Police all over Michigan have a lot more work to do these days. The number of incidents they respond to are up, but the number of officers is down in most places. That’s in part why the Grand Traverse Sheriff’s Office has asked the county for funding to hire five new deputies in 2017. But an audit presented to the county board of commissioners last night says that’s not a good idea.
In 2003, officers in sheriff's office handled 20,341 incidents. Twelve years later, in 2015, they responded to 45,224 incidents.
"The number of incidents have more than doubled in that time," says Nate Alger, the county's undersheriff. "Our law enforcement numbers haven’t. So our guys are busy. They work, they’re pushed from call to call to call."
Alger is not quite sure why incidents have spiked so much, but he guesses it has to do with increased population and tourism in the area.
A higher number of incidents – basically things officers have to respond to like 911 calls or traffic violations –doesn’t necessarily mean crime has gone up. In fact, according to FBI statistics, crime is down in Grand Traverse County, with a slight increase in violent crime and a bigger decrease in non-violent crime.
The tradeoff: what's taking a back seat
An increase in incidents, however, does mean officers are spending more time responding to 911 calls. They're going from call to call during their shift with no pause in between for other police work. For example, enforcement takes a back seat.
Deputy Eric Meiers is halfway through his ten-hour road patrol shift. He’s heading to a 911 hang-up – when someone calls 911, hangs up and dispatch can't reach them when they call back. In that scenario, an officer has to go check to make sure everything's alright.
On his way to the 911 hang-up Meiers sees someone pass in a no passing zone up ahead. But he says he won't pull them over.
"Cause we’re going to a 911 hang-up," Meiers says. "If we were going to a fraud not in progress I would, but even though [the computer] says no sounds of distress [at the 911 hang-up location], we got to get there cause it could be anything."
This is the tradeoff. Officers respond to the person who’s possibly in distress while the person breaking the law gets off.
"What I would expect the public to ask is, 'what isn’t the sheriff’s office doing for us?'" says Undersheriff Alger. "Every time a police officer is busy – they’re being dispatched to any number of a variety of calls – that takes away from other services that we provide to the county. Criminal investigative services specifically.”
Alger says the sheriff’s office has removed detectives from local schools and held detective vacancies open because they needed to make sure their road patrol was staffed first.
It would cost the county an additional $335,000 a year to hire five new deputies.
County commissioners haven’t voted on the 2017 budget yet, but a recent outside audit from Mary Lannoye of the sheriff’s office says that the county does not have the money to cover those positions, especially given its tough financial situation.
"I think that’s government turning its back on its greatest responsibility," says Terry Jungel, executive director and CEO of the Michigan Sheriff’s Association. "And that’s the protection of its citizens. If you’ve got money to mow the grass at the county park, then you’ve probably got money to hire police officers."
Jungel says Grand Traverse County isn’t unique. Statewide, the number of incidents officers respond to have climbed while staffing has actually been cut. The state has over 3,000 fewer officers on the road now than it did in 2001. There were 22,607 law enforcement officers in Michigan in 2001 and 19,136 in 2015.
"We have fewer resources to deal with more crime, and that’s clearly not a good situation," Jungel says.
But the auditor sees it differently. She looked at the incident and crime numbers and staffing. She noted the county couldn't afford it and made this written statement:
County Administrator Tom Menzel says the sheriff’s office is doing a good job under difficult financial conditions. He says this audit could give the sheriff ideas on how he can manage his budget even more efficiently.
Undersheriff Alger agrees they do a good job with what they have, "but I believe that the community deserves a little bit more than what we can provide them with what we have."
The computer mapping system has narrowed in on where the 911 hang-up call likely came from. Deputy Meiers gets out of the car at a house in a quiet neighborhood. He knocks on front door. No response. He walks the property. No one is there. Next he goes to check at the neighbor's house.
This is what Meiers was doing instead of writing a ticket to the guy who was passing in the no passing zone.
Officers will have to keep making these tradeoffs for the foreseeable future, unless officials in Grand Traverse County decide the audit is incorrect and do choose to fund more deputies for the department.