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Wednesday, October 9,2013

The public-safety vote

Police union and administration at odds over how best to promote public safety in Lansing — who’s right?

by Andy Balaskovitz

In late May, the Fraternal Order of Police announced its endorsements in this year’s Lansing City Council races. Particularly, it announced its support for Chong-Anna Canfora, who is taking on incumbent Councilwoman Jessica Yorko in the 4th Ward.

“… Canfora will bring a new voice to the City Council and support public safety efforts in the city,” it read.

The piece suggests — a suggestion later confirmed by FOP Executive Director Thomas Krug — that Yorko is soft on public safety. The FOP also endorsed incumbent Councilman Brian Jeffries and Ted O’Dell in the at-large race, but it did not endorse in the mayoral or 2nd Ward races because Krug said his group wasn’t approached by those candidates in time. The organization, along with the firefighters union, reinforced its position at a press conference Monday in announcing their joint support for Canfora.

The FOP puts forth the idea that some candidates support public safety — particularly, police officers — more than others.

Yet some would argue that the police union itself doesn’t live up to its own standards of supporting public safety, characterizing its contract-negotiating tactics two years ago as protecting the salaries and benefits of senior personnel at the price of laying off police officers.

The contention over who supports public safety more raises questions about how the Lansing Police Department is staffed, the perception and statistics of crime in the city and how police departments can continue to be effective in an era of shrinking municipal budgets.

All of this, of course, is public-safety policy devolving into politics. Outside of the internal, closed-door contract negotiations, the two sides partake in accusatory political theater. The FOP and Bernero have been at odds, at least politically, for several years. The turmoil has spilled over into the mayor’s slate of candidates in this year’s election, none of which are supported by the police union. Going forward, though, it appears Lansing won’t be able to buy its way to a safercity through  spending more on officers.

The rising cost of health care is evidence that the city must be mindful of staffing levels. This fact was hammered home by the Bernero-appointed Financial Health Team earlier this year. Led by former Mayor David Hollister, the team recommended gradually reducing police department funding by $1 million a year to bring it in line with other departments in the state in terms of staffing and costs.

While the union and Bernero would agree that doing more with less means getting neighborhoods active to help the department, it’s disconcerting to hear Krug shrug off the team’s recommendation as “bogus” and “biased.” To suggest a group of non-elected officials tasked with making non-binding recommendations on the city’s finances has an underlying motive comes off as tone deaf in an era when Michigan cities are literally going bankrupt.

So in the last four years, has Bernero and his slate of candidates really made Lansing a less safe city? No. In fact, FBI crime statistics show violent and property crime decreasing. Moreover, an investigation by MLive in August showed that while the number of police officers statewide declined by 14 percent since 2004, violent and property crime rates together decreased more than that between 2003 and 2011. It contradicts the argument that more officers mean less crime and vice versa. An analyst at the Grand Rapids Police Department told MLive: “I’ve got command staff and officers that want to make the argument that crime numbers are up as our numbers have dropped, and it can’t be done.”

Bernero’s interim police chief, Mike Yankowski, describes a more efficient department.

“Things are beginning to stabilize,” Yankowski said. “The Lansing Police Department has been able to come out of this unprecedented downturn with adequate resources. Do I wish we had more resources? Absolutely — what police chief wouldn’t?

“We don’t have an open checkbook anymore. We have to be smarter, we have to be leveraging our partnerships with each other. We have adequate staffing, we just have to be smarter with the resources that we have.”

Staffing and crime

On the issue of public safety, this year’s election arguably started in May 2011 following a special election when a proposed millage for police, fire and roads failed.

The LPD started that fiscal year with 328 full-time employees. As of Oct. 1 of this year, the department was down to 230.8 full-time positions. (Of those, 53 were transferred to the new countywide 9-1-1 dispatch center in 2012.) Twenty-four of those are vacant. There are 180 filled sworn-officer positions — which include sergeants, officers, detectives and captains — while 16 are vacant as of last week. In 2008, the department had over 340 full-time employees.

“We do not have the numbers we had in 2008 because of the economic downturn,” Yankowski said. “But we are still able to police the city in an effective manner. Lansing continues to be a safe city.”

However, Krug believes the LPD “could use more officers,” claiming that at times they come into work with “calls waiting for service that the prior officer did not have time to get to.” While there were 16 unfilled vacancies among sworn positions on Oct. 1, which Krug gives Yankowski credit for trying to fill, doing so takes time.

At the end of the day, Bernero said, “It comes back to citizens’ involvement and neighborhood watch. With 15 to 20 officers on duty at any given time, we’re not going to have an officer on every corner of the city. … I’m more convinced today than I was eight years ago that it takes active and involved neighbors and neighbors that know each other.”

Bernero also set aside $436,000 from the millage in last year’s budget in an “officer preservation” account, which will help pay for 11 LPD positions after a federal grant expires next year.

In addition to staffing, there’s also disagreement on crime rate trends.

According to Federal Bureau of Investigation crime data for 2012, violent crime dropped by 8 percent and property crime dropped 13.1 percent in the city compared to 2011.

“We were able to reduce crime in 2012 and we’re still continuing to trend (that way) in 2013,” Yankowski said.

“Are there times when crime peaks in certain neighborhoods? Yes. Historically, it’s been that way. In the future, if we know history will paint a picture, it will tell you we will continue to have an occasional spike in crime,” Yankowski said.

Krug is of a different opinion. “You read the paper like I do everyday.

There’s a lot of crime in Lansing, and only a small fraction of it ever gets mentioned in the newspaper,” he said. “There’s a lot of calls for service at the Lansing Police Department. I don’t think violent crime is down in the city if you really talk to people handling those calls. There’s so much more that could be done if it had proper staffing. … I would not say crime is down in the city of Lansing.”

Bernero says it’s problematic to look at crime like this.

“There will be those who try to exploit crimes that happen in the city for political gain. Just as it is in the media: If it bleeds it leads,” he said. “There will be crime in any city. How the media covers it matters. Generally, it’s not helpful. And you’ll have politicians operate like the media, who exploit crime and tragedy for political gain.

“I’m proud of what we’ve done. It’s a safe city and getting safer. The stats back that up.”

Brad St. Aubin, chairman of the police union board, declined to comment on the latest crime stats at Monday’s press conference. “I don’t feel comfortable to say crime is doing this or crime is doing that,” he said.

Concessions and the millage

If there’s any irony to the FOP’s claim that Bernero and his supporters are soft on crime, it’s criticism about the police union for not preventing as many layoffs after the millage as it could have. Particularly, the FOP is compared to the firefighters union. The story goes like this: While the firefighters union was more willing to give concessions in areas like salaries and benefits to prevent as many layoffs as possible, the police union did the opposite. Bernero said it’s plainly clear this is the case based on the number of layoffs that took place: 36 for police and 11 for firefighters.

“Everybody knows fire was cut less because they negotiated with us,” Bernero said. “The firefighters negotiated with us, the police union did not so much.

That’s the reason 36 police officers were laid off.

If you fast forward to today, all of those police officers have been hired back. When it happened, it was a matter of math, not politics. We had to balance the budget.”

Bernero added that the issue is in the past and that he “will not negotiate in the media” when police contracts open back up.

Krug said the portrayal of the FOP is inaccurate.

“It’s not the truth that we did not do our share when other people were doing concessions,” Krug said. “We gave the city a lot during that time period. We didn’t give the mayor exactly what he wanted, but we gave him as much concessions as he wanted. … We don’t have any regrets as an organization when that occurred.”

Krug added that the union has continued to give up concessions in health care and pay.

The Mayor’s Office provided a summary of concessions by the various bargaining groups representing city employees, which shows employees represented by the FOP moved to a lower-cost health insurance plan after the first millage failed. Krug said up until this fiscal year, the FOP has saved the city $422,000 in health care concessions “to help them balance their budget.”

Also, before the first millage attempt, police in the uniform division went from eight-hour to 12-hour shifts, eliminated premium pay for working on holidays and reductions in overtime expenses related to court scheduled.

“So we did our share,” Krug said. The International Association of Fire Fighters Local 421 also moved to a new health insurance plan to help save the city money after the first millage failed, according to the concessions summary. The firefighters also increased their pension contributions from 1.5 percent to 9.08 percent, reduced its minimum staffing levels from 48 to 38, changed its “staffing model to reduce overtime and back-filling,” “waived contractual premium pay, reduced promotional classifications by two positions and reduced field train pay,” the summary says.

Chris Lake, president of the local firefighters union, said Monday that the firefighters’ position was based on “direction from our membership to have a concessionary package to save as many (positions) as possible. … The direction was: Save as many of those jobs as we could save.”

But is the criticism fair? “Each bargaining unit’s issues are different, each collective bargaining group has a different” direction from members, Lake said. “I can’t speak to other organizations, I can only speak to the direction of the firefighters.”

Former Mayor Hollister plainly said, “Yes,” when asked if the police union gave up less than the firefighters, both in 2011 and also when he was in office.

The police are “held in high regard in the community, as they should be. They’re tough, essential jobs,” he said — which can make it difficult to get concessions.

Under Hollister’s leadership, the Financial Health Team recommended a $1 million reduction in spending for the Police Department, or 3 percent of the police budget.

In its report, the Financial Health Team cites a study by the Michigan Local Government Benchmarking Consortium that shows the LPD’s cost per resident is higher than the statewide average, and that the city has more full-time officers per 1,000 people than average. The $1 million figure is meant to represent a gradual decrease in funding.

Krug chalked up the results as “bogus” and a “very biased report” done by a group Bernero appointed “that I don’t think was a fair and unbiased group. If Mr. Hollister would like to be mayor again, he should run for mayor and stop trying to run the city. ... Like anything else: Let’s do a report to do a report to do a report. It sounded good, it was a good political move.”

“I was doing what I was asked to do by the mayor,” Hollister said in response. “I’m not interested in running for mayor again. My record speaks for itself. I was simply trying to provide a framework for the city to remain solvent. If this attitude prevails,

Lansing and other communities like it will face insolvency much like Detroit in the next five to seven years.”

“Tom Krug is increasingly losing touch with reality,” Bernero responded in an email. “The FHT was populated by some of Lansing’s leading citizens. Their report will help guide us toward financial stability for years to come, despite myopic protestations from certain greedy special interests.”

St. Aubin said of the team’s recommendation, “It’s easy to sit and look at something on paper. What matters is how important (public safety) is to the community.”

Politics and police

The politics of public safety is playing out strongly in the 4th Ward race between incumbent Yorko and challenger Canfora.

Canfora criticized Yorko for her attendance records at Public Safety Committee meetings during her first year in office and also for voting after the millage failed in May 2011 to lay off 36 police officers and 11 firefighters.

“The fact that my opponent chose to skip out on 55 percent of her public safety meetings in her first year in office and voted to cut 36 police officers and 11 firefighters, we’re seeing the fruits of that,” Canfora said.

“It’s not acceptable to make that kind of vote to drastically cut our public safety officers and then say you supported the millage. It’s a dereliction of duty,” Canfora said.

Yorko said at the time of her attendance record that the committee chairwoman, now Council President Carol Wood, scheduled meetings far more frequently than others. As for her record on public safety, Yorko said that she strongly supported the first millage.

“I’ve worked very, very hard to make sure we have adequate funding and to prevent layoffs,” she said. “My goal in the following budget cycle was for us to hire officers back that were laid off, which we did.”

Generally, Yorko echoes sentiments by Yankowski and Bernero that there’s more to public safety than hiring police officers — it’s about fighting violence in our culture and getting residents involved in their neighborhoods. Canfora also said Monday she’d “absolutely agree” with Bernero that it’s about “not only adequate public safety (staffing) but also community involvement.”

“The overall message from the chief is that we do need stronger communityschool-law enforcement partnerships: We can’t police our way out of all of our problems,” Yorko said. “Many of the safety issues that we experience in our neighborhoods stem from deeper social problems.

… We need police officers, we need law enforcement and we need a broad community approach as well.”

Krug criticized Yorko’s support in 2012 of a Bernero-backed plan to use a portion of police millage money on a feasibility study for a permanent police headquarters and technology upgrades.

Bernero’s relationship with the police union has been contentious, to say the least. He has been criticized for attempting to renegotiate contracts in public and calling for police concessions to prevent layoffs. In an interview last week, Bernero said multiple times that he is not going to “negotiate in the media,” but he thinks the organization is “totally out to lunch politically.”

“As far as the union’s politics: What can I say? It’s out in left field somewhere,” he said, adding that he did not seek the organization’s endorsement. “They’re all over the map. I can’t take them seriously politically. I take our officers very seriously, I’m grateful for our officers. But politically, the FOP is unpredictable and impossible to understand.”

Bernero is “baffled and flabbergasted” that the FOP would endorse incumbent Jeffries in the at-large race, who voted against putting the millage question on the ballot for May 2011 and again in November that year. Jeffries said Monday that he was concerned in both instances over how the millage money would ultimately get spent. He suggested paying for the officers through the rainy day fund which would be replenished with the sale of Oliver Towers, the former headquarters of the Lansing Housing Commission that still hasn’t sold. Jeffries also supported non-binding resolutions in the run-up to both elections that said the Council was supportive, he said.

“Brian was not against the millage, he was against the wording,” Krug said. “He always wanted to get more police and firefighters out. Again, that wasn’t a big deal to us because we understand what Brian was doing.”

In response to the mayor, Krug said, “The mayor in a lot of ways is a little bully. We’re well in tune with the politics of the city.”

For Hollister, the FOP’s staking a claim politically is nothing new.

“It was always a political issue. When I ran for mayor, I was seen as a liberal Democrat, anti-police, going to turn the criminals loose. That’s just silly rhetoric,” he said.

“Every one of those Council persons wants a stable neighborhood, a high quality of life and safety. They’re not out there trying to undermine the authority and financing of the police. I just think it’s rhetoric, typically unsubstantiated.”

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