MUSKEGON HEIGHTS, Mich. (WOOD) — Nobody has suffered through the aftermath of violence in Muskegon Heights more than Marquita Render, whose 14-year-old son was shot and killed in July 2014 as he was walking home.
“It’s crazy, you know, innocent people are dying,” Render said on Thursday. “My son was innocent.”
Dmetrius Washington Jr.’s slaying, still unsolved, was among 16 in Muskegon Heights over the last two years — equaling Grand Rapids, which has 17 times the population.
Now as the city’s new interim police chief introduced himself to the news media, the victim’s mother had a message — her own thoughts for making the city safer. She wants more cops on the streets and more street lights.
“My son didn’t see that coming,” she said. “He was only 14, on his way home. It was so dark.”
And she wants somebody to do something about the guns.
“Mainly those guns,” she said.
Muskegon Heights Police Department Interim Chief Joseph Thomas Jr. takes over in a city embattled by crime, with a violent crime rate rivaling those in Flint and Detroit. Nearly half the city’s population lives in poverty.
“I think it’s time for Muskegon Heights and other cities to go through a renaissance, a rebuilding, and that renaissance has to take place by the people that are living in Muskegon Heights,” he said. “Their behavior and their tolerance for unwanted activities and unwanted crimes will need to be changed.”
The chief, who is being paid $70,000 a year, said he will help find a permanent leader for the department while trying to change its culture.
He said he will reintroduce community policing — requiring cops to stop and chat, hoping to build trust while sending a message to criminals.
“We are no longer in the law enforcement business,” he said. “We don’t care who goes to jail. We want you to stop doing that in Muskegon Heights.”
Police will work more closely with other departments, with schools and with neighborhood groups, he said.
Police officers also will help fix how the city looks through enforcement of codes, hoping tidier neighborhoods will attract more homeowners and businesses.
“We don’t want you dumping your trash here. We don’t want you to let your grass grow out of place. We don’t want your house to fall apart. You need to paint it. We don’t want your dilapidated cars parked in the front yard,” Thomas said.
Mayor Kimberley Sims said residents should see a lot of the new chief.
“They should expect to see him, stop him, approach him, talk to him any time,” she said. “The community should expect to see a rise in the professionalism of our department.”
The city hired Thomas earlier this month to replace Muskegon Chief Lynne Gill, who retired.
Thomas has never lived or worked in Muskegon Heights. He said the city approached him after he visited the Muskegon area as a speaker.
According to his online resume, he is president and founder of JET Consulting Inc., a police and fire training firm based in Novi. He has worked for the U.S. Department of State, training security officers in Baghdad. Before that, he served as police chief in Albion and Southland, near Detroit.