When I was a kid, the night before Halloween was called Mischief Night, and it was a night filled with low-level pranks that involved lots of toilet paper and eggs. It was all minor stuff. Annoying? Yes. Life threatening? No. But I did not grow up in Detroit, where the night before Halloween was once the setting for more than 800 arson-based fires.
PHOTO BREAK: 10 of the world's biggest unsolved mysteries
For a long time, the night before Halloween was known as Devil's Night in Detroit. Unlike the minor pranks that plagued most towns, the city of Detroit saw some of its worst acts of vandalism and arson on that night. On Oct. 30, 1984, pranksters set 810 fires in inner-city neighborhoods. The next year, city officials decided to crack down on the crime with beefed-up police and firefighter patrols.
In 1986, city officials imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew for anyone under the age of 17. They also recruited 5,000 local volunteers to help police and firefighters patrol the streets. Things seemed to calm down a bit. But the early '90s saw another increase in fires and local crime.
Detroit city officials replace a fire hydrant in preparation for Angels' Night. (Photo: City of Detroit/flickr)
On Devil's Night in 1994 more than 300 fires were reported. A 1-year-old child died in a blaze that night, but it remains unclear whether or not that fire was linked to the Halloween mischief.
Still, that night served as a wake-up call for the city officials and citizens of Detroit. In 1995, Mayor Dennis Archer renamed Oct. 30 as "Angels' Night" and brought in all of Detroit's law enforcement resources to help patrol the streets. Volunteers were also recruited and asked to adopt vacant buildings or property in their neighborhood. Volunteers were assigned to watch areas all over the city from 6 p.m. to midnight during the three-day Halloween period from Oct. 29-31.
Tens of thousands of citizen volunteers came out to patrol that Angels' Night in 1995, and the tradition has continued ever since. Residents — especially those who remember the destruction of those early Devil's nights — understand the need for police and community collaboration. And they also appreciate the change in focus, from the crimes of Devil's Night to the community service of Angels' Night.
Detroit's current mayor, Mike Duggan, has already issued a call for volunteers for this year's Angels' Night. He told reporters that he would love to see the day that citizen patrols on Angels' Night are no longer needed.
"I hope I'm still the mayor when that day occurs," Duggan said. "But right now, we've got too much momentum in this city to think about backing off."