DEARBORN- Over the decades hundreds of Arab and Chaldean Americans have been killed while working to support their families in Detroit, where they own businesses. "The challenges faced by the Chaldean and Arab American community on this issue are parallel,” said Sam Chahro who owns a Detroit gas station. Chahro says he fears for his life every day at work.
With crime at an unprecedented level in Detroit the Associated Food and Petroleum Dealers (AFPD) in collaboration with the Michigan State Police held a public safety forum at Byblos Banquet Hall here July 9th. The forum allowed business owners to learn more about what they can do to prevent crime at their businesses. Guests also engaged in constructive dialogue with law enforcement officials about their concerns.
The meeting was the first of its kind, with more expected to occur. "I think this meeting is historic because we all have never sat together for this purpose," said Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon.
The recent death of Fred Dally was highlighted. Dally, a Chaldean American was shot in the head twice and robbed while opening up his liquor store in Detroit early May. He owned the store since the 1970s. "The only way we're going to stop crime is if we all work together," AFPD President Auday Arabo said.
Dale Brown, director of operations for the Threat Management Center said the organization has helped stop crime from occurring at many Middle Eastern owned businesses in Detroit. The Center teaches civilians how to protect their selves in and outside the workplace. It's a useful resource for business owners operating in dangerous cities. Brown says the Center is not focused on trying to catch criminals, but rather making sure they don't succeed. "We would love to stop by one of your stores, because one of the things we teach is using psychology to prevent crime," Brown said. In the case of a physical altercation the Center can teach people how to articulate situations for law enforcement officials. Brown says the way a situation is described to an officer can determine proceeding legal action. The Center also teaches people how to make decisions based on the practical application of law, and not impulse.
Speaking to The Arab American News, Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee said one-way store owners can help prevent crime is by removing signs from their windows. "If the armed robber knows that there is a cleared vision to the street it changes the environment for that type of crime," he said. Godbee added that sound crime prevention techniques also help; along with making sure surveillance cameras are constantly operating. Godbee says his staff is willing to come out and make presentations on safety techniques at businesses. He called the meeting crucial, stating he wanted to hear the concerns of merchants to learn more about how the police department can minimize crime in their stores.
Some issues Detroit residents have raised about Middle Eastern owned businesses in the city were discussed by media personality Steve Hood, who said business owners can be more courteous to their customers by not speaking other languages in front of them.
People have complained about getting the impression that store clerks could possibly be saying something negative about them. He also said store owners should avoid using offensive language towards female customers. "When a woman goes into a gas station and the clerk says 'hey baby how are you,' how does that make her feel?"' AFPD is willing to offer sensitivity training to business owners. "Put yourself in their shoes, speaking in a different language in front of a customer is very rude,” Mike Jaafer, Wayne County Chief Deputy said.
Hood added that customers have become upset with store clerks over the price or tax on certain items, which is also an issue. Chahro says customers have cussed and thrown things at him because they were charged tax on an item. Many store owners say they have no control over the price or tax on items. Chahro says he responds by thanking the customer. “If you get mad and talk back to them, that's when you start having problems. You have to learn to ignore it." Business owners were also encouraged to invest in their businesses by painting them or planting flowers outside.
African Americans make up the minority of store owners in the city, but Middle Eastern Americans are the majority. "For years the quality of life and the service you provide to our residents has been immeasurable, and I want to thank you for that," Detroit Police Chief Ralph Goodbee said.
He says the Detroit Police Department is working on getting officers to stop in stores regularly, especially during certain operating hours when crime is more likely to occur according to data. Business owners were encouraged to question whether staying open during those hours is worth the security threat. Arabo and Jaafer discussed a program available that gives the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office and the Detroit Police Department access to surveillance cameras at stores. To become part of the program business owners must first be willing to provide the IP address of their surveillance systems to law enforcement officials. The AFPD is willing to come out and show business owners how they can use the tool, which has been proven to be effective in Southern California.
A major concern was the shortage of police officers available to respond to crimes. Godbee says the police department has priorities and responds to emergencies in accordance to them. The highest priority is any immediate threat to life. He says because budget cuts, the police department has suffered in its investigative and undercover work capacity. Arabo says one reporter from a local paper spent the night at a gas station, and was shocked at what the owner went through, and how dangerous it was. Many gas stations are required to stay open 24 hours, because of their business contracts.
The Wayne County Sheriff’s Office has been helping the Detroit Police Department. To date it has managed to get over 120 abandoned vehicles off the streets. Its deputies have also visited local businesses to stop crime from happening and even issued more than 40 traffic citations to bad drivers. "Whatever complaint you have let us know, we want to know," Jaafer said.
Cuts to public safety were also a major concern. One Detroit business owner suggested that a millage be enacted to solely benefit law enforcement officials. Fire and police are the most expensive part of operating any local government. As property values have declined in Detroit over the years the city has lost a major portion of its revenue, which supports the two departments financially. According to a report Wayne County has lost more than $100 million in property taxes over the past five years. Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano has proposed a 20 percent cut to all departments because of the region's current financial woes.
The Michigan State Police Department has also taken severe cuts with its police force being slashed in half in recent years according to an officer from the Department who spoke at the forum. Godbee noted that he's dealing with problems and budget shortages that none of his predecessors have.
Napoleon says he's lived in Detroit his whole life and the budget cuts scare him. He said people believe they can get away with more things because there are less cops. "At a time when crime is going up and things are getting worse you should not even think about reducing law enforcement and public safety," Napoleon said.
Business owners who are worried about the cuts being made to public safety are encouraged to attend and voice their opinions at city council meetings and other public forums. When the city's financial crisis first occurred Detroit was able to keep 108 police officers on the street through federal grants.
Attendees were given stickers to post at their stores discouraging the sale of K2 products. In October 2010 the state legislature did attempt to ban K2. Allie Berry, of Armada Oil and Gas Company says lawmakers didn't act fast enough in banning the product until recent tragedies unfolded. "Believe it or not, the store owners are the lifeblood of the neighborhoods that have been dying. It’s a big task and load you're carrying," Arabo said. To contact the Threat Management Center call 800-525-3491 or email email@example.com. For the AFPD call 800-666-6233.