A-Team bids to reclaim the streets of Detroit
With areas of Motor City reduced to a crime-ridden wasteland, an armed civilian force backs the police in fight against murder and drugs mayhem
The Guardian in Detroit
Armed men emerge from the "War Wagon" on a freezing winter's day in Detroit.
They are volunteers with Detroit 300, a controversial organisation whose members patrol neighbourhoods in the struggling city, hunting criminals and making citizen's arrests.
With guns in holsters strapped to their legs, the men glance nervously up and down the street as they check out the area with police.
The 10th precinct in Detroit's west side - the epicentre of a riot in 1967 that shook America - is a wild place where 27 shootings occurred last year.
Operation Mistletoe, phase two of a major drugs raid, had finished less than an hour earlier, with 350 officers battering down doors and making 37 arrests.
The sweep was one of the largest Detroit had witnessed for years. Now the armed civilians are participating in the follow-up operation to hand out Christmas presents to frightened residents.
Their involvement is part of a strategy to reclaim the streets from criminals in a city that is now bankrupt and, in parts, a crime-ridden wasteland.
Detroit is one of the most dangerous places in America.
Last year, the Motor City was the scene of the same number of killings as New York - 333 - despite its population being 11 times smaller.
Street lighting is sparse and police are so stretched that until recently, it took an average of 58 minutes for them to respond to emergency calls.
The spark for the formation of the Detroit 300 citizen force was the rape of a 90-year-old woman in her home in 2010. She survived the attack, but died later that year.
At the time, outraged locals helped police track down the attackers and were credited for obtaining information leading to the arrest of three teenagers.
Detroit 300 was subsequently launched, its name coming from the 2007 Hollywood film 300, which starred Gerard Butler as the leader of a band of Spartan warriors.
Eric Ford, Detroit 300's president, said there were now 1,500 members, including an elite armed section dubbed the "A-Team".
Ford said: "We've solved 10 major crimes, including an assist in catching the killer of three-year-old Aarie Berry, who was murdered in a gangland shooting in July 2011.''
Police Commander Amy Kamm said: "This is part of a new strategy of community policing brought in by new police chief James Craig. This is a new chief, a new protocol and a new plan."
The Detroit Police Department been severely criticised in recent years for its performance, but Craig aims to reduce overall crime by 10 per cent this year and quicken response times.
In an interview published this month by the National Rifle Association's magazine, America's First Freedom, Craig claimed response times to emergency calls now averaged between eight and 11 minutes.
But crime is still rife in the city, and it appears that Detroit 300 has a pivotal part to play in Craig's future plans. In a statement earlier this year, he said: "The criminal predators here are very violent.
"So good Americans who are responsible, who conceal weapons, can make a difference.
"There are studies out there that show that. We're not talking about vigilantes - we are talking about good Americans who are trained."
Detroit 300 says it is a non-violent "community action group" that fully complies with state law at all times.
Its legal adviser and vice-president uses the pseudonym "Mr Blue" for security reasons, as the group's members could be targeted by criminals for assisting the police.
He got involved after two of his brothers were murdered.
"The original call was for men who weren't scared, who weren't cowards, to come out and take back the streets," Mr Blue said.
"We are unique in America. No one else does it the way we do it."
According to Mr Blue, every Detroit 300 volunteer is instructed in Michigan state law MCL 764.16, which gives citizens the right to make an arrest.
New members are also taught rules on carrying weapons in public, both open and concealed.
Mr Blue said citizens were actually less restricted than police in what they could do in order to arrest someone.
They could also break down an inner or outer door to apprehend a person suspected of committing a serious crime.
"Law enforcement has to go to a judge and get a warrant, but by that time there's the possibility the person you want will have slipped away," Mr Blue said.
"We don't need to go to a magistrate to get a warrant. If we apprehend someone, we turn them over to a sheriff's deputy or a magistrate ourselves."