A neighborhood watch with firepower


As far as neighborhood welcomes go, this one was a bit rough. James Jackson knew as much, but in Detroit’s bleak Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood, there isn’t much time for subtlety these days.

“Just so you know,” he told his newly moved-in neighbor. “There’s probably gonna be some shooting tonight.”

An older woman across the street had testified in court that morning against associates of a suspected drug dealer who was purportedly known to shoot up witnesses’ homes. Anticipating revenge, Jackson had promised the woman he’d stand watch.

“What do you mean shooting?” the new neighbor asked. “Should I call the police?”

“Call the police?” Jackson shot back. “Shoot, I am the police.”

In many ways, that’s true. For three years, the 61-year-old Jackson, a retired Detroit police officer, has patrolled the streets of a neighborhood that was once propped up by the city’s mighty carmakers but is now a mausoleum for vacant homes.

With his video camera, he films the criminals who have filtered in: drug dealers working off the stoops of abandoned homes, burglars casing houses still occupied, chop-shop operators dismantling cars.

Some people grumble about Jackson’s methods, but generally criticism is rare. For many residents, his unsanctioned crime-fighting is a godsend, a source of hope for the neighborhood after the city closed and consolidated the police precinct, along with several others, as Detroit’s revenue and population fell.

Surveillance cameras are mounted on many of the vintage 1930s homes, installed by Jackson and residents he’s joined forces with, and more are on the way via a local business group. Street corners are spotted with bright yellow signs with a blunt warning: “See what you do today on TV at 36th Dist. Court tomorrow.”

On the night he kept watch for the woman who testified, he sat on his porch across the street from her house. A clock radio murmured old-school R&B melodies, just low enough to pique Jackson’s hearing and keep him alert to other sounds, a technique he learned on a special unit of the Detroit police force.

A couple hours after midnight, a Chevy Suburban — probably belonging to the suspected drug dealer — rolled onto Chalmers Street, just beneath the road’s canopy of naked dogwood branches.

It crept past boarded-up brown brick homes before climbing Jackson’s driveway. Its headlights panned across the front porch.

Jackson’s face was still cloaked in darkness, but in his hands the black metal of the 12-gauge shotgun gleaned in the light. Both men were motionless.

“I was more worried about the … paperwork,” Jackson said. “It’s a whole lot of paperwork when you shoot somebody.”

The Suburban backed out, and drove off.

The ‘Jackrabbit’

Rumbling through Jefferson-Chalmers in his flat-bed truck, Jackson surveys his turf, his torso — stocky like a snowman’s — bobbing in the cab.

Neighborhood residents, good and bad guys alike, know him by one name: Jackrabbit. The nickname originated decades ago when he was looking to name the towing operation he started on the side. It was suggested by his then-4-year-old son and plays off Jackson’s fast and friendly service.

On patrols these days, he can hardly go a block without hearing the shouts.

“Jack-RAB-bit!” called one man, strolling with two women.

“You gonna get in trouble hanging out with them big-legged women,” he shouted back, his chuckles like toots from an air horn. They all laughed.

Jackson isn’t alone in his crime-fighting. Frustrated about police cuts — today’s department is down to 2,960 officers, from almost 4,000 in 2002 — some communities have commissioned private patrols.

Local media have been abuzz with the case of Tigh Croff, 31, who was charged with shooting and killing a man he found burglarizing his house. Croff, a resident of the notoriously underserved east side, had been victim to multiple break-ins before. When he pulled into his driveway in December to find two men in his home, police say, he chased one down.

“I told him he was going to die, and I shot him,” Croff reportedly told police.

Some commentators have sympathized with Croff. One columnist even compared the chances of a burglar on the east side getting arrested to winning the lotto.

A place abandoned

The Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood wasn’t always this way.

Its waterfront location along the Detroit River once made the neighborhood a prime location for factory workers and professionals, a solidly middle-class group — and lured Jackson there in the 1960s.

He remembers the Vanity Ballroom on Jefferson Avenue as a hotspot for upscale nightlife, drawing tuxedo-clad men and women in flowing skirts. The majestic red, green and orange brick Art Deco structure is now closed, its rusted steel gates falling off the hinges.

After the racially charged 1967 riots, many of the neighborhood’s well-to-do fled. Crack cocaine ravaged the area in the 1980s, and factory closures have followed in recent years.

Among the videos that gave Jackson his start was his footage — taken while hidden in some bushes — of a Wendy’s fast-food restaurant that had been missing supplies. In the shaky video recording, a man is seen breaking in through the drive-through window.

Jackson says he submitted the video to police, and an arrest was made soon after. Turns out the thief had been selling Wendy’s napkins and cooking oil to a local greasy spoon.

So far, Jackson has managed to stay in the good graces of police, careful to frame his work as nonviolent. When it comes to talking guns, he’s coy.

“We don’t talk about firepower. We never say neither way,” he said. But then he added, “Whatever they got, we can match it.”

Jackson often conducts surveillance from afar, recording with a long lens. When he chooses to get more aggressive — pulling up right next to or standing across the street from a suspected drug peddler — his targets generally move along.

He admits he once drew a weapon when one man began to approach his car, mouthing obscenities.

“I just waved my pistol out of the window,” he recalled.

Lately, his prime target has been a suspected drug dealer who took hold of an elderly woman’s home months ago — after befriending her grandson — and allegedly began hawking pills off the stoop. With the help of Jackson’s surveillance, police shut down the operation.

But the suspect has regrouped and is known to cruise Jefferson-Chalmers in his signature Chrysler 300 — silver and shiny.

Detroit police Lt. Charles Flanagan credits Jackson with helping to close cases he wouldn’t have been able to solve otherwise: shootings, drug sales, home invasions. Flanagan said Jackson’s videos had not been used in court, but the on-the-ground tips he and other residents provide are launching pads for police investigations.

“He knows what he’s doing,” Flanagan said. “He’s the eyes and ears of that neighborhood.”

Black-and-whites have become a rare sight since the neighborhood’s police precinct was closed. On a recent afternoon, Jackson and two friends could hardly believe it when a patrol car rolled through.

“Oh, Lord!” hollered one.

“You better take a picture,” said the other.

Jackson ran after the cruiser. “False alarm,” Jackson shouted after checking in with the officer. “He’s on his lunch break!”

Along with the anemic police presence, residents struggle to cope with growing vacancy. Cruising through Jefferson-Chalmers, Jackson can hardly catch a breath as he rattled off the abandoned homes and businesses like an auctioneer.

“Empty … empty … empty,” he said. “This one here is empty. Crack got a hold of them.”

To stymie spreading vacancy, Jackson and other residents have begun welcoming squatters into abandoned homes, as a line of defense against scavengers who rip out copper pipes, wires and cast iron. A couple of squatters was even given a turkey by residents last Christmas.

For Jackson, the goal isn’t always damning videotape. Sometimes he just wants criminals to know someone’s watching. On a recent patrol, in the middle of conversation, his eyes darted to the rear-view mirror.

“There he is.”

The silver Chrysler.

The driver — hooded and bug-eyed — was in the midst of an exchange with the driver of a car parked next to his.

Without hesitation, Jackson spun his truck around, pulling up next to the silver sedan. The Chrysler driver looked up to Jackson, and stared intently, their faces just a few feet apart. Neither flinched.

Finally, Jackson nodded. The other man nodded back, and slowly moved on.

“He knows my game. I know his,” Jackson said. “They’re like rats man; you turn on the lights and they run.”