Detroit Regional Chamber > Mackinac Policy Conference > Tackling Detroit’s Mental Health Crisis With New Law Enforcement Strategy

Tackling Detroit’s Mental Health Crisis With New Law Enforcement Strategy

May 29, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • The 2024 NFL Draft in Detroit was a success in safety and security, thanks to thorough strategy and enthusiastic, committed officers.
  • Significant drops in homicide, carjacking, and non-fatal shooting rates in 2023 and 2024 with the help of community reporting.
  • Worsening community mental health is causing an uptick in violent crimes. The Detroit Police Department is addressing this with a new Mental Health Division that deploys officers in different uniforms displaying their first names only, non-lethal weapon options, and a civilian mental health professional.


Mayor Mike Duggan sat down with Chief James White to discuss how the Detroit Police Department (DPD) is addressing violent crime and the mental health crisis in Detroit and the Region at the 2024 Mackinac Policy Conference.  

The NFL Draft Succeeded With Public Safety Strategy 

Previous hosts of the NFL Draft have held the event at an easily securable location away from the city center, with little benefit to the downtown community. When presented with the idea to host it downtown Detroit, Duggan said, “I am not allowing this to go downtown no matter what the NFL says unless Chief White says to me, ‘I can secure the city for three days.’”  

After studying it closely, Chief White gave the green light to proceed, confident that he had a commitment from his team, the right number of officers, and a strong strategy, which was deployed “the best that I’ve ever seen in my 28 years at the police department,” according to White. 

Despite canceling all vacation and leave days for the event, White also said the police officers were welcoming to guests and “present, but not imposing.” The placement of certain divisions was well thought out, with community engagement teams being put on foot patrol and having the most face-to-face interactions with visitors. 

Detroit Sees Significant Drop in Violent Crime Through 2023 and 2024 

Despite originally wanting to become a traffic cop to “ride a motorcycle and write tickets,” White has led the significant reduction of Detroit’s homicide rates and transformed the Detroit Police Department’s response to the city’s uptick in mental health crisis calls.  

Last year, the city saw a historic drop in homicides – the lowest rate since 1966. When asked how he accomplished this, White credited increased recruitment and officers returning from suburban agencies, along with having a different approach to addressing crime. 

“We recognize that there’s not going to be a time when we declare that the last arrest has been made. So, we are not going to arrest our way out,” he said. “However, there must be a penalty from the criminal justice system when someone commits a crime. The answer is high levels of community engagement because “with community trust, you get information you wouldn’t get otherwise.”  

Uptick in Mental Health Crises Inspires New Approach 

DPD has been facing a new challenge in recent years, resulting in violent ends to personal conflicts. White said, “I could not anticipate the impact of the mental health system on policing,” citing “double-digit responses to mental health crises on a daily basis.”  

White also said the COVID-19 pandemic especially showed DPD the impact of isolation on a person’s mental health, and now, “we can’t unsee the crisis of mental health in our communities,” which is often characterized by impulse decision-making and the inability to resolve conflicts, which results in homicides.  

After a decades-long divestment in mental health support from the state and county, Detroit was left with a community-based system with limited resources. Viewed as “someone else’s problem,” the impact of these state- and county-level decisions has left people in crisis with nowhere to go, even though many have families desperately seeking help for them. 

Informed by his recently obtained master’s degree in counseling, White created a Mental Health Division within DPD. This division trains officers to take a de-escalation approach when responding to calls. For this, they have “less lethal” weapons options and an accompanying civilian mental health professional who begins the triage process.  

Part of this new strategy is creating a database of citizens in the mental health system so officers can prepare for varying aggression levels and triggers, reducing the number of violent outcomes. With increasing support on the state and county levels, Duggan and White are optimistic about the progress they’ve seen.  

“In the last three or four years, we’ve seen more commitment from the Governor and the Legislature,” Duggan said, “but we’ve got so much more to go.” 

Thank you to Jeff Nelson for his opening remarks and to Strategic Staffing Solutions for sponsoring this session.