Police cutbacks rock Michigan
By Tim Martin
DETROIT — Michigan's law enforcement agencies are fighting crime with about 1,800 fewer police officers than in 2001, and the consequences are showing up on city streets and country highways.
Violent crime is up in some areas, but arrests are down in part because police departments — with about 21,300 positions statewide, an 8 percent drop — can't keep up with the increased workload. During the same time frame, the state's population has stayed roughly the same.
The cuts have been most severe in many of the state's largest cities and smallest towns, according to data from the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards.
Citizens sometimes wait hours for an officer to respond to a property crime and more state highways go unpatrolled for long stretches at night. Support staff has been slashed, too, so police officers working high priority cases sometimes face a tougher time getting experts who can help build cases by giving polygraph tests or investigating questionable fires.
State crime labs often have a four-to-six month turnaround time on DNA evidence found at crime scenes, and it takes a few months longer in some cases. It's a shorter average delay than a few years ago but still long enough to leave many investigations that rely on forensic evidence hanging.
The state's 16 law enforcement agencies that employ 100 or more officers collectively have lost 15 percent of their law enforcement positions since 2001, according to the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards.
Some cities are looking at cutting police staffs even further as local governments struggle to pay for patrols. Tight tax revenues - caused in part by Michigan's long-struggling economy - are blamed for police layoffs from southeast Michigan's big cities to small, rural communities in the Upper Peninsula.
"We're stretched thin," said Sheriff Brian McLean of Houghton County, which pokes north into Lake Superior. "A lot of criminals, the halfway bright ones anyway, are realizing that."
The repercussions are starting to show. Overall reported crime dropped nearly 6 percent from 2000 to 2006, according to Michigan uniform crime report totals including estimates. But the falloff in arrests is steeper, down nearly 13 percent in 2006 from 2000 levels.
Most alarming are the statistics for some violent crimes.
The number of reported murders, rapes and aggravated assaults in Michigan has generally stayed level or increased slightly in recent years. But the number of arrests for those crimes has edged downward.
Criminal justice researchers caution that several factors can influence crime and arrest rates. But many within the state's law enforcement ranks say arrests have fallen at least in part because of staffing levels.
"It's purely bodies," said Col. Peter Munoz, director of the Michigan State Police. "When you talk about (that many) police officers shy, it's going to have a detrimental impact on arrests."
Worried citizens are looking for ways to protect themselves.
Linda Gilliland started a neighborhood watch program on Saginaw's west side after someone stole tools and a bike from her garage in broad daylight last July. She was home at the time, relaxing in her pool. The thief was not caught.
After checking with neighbors, Gilliland discovered that several homes in her area had been victimized over the summer. She had an alarm system installed in her house and is getting a security system for her yard.
"I'm scared to death," said the 59-year-old clinical supervisor, who has lived in Saginaw all her life. "But we're all pulling together. We're not going to let them drive us out of here."
Theories differ on why certain types of crime appear to be climbing in Michigan.
Some blame the economy. Michigan's unemployment rate has routinely been the nation's highest, topping 7 percent in some recent months. The state has been harder hit than most by mortgage foreclosures. Several cities have reported more homeless people and a greater strain on both public and private social safety net systems.
A 2007 report from the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice, citing three different studies, suggests there is an association between police presence and crime rates at local levels. A 10 percent increase in the size of city or county police forces was associated with declines in the crime rate of 1.4 percent to 11 percent, depending on the type of offenses considered.
Many Michigan law enforcement agencies can only dream of adding 10 percent to their staffs. According to a review of FBI uniform crime reports, Michigan lost a larger percentage of combined sworn officer and civilian full-time law enforcement personnel - more than 9 percent - than any other state between 2001 and 2006. Only nine states lost personnel, and just four of those - Michigan, Louisiana, New Jersey and Ohio - had decreases of 5 percent or more.
The Michigan State Police has 1,027 troopers at posts statewide, down 18 percent from 2001 levels. Budget cuts led the agency to reduce the miles driven by troopers for a brief time last year and a loan was needed from the troopers' labor union to avoid the layoffs of 29 troopers last spring.
Overall, the agency has about 680 fewer employees than in 2000. The number of fire investigators and polygraph operators has been cut in half.
There could be some limited help on the way. The state Legislature has approved $1 million to start a trooper training school that could put up to 100 new troopers at Michigan posts. But it isn't a done deal. Gov. Jennifer Granholm has proposed spending up to $7.3 million next fiscal year to enable the students to complete their training, but similar proposals have been scrapped in recent years because of state budget problems.
The biggest problem may be at the local level, where cities, townships, villages and counties have struggled to deal with less revenue sharing money from the state than in the past. Many have been forced to cut programs and personnel, including police.
The city of Detroit lost more than 20 percent of its officer positions. Pontiac, besieged by budget problems, lost more than half of its officers, including layoffs earlier this year. River Rouge lost 30 percent of its strength, while Saginaw lost 20 percent.
Inkster, Lincoln Park, Bay City, Romulus, Wyoming, Grand Rapids and Livonia are among the other Michigan cities losing at least 10 percent of their police officer positions, according to the law enforcement standards report.
Losses in county sheriff departments have not been as severe. But at least 25 of the state's 83 county sheriff departments have fewer positions now than in 2001. Village and township forces have remained relatively stable overall, but nearly 30 percent report losing positions.
The state's smallest departments have been hit hard. Agencies that employ four or fewer officers collectively lost 45 percent of their positions. That can make the difference between having someone on patrol at night, or having to rely on county or state officers from further away.
"The presence of a police officer is prevention," said Terrence Jungel, executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs' Association. "That has been hurt with the erosion of support for law enforcement."
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