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Preventable Crimes at the Union at Dearborn Persist

Kylie Martin, Editor-in-Chief

The Union at Dearborn. Photo//Kylie Martin

The caffeine from your morning cup of coffee hasn’t quite hit your bloodstream yet, but you’re already running late to your minimum-wage job. Still sleepy-eyed, you grab your coat and hurry out the door of your apartment.

You exit the building, bursting into the frigid morning air before the sun has completely breached the horizon, careful not to slip on ice as you race down the rows.

You finally approach your spot in the back of the parking lot, only to find broken glass and empty space between the two white lines where you left your car the night before.

The nightmare of finding your vehicle missing or damaged is a reality that over a dozen college students living at the Union at Dearborn have faced within the past year.

Police records retrieved under the state Freedom of Information Act found seven instances of larceny, four instances of car theft, and two other instances of unsolved damage to private property have occurred within the Union’s parking lot in the past year.

The Union at Dearborn is a student housing apartment complex for any college student attending classes at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, Henry Ford College or another university in Wayne County. There’s a range of living arrangements, from typical two-bed dorm setups to quadplex floor plans to individual loft spaces. The Union has 223 units and a maximum capacity of 603 residents.

Due to the university’s position as a primarily commuter campus, many students choose to live at the Union for its convenience. This includes those whose families live on the opposite side of the state but also the growing population of international students whose families may be located halfway around the world.

Even though the apartments are situated directly across the street from campus, separated only by a walkway and a stoplight on Evergreen Road, the Union and UM-Dearborn are unaffiliated.

While the Union offers an accessible living option to students of UM-Dearborn and Henry Ford College, the prevalence of repeating, preventable crimes has become a serious worry to many residents.

Diana Lawler, a student from Chicago who moved into the Union last August, had the catalytic converter stolen from her car in November, after getting the car less than a month prior.

Lawler describes a story of entering her car and turning the ignition, only for her car to make very loud and strange sounds. She called her father in a panic because she hadn’t any idea what the problem could be; the two shortly came to the conclusion that her catalytic converter had been sawed off.

Lawler mentioned that the Dearborn police officer who met her on the scene checked the rest of the Union parking lot for other damages or missing converters because he knew the Union frequently faced the same repetitive crimes.

Lawler asked management to check their security cameras so she could file a police report and an insurance claim, only for them to refuse and refer her back to the police.

“It’s shocking, you’d think that they’d help, but no, they didn’t care,” Lawler said in an interview.

To repair the damages, Lawler had to purchase a specialized new catalytic converter for her Cadillac, which cost her $750, not including the tip for the mechanic.

Other residents reported strikingly similar crimes of damage and theft to their vehicles and consistent denial from the Union’s management to check their security cameras. Residents spent up to $1200 to repair their catalytic converters and sometimes invested additional hundreds of dollars into antitheft measures.

While less frequent, other Union residents experienced a different horror of having their vehicles stolen.

Vehicles are usually found by police less than a week later, often with other features like radios, subwoofers, and catalytic converters missing. In addition to the cost of repairs, residents have to spend a couple of hundred dollars just to get their recovered vehicles out of the pound.

Several victims recount parking in handicapped and “employee-only” spots, risking parking tickets and tow warnings, out of fear that their cars would get damaged or stolen again.

Missing and non-working security cameras in the parking areas are also a concern to students.

There are two cameras on the exterior of the apartment complex that face the parking lot, but according to one of the car theft victims, Union management told them the cameras were inoperable at the time of the crime.

“One camera works and one doesn’t, but the one that works doesn’t reach that far,” the victim claims Union management told them the day of the crime.

In the police report filed for the corresponding crime, the officer stated: “I did not observe any surveillance cameras in the parking lot.”

Of the total 11 records of crime in the Union parking lot filed by police within the past year (two were submitted digitally by the victims), five mention the absence of cameras or camera quality too poor to identify a suspect.

With no working cameras found in the parking lot, Dearborn police officers are unable to acquire footage of the crimes.

Of the more than 350 parking spots open to residents and guests, only 75 spots wrap around the perimeter of the building. Other parking spots that surround the building are reserved for some of the deluxe floor plan options, UM-Dearborn staff or faculty, handicapped vehicles, or Union employees. If residents park in these spots, they run the risk of having their cars towed.

Additionally, there is no fence around the Union parking lot to keep non-residents out, and several of the light fixtures within the parking lot have been out for weeks or even months, leaving a dark, open parking lot more susceptible to crime.

Jordan Wohl, a former UM-Dearborn student and four-year “Union veteran,” is the senior property manager for the Union. Wohl has worked there for six years and took his current position in December 2020, bringing a student’s perspective into management and acknowledging different concerns about students’ living experiences for the first time.

“Each decision I’ve made in each management position I’ve held has always been from the perspective of a Dearborn student living in that building,” said Wohl. “[For example] when the power went out, it affected me just as much as any other resident.”

According to Wohl, when a crime occurs, management simply advises residents to contact those best equipped to handle it: Dearborn Police, UM-Dearborn Campus Safety or Fairlane Town Center Security.

All interviewed victims have since moved from the Union.

Another former resident, Hitansh Doshi, a recent alumnus of UM-Dearborn from India, provides a story of another crime from the complex – but one that happened inside.

Doshi was days away from moving out of the Union last August when his apartment was burglarized.

Doshi had spent the previous week driving back and forth across Michigan, moving his belongings into a new home on the west side of the state, leaving his apartment in the Union almost bare. Only bathroom necessities and a few other items remained, like some hoodies he was going to return to his friends, an air duster for his new apartment and a hidden wad of cash for the last few expenses in Dearborn.

When Doshi returned from western Michigan with a couple more days remaining on his lease, he found that his apartment at the Union had been ransacked. A trash bag of banknotes and old assignments had been emptied out on the floor, his shampoo and body wash had been poured into the bathroom sink, but most importantly, the hoodies, air duster and his hidden $400 were missing, according to Doshi.

The shared living space with Doshi and his roommates had also been disturbed, but no other valuables such as TVs or laptops were taken from the apartment.

The Union uses electronic keyfobs with fob-accessed deadbolt doors; each resident has only one copy of their keyfob, and the Union management has a master key, leaving only the resident and management/maintenance with access to an individual’s room.

According to Doshi, his door had been locked when he left and when he returned, leaving no sign of forced entry.

Doshi tried to contact management but didn’t receive a response until he filed a police report, he said. Management was then more cooperative, but still refused any accountability. After Dearborn police left, Doshi never heard more from the Union concerning the crime.

Just as with the exterior of the apartment complex, police looked for cameras that might have recorded the crime but were unable to find any. Detective Aaron Najor who investigated the crime stated in the police report that only one camera was found on Doshi’s floor, pointed in the opposite direction of Doshi’s apartment.

“The Union deflected any responsibility, and the cops couldn’t do anything because there was nothing to do or see,” said Doshi said in an interview.

While walking down the hallways of the Union’s 2000 building, you can find one or two cameras on the ground floor, no cameras on each of the second and third floors, and four cameras on the fourth floor. The first floor is arguably home to the most foot traffic and the most susceptible to intruders; the fourth floor historically sustains the most property damage because of residents’ frequent and wild parties; but this nonetheless leaves the second and third floors unsurveilled.

According to Wohl, the updated and more numerous cameras on the fourth floor were an attempt to pilot a new security system, which the Union received backlash for from its residents.

“In any apartment community, there is always a delicate balance with surveillance between having enough cameras to keep residents safe but not enough to a point where it feels intrusive,” said Wohl. “Our management team is continuing to monitor their effectiveness and will make a decision on whether to continue the project of placing cameras throughout the second and third floors soon and if it would be a worthy improvement.”

Cameras can otherwise be found at each entrance and exit to the building, as well as in each elevator.

Lieutenant Leah Bronson from the Dearborn Police Department’s investigative division acknowledged the Union’s security to be a problem. Based on her own experience a couple of years ago as a detective, Bronson recalled frequent calls to the Union for instances of the same crimes, as well as welfare checks and domestic disputes.

While the Union is not considered a hotspot for crime by police compared with other parts of the city, the Fairlane Town Center Mall, located directly across Town Center Drive from the Union, is.

Bronson agreed that it’s often difficult to make sure residential buildings are equipped with working security cameras, either because of monetary issues or the privacy of residents. Because of this, Bronson stressed the importance of residents taking action if something piques their concern.

“Keep your eyes and ears open. If you see something, even if it turns out not to be crime-related, tell the police,” advised Bronson. “Even a brief police encounter is sometimes enough to deter crime.”

Bronson also recommended residents invest in anti-theft devices for their cars if they can afford them.

According to Wohl, the crimes occurring on the property are a serious concern that the Union seeks to improve. He assured that the prevalence of crime affects management as well as residents, given that many Union employees live in the apartments and also have to park in the South parking lot.

“We want to be represented by residents, for residents,” said Wohl. “The wants and needs of our residents are at the heart of every decision we make…”

While Wohl claimed that the cameras had been effective in identifying suspects when trouble occurred inside the building, he did not comment on the state or success of the cameras overlooking the parking lot.

In Wohl’s only comment regarding the exterior cameras, he said, “Our management team has taken the time to thoroughly research several alternative solutions, and we will continue to reevaluate all options available to us to serve the community.”

As the Union’s management team searches to find a fix for their dysfunctional parking lot cameras, students' vehicles continue to be targeted by the same preventable crimes.

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