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Northeast Michigan police force below national average

News Photo by Julie Riddle Police officers respond to a traffic crash in Alpena County last week.

ALPENA — For every 1,000 Alpena-area residents, one police officer is on the payroll at a local sheriff’s office or city police department.

That’s not enough, local police leaders say.

Few Michigan police agencies — and none in Northeast Michigan — reach the current national average of 2.4 officers per 1,000 residents, according to the FBI’s 2019 Crime in the United States report.

Their staff numbers dictated by budgets, leaders at local sheriff’s offices and police departments have fewer officers than they want. They’re concerned the number of officers on the street isn’t enough to ensure public safety, although data suggests higher police-to-people ratios don’t necessarily guarantee lower crime rates.

The Alpena County Sheriff’s Office has the lowest officer-to-resident ratio in Northeast Michigan, with fewer than one officer per 1,000 people in the county. That ratio excludes the population of Alpena, which is under the jurisdiction of the Alpena Police Department.

Eleven deputies are technically assigned to road patrol in Alpena County, but, because several have specialized duties, only eight are available to respond to complaints, in addition to such tasks as transporting inmates to court and serving warrants, Alpena County Sheriff Steven Kieliszewski said.

Fully staffing the office to adequately handle all its responsibilities would require at least 15 full-time deputies, Kieliszewski said.

The office used to have a much larger staff, until many officers retired as a result of the 2008-09 recession, Kieliszewski said. County commissioners decided to not refill those slots, and the office has been low-staffed ever since.

That is unlikely to change, after county commissioners at a meeting on Tuesday debated cutting the Sheriff’s Office to address a projected $1.4 million shortfall in the 2021 budget.

In Alcona County, 16 sworn officers are on staff, but only seven of those are available for road patrol, which Alcona County Sheriff Scott Stephenson called “barely adequate.”

The county used to have closer to a dozen officers on the road, but that number has been whittled down to bare bones. He’s short a detective, the sheriff said, and the school safety officer has been moved to road patrol.

Alcona county’s road patrol officer-to-resident ratio is as low as Alpena County’s — and that’s not including population spikes in summer, when vacation homes swell the remote county, especially on weekends, Stephenson said.

A 2012 property tax added officers to the Montmorency County Sheriff’s Office, which before that time could barely staff its 24/7 road patrol.

Now, most shifts are covered by two officers — although, ideally, four or five more officers would be added for full ability to respond to complaints and other responsibilities, according to Montmorency County Undersheriff Brian Crane. The county’s weekly police blotter shows there are rare occasions when no deputy is available to respond to certain complaints.

Presque Isle County employs 1.3 officers per 1,000 residents, excluding Rogers City residents, who are protected by the Rogers City Police Department.

Rogers City, which maintains a police department staff of six for a population of 2,679, has the highest officer-to-resident ratio in the area, at 2.2 officers for every 1,000 residents. The city’s crime rate was 54 crimes per 1,000 residents in 2019, according to the MSP Annual Publication of Crime in Michigan.

The Alpena Police Department, with a similar crime rate despite a lower officer-to-resident ratio, uses past staffing numbers in determining what will best allow the department to provide public safety, said APD Police Chief Joel Jett.

Officers, on duty around the clock in eight-hour shifts, need to be free to respond to anything from barking dogs to homicides, Jett said.

“Unfortunately, in Alpena, we have it all,” Jett said.

Assaults and other serious crimes require investigative time, potentially keeping officers from road patrol if the department is understaffed.

“We wouldn’t want to cheat one area to meet our obligation in another,” the chief said.

Currently, 16 officers are on staff, with several potential new hires being vetted and the prospect of a staff of 20 by spring.

If APD reaches that goal, its new ratio of 2 officers per 1,000 city residents will be higher than that of comparably sized cities Cadillac and Big Rapids. Petoskey, a town of 5,810 with 3.3 officers per 1,000 residents, has one of the highest officer ratios in northern Michigan, followed by Gaylord, with a 2.4-per-1,000 ratio for 3,739 residents.

Lansing, with 200 officers on duty, has 1.7 certified officers for every 1,000 residents, according to FBI numbers.

The Michigan State Police-Alpena Post currently employs 24 troopers, four sergeants, one detective sergeant, and the post commander. The post covers a five-county region encompassing about 68,000 residents.

Post staffing decisions are budget-driven, according to Lt. Derrick Carroll, public information officer for MSP’s 7th District, with those budget decisions for the state agency made by the governor and Legislature.

The Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police makes no recommendation regarding the best officer-to-resident ratio for police agencies, said Robert Stevenson, the association’s executive director.

Michigan is widely varied both in police force sizes — from 2,517 officers at the Detroit Police Department to small-town departments with only one officer — and in community makeup, Stevenson said, and agencies need to determine what best fits the people they serve.

Many Michigan police agencies had to cut staff numbers in 2008 and 2009, when a financial downturn lowered property values and reduced tax money to fund police departments.

Property values have recovered, but police agencies have not, and very few Michigan agencies have had the money to climb back to their past staffing status, Stevenson said.

Police-to-resident ratios

A look at the number of police officers per 1,000 residents in Northeast Michigan police agencies

Agency Officers per 1,000 residents

Alpena Police Department 1.6

Alpena County Sheriff’s Office 0.6

Alcona County Sheriff’s Office 1.4

Montmorency County Sheriff’s Office 1.4

Presque Isle County Sheriff’s Office 1.3

Rogers City Police Department 2.2

State average 1.9

National average 2.4

Source: 2019 FBI Crime in the United States publication

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