By Erin Eschels
Ingham County Chronicle staff writer
For two to three years, there has been approximately a 420 square-mile zone in Ingham County with little to no police coverage. With a total area of 560.94 square miles, the out-county areas account for almost three quarters of the total county.
Some larger cities and townships within the county, such as East Lansing and Meridian Township, have their own police departments. However many areas are left open for the Ingham County Sheriff’s Office and the Michigan State Police, whom are both responsible for the entire county. Due to the lack of money in these out-county townships, there are not enough resources to have this area covered efficiently.
“When people call 911, it’s directed to the sheriff or state police,” said Aurelius Township Supervisor Larry Silsby. “The sheriff does not have enough people. When there’s two deputies hauling prisoners and the others are off on something else, there’s just no one left.”
In 2011, the county had a vote whether or not to levy a fee for police coverage in the out county. It was ultimately voted down, yet “dead zone” residents are not satisfied.
“When I call 911, it takes a very long time, if at all, for someone to show up,” said Alaiedon Township resident and County Clerk Barb Byrum. “When normal people would call 911, a cop would show up and take the report. Not anymore. Call 911, they say come on down to Mason to file your police report.”
Though the out-county takes up a larger area of Ingham, most of the population is in the northwest corner in Lansing, East Lansing and Okemos. Since these larger cities are covered by their own departments, the majority voted down paying more for the sheriff’s services, leaving residents outside this area without adequate police coverage.
“Ingham has no senate equivalent. Commissioners represent the population, but are not representative of geography,” said 8-year resident Tim Carothers. “Consequently, power is confined according to majority rule, so out-county residents pay significant taxes, yet don’t get much say in what goes on in the county. Purely like the United States only having a House of Representatives,” who represent small areas but not the whole state.
Onondaga Road is a busy, north-south road west of Mason that runs about 20 miles. The road has one traffic light, one town and no stop signs. With nothing to regulate the 55-mph speed limit, Carothers said some people take advantage of the situation.
“In summer when it’s warmer, young riders on crotch-rocket motorcycles will pop wheelies at 80-90 mph for a half mile or longer past my house,” said Carothers. “My house is on a little rise, so I can see a quarter mile north down the road and about a half mile to the south. The riders will hit 80 or more over ridge. There would be no way to stop if little child ran out, and there’s at least seven kids by me. It’s just super dangerous.”
Though residents are unhappy with the situation, Silsby said his office has not received many complaints.
“We do not have many complaints from people. They may complain to each other, but not to us. They voted no, not to levy the fee, and decided they didn’t wish to pay, saying they must be satisfied with what they’re getting,” said Silsby. “Breaking and enterings are still problems in the rural township, yet probably our biggest problem still is getting immediate coverage response for the community.”
For the general fund road patrol, the Sheriff’s Office has 14 deputies on staff that work in 12-hour shifts and go where they are needed most. If deputies are not assigned, they will patrol. However, Ingham County Sheriff Gene Wriggelsworth said they are very rarely not needed.
“Both us and the State Police are dispatched and the closest car will respond, if we have to,” said Wriggelsworth. “We anticipated cuts so we implemented a system for online police reports and deputies will follow up. It cuts down on sending cars out to smaller things, like for property damage car accidents that are still drivable, we do not respond. We will go if they are immovable.”
Even with the cutbacks, Wriggelsworth is concerned about their budget and believes the department is severely lacking in personnel.
“It shocked me when coverage was voted down. They voted for funding for for a library, the zoo, and a park on the same ballot while (police) coverage is being gutted. It’s pretty minimal,” said Wriggelsworth. “Costs for inmates are extreme, about $13 million a year. It’s for food, transportation, nurses and doctors, we have a classroom for them. The Ingham County Prison is the fifth largest in Michigan with about 601 in the prison and most of them are from Lansing. It’s a fairly consistent rate of $100,000 a deputy. This includes gas, tires, bullets, health care, etc.”
If the fee was passed, it would be hard to say how much more residents would be paying for services. Wriggelsworth says it all depends on how much each township wanted. However, it would cost approximately $100,000 for each new deputy hired, which is another problem itself.
“In terms of services, one of our biggest challenges is hiring qualified people,” said Wriggelsworth. “We are down about six positions, yet we get people who can’t pass the drug test or lie on their application. This is a new problem because all departments are now hiring.”
Wriggelsworth said there should be fewer police departments in Ingham and the Sheriff’s Office should take over the responsibility of all townships. This would include abolishing the smaller police departments for a single city or township.
“There needs to be a countywide department. We don’t need chiefs, we need more Indians. If we consolidate services, then we won’t all need SWAT or dive teams and can cut out the extras,” said Wriggelsworth. “We end up doing a lot of their work anyhow because they don’t work all day. Murders, we do it. They aren’t doing what a police department should do. And it will stay like this until the townships say otherwise.”
Though technically covered by the two police departments, even the Michigan State Police are struggling to cover the “Dead Zone” areas within the county.
“Everyone has budget cuts and funding problems right now, yet we do the best we can with what we got, and no one is going completely without coverage. The State Police are doing what we need to do with the resources available. We’ve made an effort to utilize them most efficiently,” said the sheriff supervisor of the State Police’s Lansing post, Sargent Richard Hale. “We have two other counties in our range, and we’ve made Ingham a priority because of their problems. It would be a lot easier for us if there were more Ingham personnel to deliver services.”
Byrum, Carothers and other residents who are concerned do not think enough people know these issues are so prevalent in the community. However, these problems could also be causing declining rates of the Ingham population in the long run.
“Yes, I have had potential clients ask about the safety within the community, and I don’t know what to tell them other than the truth, that out-county houses may not have police,” said an Ingham real estate agent who wishes to remain anonymous. “Customers don’t want to hear that the house they like is in a bad neighborhood, and it’s not, but when you say there’s not many police, it sure sounds like it. People won’t move into a bad neighborhood.”
Since changes to the police coverage will only come when residents ask for them, Byrum said. She added that she wonders when people will finally realize that action needs to be taken to implement changes in the system.
“One of these days we may see a catastrophic event that requires more police than we have,” said Byrum. “It would definitely make people more engaged about this. I hope I’m wrong and it doesn’t come to this. But it certainly could.”