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SHIAWASSEE COUNTY, Mich. — Over the past 10 years, Michigan’s law enforcement landscape has changed dramatically, with the state seeing an overall 16-percent decline in uniformed officers.
That trend is being felt even more deeply in Shiawassee County, where the loss of uniformed officers is closer to 25 percent from the number a decade ago.
Officials from across the county say rising costs — for such things as health care and retirement benefits — and reduced revenues have led them to reduce the number of officers available.
County departments looked quite a bit different in 2002 than now. The former Michigan State Police Owosso Post, which later moved to Corunna after a fire, exists now just as a detachment. About half as many troopers are assigned to the county.
In 2002, MSP’s Owosso Post included 13 troopers; today that number fluctuates from six to eight.
The Shiawassee County Sheriff’s Office has lost two uniformed positions in the last decade, from 33 to 31, both vacated by retirement and left unfilled.
However, the biggest loss in officers has been within city police departments, where some have been cut in half since 2002.
A decade ago, Corunna employed one full-time chief, four full-time officers and four part-time officers (totaling 7.5 positions). Today, there is still a full-time chief, but he has been tasked with more duties, and just two full-time officers and two part-time officers (totaling four positions).
“We may not have the response time we would like to have, especially with non-violent crimes,” City Manager Joe Sawyer said, adding that despite that, officers have done exceptional work.
“They’ve done a stellar job, been unbelievable,” he said. “We have some tremendously talented part-time officers that we wish we could hire full-time.”
In 2002, the Laingsburg Police Department had one full-time chief, two full-time officers and five part-time officers. Today, while it still employs a full-time chief, he is supplemented by four part-time officers.
The Perry Police Department went from six full-time officers, including the chief, to four full-time officers.
Along with the loss of officers has come an increase in responsibilities across the board for those department members remaining, even administration.
The Corunna Police Department, which employed a strictly administrative chief, transformed Chief Kim Williams’ position into a patrol chief.
“When we rely more on part-time officers that are not working permanently, it increases administration’s role,” Sawyer said.
In Owosso, Michael Compeau — who has retired as director of public safety but still serving in a part-time capacity — said the Owosso Police Department, which staffed 25 officers in 2002, has asked its officers to do much of the same as other departments.
“Everybody here has pitched in and understood the problem,” he said. “Everybody has taken on more duties.”
The Michigan State Police, according to Lt. Matt Bolger of the Flint Post, has lost several hundred troopers since 2001 and has gone to a completely different style of policing. The MSP now can move troopers from one county to the next to help prevent limited policing in certain areas.
“With regional policing, we changed how we adapt in the entire state,” he said. “It used to be that one post would cover one area. With a shortage in one area, we can now shift resources around and instead of just having a shortage, we can place troopers there.”
Area officials say rising costs have taken the biggest toll on law enforcement’s budgets, which haven’t drastically changed over the past decade, but are structured differently.
Health-care costs for employees has skyrocketed and paying retirees as much as $20,000 per year after retirement has put a big dent in city’s budgets as well.
“You have to make cuts in benefits made, health care and in the number of paid days off,” Sawyer explained.
That has been true of the sheriff’s office.
“Officers have not had raises in half a decade,” said Undersheriff Robert Paine. “But costs have significantly risen with cost in health care and retirement.”
There is some optimism , however.
Chesaning, for instance, hadn’t had a police department since 1994 when it contracted the city’s policing to the Saginaw County Sheriff’s Office until it re-established the department in 2006.
Police Chief Stacey Wilburn, who was hired when the department was brought back in 2006, said his unit now fluctuates between five to six officers.
And there are some signs that point to revenues for municipalities and, in turn, police departments could increase in the future. Sawyer said at this point, there is really only one way to go, and that is up. A larger tax base and increased value in properties in a municipality would mean a higher revenue stream.
“As far as our property values, I think we’ve hit rock bottom ... I hope.”