By Steve Neavling
DETROIT (Reuters) - Three people died and six were wounded in Detroit when a gunman opened fire on as many as 30 people who were gambling inside the back room of a barber shop, Detroit Police Chief James Craig said on Thursday.
Some of the men inside the room were armed and at least one fired back in a crime that stood out for its violence even at a time when the city, which filed for bankruptcy in July, is facing its highest murder rate in decades.
"It certainly does rise up as one of Detroit's more violent incidents," Craig said in a Thursday morning news conference at the Detroit Police Department.
Police have detained one man who they said was wearing body armor and was involved in a feud with several members of the gambling party. He is being held on an unrelated felony assault charge and will be questioned by homicide detectives, Craig said.
Two men died at the scene and a third died later at a local hospital, Craig said.
Police were still searching for at least two vehicles they believed were involved, the police chief said. It was unknown whether any customers were in the front of the shop at the time or whether there were multiple attackers, Craig added.
A witness in a pickup truck pulled up to the back of the barber shop and was fired upon by a gunman in another vehicle.
When the truck fled, the gunman got out of the vehicle and used a high-powered rifle to shoot through an open door to a small room in the back of the barber shop, Craig said.
There were between 20 and 30 people in the room, he said.
"There was an attempted mass exodus of people from the room," he said.
The door from the back room to the front of the barber shop opened inward, making it difficult to open as people pressed against it in an effort to get out. The victims were shot in the back room as they struggled to escape, Craig said.
Detroit faces a declining population and fiscal problems that have strained city services and lengthened police response times, though Craig said Thursday there are signs of hope.
The average police response time is now 11 minutes, as opposed to 50 minutes in the recent past, he said.
On Wednesday evening, police responded to the shootings at the barber shop in just two minutes, Craig noted.
In 2012, the city's homicide rate reached a 20-year high at 54.6 homicides per 100,000 people, according to the annual statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
A rash of killings in Detroit has claimed several victims in the past week, including a pregnant woman, a law student and the brother of a local minister.
But murders are still down 13 percent from this time last year, Craig said.
The police department has also recently formed a vice squad in an effort to crack down on gambling dens and other similar operations that attract violence, he said.
"If you compare what's going on this year to last year, certainly our shootings are down, our homicides are down; violent crime overall is down 6 percent," Craig said. "Clearly not enough, but certainly we are trending in the right direction."
(Editing by Karen Brooks, G Crosse)