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Wednesday, June 6,2012

The border

The Lansing Police Department's latest attempt to reduce crime in a jurisdictionally challenging corner of the city

by Andy Balaskovitz

In December 2006, some customers had a hard time getting hot water in their washing machine at the Jolly and Waverly Coin Laundry, 5129 S. Waverly Road, in Lansing.

Tina Tran, owner of the store, didn’t think much of calling a repairman to see what the deal was. 

“The maintenance guy came and said something was blocking the air flow,” Tran recalled on Friday afternoon. Whatever it was caused the heater to malfunction.

It turned out to be 17-year-old Dennis Duane Gibbons Jr., who Tran said was attempting to break into the store from the roof. His point of access was the roof and the heating vent. Initial police reports said he died of exposure after he got stuck. Police at the time said it was unclear why Gibbons attempted to gain entry into the business.

Since then, Tran has sealed the vent, yet has occasionally found empty liquor bottles on the roof near the scene, leading her to believe subsequent attempts have been made to break into her store. Moreover, she’s had to replace two windows in the glass storefront over the past two months due to vandalism or attempted breaking and entering. 

Tran has owned her Laundromat and dry cleaning business for 12 years at this location, which is visible just south of the Waverly and Jolly roads intersection. This is the storied southwest corner of Lansing — not only familiar to crime, but also for its zig-zag-like jurisdictional boundary with Eaton County. About 500 feet north on the west side of Waverly Road is a strip of businesses in Eaton County. A little farther north before you get to Holmes Road, the city is in Eaton County.

“When I first started, we would close at 9:30 p.m.,” Tran said Friday after noting that, “Before, things are not as bad as they are now.”

“Now we close at 8:30 p.m. and by 7, we have no more customers,” she said.

Three other business owners echo Tran about the Jolly/Waverly intersection on Friday afternoon. While there’s some disagreement among them about when exactly Jolly/Waverly was seeing the worst of times, they all agree — from their vantage point looking out at the intersection — that things could be much better. “Ghetto fabulous” is how Dan Mathews, manager at a nearby automotive repair shop, described it before flatly adding that “drugs” is the biggest problem.

“I’ve seen it all,” said Al Salas, whose business, Lansing Athletics, has been located near the Waverly and Jolly intersection since 1986. He’s been there for more than 25 years because “it was a good place to have a business. McDonald’s, Rite-Aid, Sir Pizza, Dicker and Deal — they all closed out here. And they’re closing because there is a problem with crime. 

“One month doesn’t go by without a shooting, stabbing or armed robbery, in this little corner right here,” Salas added.

On top of this, the jurisdictional boundary between the city and Eaton County is so confusing, sometimes 9-1-1 dispatchers have trouble determining who should respond to calls.

But the city of Lansing has a plan. So far, about 20 Lansing police officers have been “cross-deputized” with Eaton County. Lansing Police Chief Teresa Szymanski said it will allow Lansing officers to not only patrol along areas of Eaton County adjacent to the city, but to conduct investigative work and make arrests more easily, particularly at the strip of businesses on the west side of Waverly, just north of Jolly.

“It seems as though we’ve been hampered because it’s the county border,” said Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, citing a small area on the west side of Waverly Road that is technically Delta Township in Eaton County. “We can’t get to them — we can’t be as proactive as we would like.

“Speaking as a civilian, it appeared to me that we were both kind of doing half the job,” he said of the Eaton County Sheriff’s Office and the Lansing Police Department.

“We were hampered, unless we were in hot pursuit,” he said. “But we couldn’t do problem solving — the border was hampering our proactive work and I think our investigative work.”


‘Crime knows no borders’

As Bernero says, “Crime has no borders,” and it’s been an ongoing effort for the city to somehow partner with Eaton County to step up law enforcement in the city’s southwest corner. 

“We had met with them in the past and tried to move that. It’s on the outskirts of Eaton County. They had other priorities, from our view, that did not include that area. I think they sort of viewed that as part of Lansing. That area did not get the kind of attention it really deserved. They were saying, ‘That’s Lansing,’ But we couldn’t go in legally. It was an invitation for trouble, and we’ve had problems,” Bernero said.

It wasn’t as if Lansing was being snubbed, though, but it was Bernero’s impression that, “Just like every community, resources were scarce and that wasn’t a priority. It’s on the outskirts of the county.”

Eaton County Sheriff Mike Raines disputes this. “We’ve always been trying to move on it. We’ve always worked on using our resources effectively. Just because we don’t have resources, we will not neglect any part of the county — we will make sure there are resources one way or the other.”

And it’s “certainly not the outskirts of the county, it’s right in Delta Township where we have most of our force.”

Ultimately, Bernero said he asked Szymanski “to get more authority over there. They came up with cross-deputization,” he said. Szymanski credits Lansing Capt. Mike Yankowski and Eaton County Undersheriff Fred McPhail who “got this done.”

Raines said this is not the first time his department has cross-deputized Lansing officers, citing a regional dive and rescue team. “I deputize a lot of people across the county. They came to me and requested to be deputized and I agreed,” Raines said. The act gives Lansing police “power under me to make arrests, investigate crimes and to work down in that area, even if it’s outside of their jurisdiction. … They use more of immediate action ability and don’t really have to wait for us to get down there or anything,” Raines said.

As it’s currently worked out, Raines said, “Depending on what the actual incident was, 99 percent of the time they contact us when they’re doing something. If we have cars available we go down there also.”

That works in the form of a mutual aid agreement between the city and the county, Szymanski said. She called the cross-deputization move “another tool in the toolbox.”

“Criminals don’t stop being criminals because they’re in Eaton County or Ingham County. It’s been that way in the 25 years I’ve been here — it’s always been that way,” Szymanski said.

However, Szymanski said the agreement does not give Lansing police power to roam through all 580 square miles of Eaton County. “We specifically did this with that area in mind,” she said, citing the “Waverly corridor” from the Jolly Road intersection north to Holmes Road. “Our intent was to focus right there.”

For Raines, the area is not necessarily unique for a city.

“Because it has big-city types of crimes, it might be unique for a rural area, but it’s just basic big city crimes all big cities have,” Raines said. “I don’t know if it’s a challenge, it’s something we’ve been dealing with for years and years. Whereas in out-county, we might have different types of crimes — less breaking and enterings, more cattle in the road,” Raines said (I’m guessing he was smiling through the phone).

Also, Raines said, “We try not to worry about jurisdictions too much. We’re out there to protect and serve the public. When we’re doing that, I’m not going to stop at the line and say I’m not going to stop you because you’re across the border. We respond to the crime, whatever it may be, then make the proper calls to Ingham County, Lansing police, Lansing Township to have them come and take over the situation. … We work closely with all agencies in the area and help get things done and vice versa.”

Szymanski said the city has encouraged those neighboring jurisdictions to adopt similar ordinances as the city’s — including failure to obey a police officer and furnishing false information — to create a more uniform set of rules. 

Also, Lansing officers can make arrests across the border if there is “probable cause” that someone has committed a crime, LPD spokesman Officer Robert Merritt said. “I picture in my head someone committing a crime in the city and running across saying, ‘Nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah, you can’t get me.’ If we arrive and there was a crime that was committed and there’s probable cause to say that’s the person 100 percent, we can go make an arrest,” he said.


A unique corner

Merritt, who has 22 years’ experience with the LPD, grew up near the intersection. As a teenager, he lived for six months with his uncle in the apartment complex now known as Summer Place Townhomes. “You’ve got a massive cluster of low-income housing and apartment buildings in that two-to-three-mile square radius. You’re going to have a lot of foot-traffic,” he said, noting the Quality Dairy and dollar store nearby. But aside from the recent incidences of harassment at Summer Place, targeted at refugees, Merritt said: “I’m gonna tell ya though … it’s nothing like when I was in middle school. It was a pretty rough place.”

Here are reported crimes of what’s happened over the past year or so.

Ongoing harassment at Summer Place Townhomes directed at a neighborhood made up largely of refugees attracted the attention of city, Lansing School District and faith-based officials over the past couple of months. The community is on the northeast corner of the Waverly and Jolly intersection. Salas, who has been outspoken about the problems at Summer Place, said, “Right now it is calm.”

Several media outlets reported an accidental shooting between friends in January who were reportedly playing with a handgun on the 4000 block of West Jolly Road.

WLNS-TV reported in April that Eaton County deputies responded to an assault at the Family Dollar at the northwest corner of Waverly and Jolly roads. An employee reportedly sustained minor injuries after the suspect pulled out a knife while trying to commit retail fraud.

A year ago, WILX-TV reported that Lansing police responded to 12 crimes (including larcency, burglary and assault) within six weeks within a quarter-mile radius of Waverly and Jolly roads. Furthermore, WILX reported, the Eaton County Sheriff’s Department had twice as many calls for service between January and May 2011 compared to that same time period in 2010 for the same address at the corner of Waverly and Jolly. Within “weeks,” the television station said, shootings took place in the parking lot of a rental hall adjacent to the Family Dollar.


Business owners like the idea

Of the four business owners or managers interviewed last week, three were onboard with the city’s cross-deputization plan.

The checkout area of the Save More Meat and Dairy Market, 5030 S. Waverly, was bustling around 2 p.m. Friday. The store is in Eaton County, though the gas station across the street is in the city.

Dan Mathews, the 38-year-old manager of the nearby J&J tire repair shop, is skeptical of allowing law enforcement operate outside of their home jurisdiction. Indeed, the idea of police staying within jurisdictions is seemingly sacrosanct to Mathews, a southside resident who has worked near Jolly and Waverly for about four months.

“Personally, I think it’s a bunch of crap they’re allowed to go into” other jurisdictions, he said. “Police have jurisdiction and should not be able to go outside of it.” While he thinks the two police departments — Lansing and Eaton County — should stay put, he admitted “drugs” being one of the biggest problems in the area and acknowledged the ongoing crime there.

“To me, it’s a great idea” to cross-deputize LPD officers, said Tran, owner of the laundry mat on Waverly. “This side of town is bad. If we can have multiple police forces protect more people, great.”

Rob Jajou, 23-year-old owner of a Boost Mobile cell phone store on the west side of Waverly, said his biggest issue with his store being in Eaton County is that when he calls 9-1-1, it goes to the city of Lansing dispatch. He’s then given a local number and told to call Eaton County for assistance. “It really pisses me off. Every single time we call 9-1-1 — it can be anything, fight, car accident, wrong people hanging out here — it goes to Lansing. … They better just team up,” Jajou said of cross-deputizing officers.

Kathy Tobe, president of the Churchill Downs Community Association, told a similar story. About four years ago, she witnessed an assault on a child in the parking lot of Family Dollar, which is in Eaton County. She witnessed it from the gas station across the street, which was in Lansing. “It was frustrating because I understand the 9-1-1 operator does need all of the information, but it got to the point where I just said, ‘It’s at the corner of Jolly and Waverly, the Family Dollar parking lot. I don’t care who responds, the kid is getting beat up.’ They couldn’t even decide themselves,” she said.

“The borders are so bizarre,” Tobe said. “That will be helpful to have them cross-deputize.”

Kim Miller, a spokeswoman for Ingham County 9-1-1 dispatch, said it depends whether complaints are called in via cell phone or landline. For cell phones, the signal reaches the “nearest available towers. There’s the possibility if the Eaton County tower was busy it would route to Lansing.” If it’s a non-emergency call, the city provides a number for Eaton County dispatch. Emergency calls would be transferred directly to Eaton County, she said. The same will be true when the new regional 9-1-1 dispatch center is online, she added, which media reports say could be later this month.

Third Ward Councilwoman A’Lynne Robinson, whose district includes Waverly and Jolly, called the cross-deputization move “fantastic” and predicts it will be “extremely beneficial” for the LPD. “I think that is one area that has plagued the city. … It will allow our officers to feel empowered.” Robinson said she’s held meetings with neighborhood groups, law enforcement officials, business owners and apartment complexes to try and work out the crime issues.

And then there’s Salas, who’s owned Lansing Athletics near Jolly and Waverly — in different locations — since the mid-80s. He fashions himself as a community advocate who doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with Bernero. When asked if he’s seen as a thorn in the mayor’s side, he said, “Oh, yes,” even though he’s “not out to get the mayor. I want to get along with the mayor.”

(Bernero said he’s “worked with” Salas “over the years” and recognizes him as a “community leader.” However, “I wasn’t real happy about his approach” in dealing with the recent issues at Summer Place Townhomes, Bernero said, adding that it would have been more constructive to have met with city officials before going to the media. Salas said he tried several times to meet with the mayor but that those meetings had been canceled at the last minute.)

Either way, Salas said he’s never considered moving his business from Jolly and Waverly: “I’ve been here too long.” Additionally, he likes the city’s cross-deputization idea, with some skepticism that it might lead to overzealous policing: “It would make a difference.”

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