Haunted by the ghost of Halloweens past, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing has assembled a massive “Devil’s Night” prevention team to make sure the ritual of Halloween fires doesn’t flare up again. The anti-arson vigil will include an unprecedented show of force involving city workers, police and fire personnel and citizens. But for all the good to come out of this huge community-policing effort, it has become clear that arsonists stay home on the pre-Halloween event, but operates with impunity on every other night of the year.
The volunteer army should be applauded for being proactive against a repeat of what was a national embarrassment in 1984. That year, the city’s worst Halloween fire epidemic recorded more than 800 blazes. The spectacle, along with Detroit’s reputation for violence, generated negative media attention around the nation and around the world. Only once since has the city retreated into complacency.
In the 1990s, believing that the “fire wars” exercise had run its course, city fathers learned the hard way that fire-starters have more respect for a committed cadre of citizens than the law. The mobilization was relaxed and fires reignited.
In recent years, the number of reported fires has steadily waned, mainly due to the large contingent of concerned citizens who take to the streets to keep arsons at “tolerable” levels. The success of their effort gives Detroit a temporary reprieve on what is now described as “Angel’s Night.” But no amount of damage control can put a damper on the memory of mayhem that occurred in the past. And unfortunately, the Devil’s Night containment has created a “backdraft” that burns through the city on days and nights that are not so closely monitored.
The seriousness of arsons, that average more than 1,000 per year since the 1990s, is reflected as much in the causes as the consequences.
No one really knows why Detroit is more prone than any other city to the intentional damage or destruction of its housing stock. Whether it stems from someone’s compulsion, malice, fun or profit, arson is a leading cause of property damage, loss and decline.
Arson produces shells of buildings that blight the city at rates many times faster than the city can tear them down. Most of the incidents occur under the cover of darkness in the older sections of the city where property values are in steep decline and real estate activity flat. Vacated, unsecured housing attract vandals, squatters and drug dealers and may be prime targets of disgruntled neighbors who are angry that the city can’t or won’t raze vacated and dilapidated dwellings.
The administration and the City Council are unwilling or unable to appropriate enough funds in any one year to sufficiently raze decrepit structures despite the plague-effect they create. This dereliction serves as an accelerant to arson incidents.
High taxes prevent some homeowners from maintaining their properties, which may also be unsuitable to rent or sell. Torching them allows the owners to collect an insurance settlement. Yet each time a fraudulent arson claim is paid, the cost of insurance goes up, not just for that policy holder, but also for every honest, hard-working policy holder in Detroit. As property values drop, the phenomenon has an insidious, perhaps irreversible, “butterfly effect.”
These fires serve as a searing reminder of the decline in general standards of moral behavior, disregard for the law and respect for personal property. But applying expedients and seasonal placebos on three nights of the year won’t begin to correct a pattern of self-destructive behavior.
Because Detroit is the nation’s most fertile field for arson and other crimes, there is justification for treating every night as if it were “Devil’s Night.” That’s the only way to prevent Detroiters from committing genocide or burning themselves – and their neighbors — out of house and home.