Getting away with arson just got easier in Michigan, fire officials fear

Getting away with arson just got easier in Michigan, fire officials fear
January 5, 2018 Bridge Magazine

Fire officials fear it may now be a little easier to get away with torching buildings in Michigan.

That’s because a decades-old nonprofit that paid rewards for information leading to arrests in arsons is defunct. The Michigan Arson Prevention Committee, formed in 1973, ceased operations on Monday, Jan. 1, after its sole funder, an insurance association, opted against continuing financial support this year. The group has paid more than $1 million in rewards over the years, resulting in more than 1,200 arrests.

“It’s really unfortunate, but we’re out of business,” said Patrick Riney, executive director of the committee.

“This isn’t just going to affect cities where arson is a big issue, like Detroit, Grand Rapids, Muskegon or Flint. Every city at one time or another has used this program.”

Bridge Magazine highlighted the threat of the shutdown in August, sparking a last-ditch rally to find new funders for the nonprofit’s $140,000 budget after the Michigan Basic Property Insurance Association ended funding.

No one stepped forward to administer the rewards of up to $5,000 or handle other functions of the group, which also trained prosecutors and firefighters and bought billboards throughout the state advertising the rewards.

Most states have similar rewards programs, but it’s difficult to measure their effectiveness, officials concede. Fire officials, though, swear by financial incentives because arson is so difficult to solve.

Unlike most crimes, arson often has few clues because they often disappear with the fire, said Capt. Patrick McNulty, chief of the Detroit Fire Department Arson Squad. Nationwide, about 20 percent of arson cases were solved in 2015, compared to 62 percent of homicides, according to the FBI.

“People sometimes need a motivation to talk and come forward, so the rewards help,” said McNulty.

“Getting rid of them is taking a tool out of our toolbox that was really successful.”

Detroit has led the nation in per-capita arsons for years. Numbers were still being tallied this week, but McNulty said suspicious fires declined by 20 percent in Detroit to about 3,200 in 2017.

Since 2011, the statewide rewards have helped crack 76 cases from Ypsilanti to Kalamazoo, with nearly half helping solve Detroit arsons, the group reported.

FBI records estimate Michigan had 1,999 arsons in 2015, with another 6,000 suspicious ones that caused nearly $200 million in damages.Those numbers include Detroit, but only fires that are investigated and proven intentional are counted as arson in the numbers. Due to limited resources and the volume of fires, Detroit is only able to investigate a fraction of all suspicious fires.

Even though the Arson Committee is defunct, there’s still a possibility the rewards could continue if another group steps up to administer them, said D. Jane Howard-Carlson, general manager of Michigan Basic Property Insurance Association, a Detroit-based group that sells high-risk homeowner insurance in urban areas.

Her group stopped funding the committee because it is losing customers.  Michigan Basic was established by the Legislature after the 1967 civil unrest in Detroit and was subsidized by other insurers when it lost money.

The subsidies ended in 2012, however, after state lawmakers required Michigan Basic to charge market rate for its policies.

Michigan Basic worked with arson investigators throughout the year to find other funding, but had no luck, Howard-Carlson said. Even so, it set aside $37,500 for rewards if the Arson Committee can find another group to administer them, Howard-Carlson wrote in an email.

So far, no one has stepped up.


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