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‘Something is going to break’

Police and Fire departments struggle to keep Lansing safe

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Over the last decade, fewer first responders have taken more time to deal with a growing number of emergencies in Lansing. And it’s pushing some officials to sound an alarm: Could public safety be reaching a breaking point?

A City Pulse analysis shows the Lansing Police and Fire departments — like many others nationwide — have struggled to regain adequate staffing levels in the wake of the Great Recession. Emergency calls still ring through as budgets tighten. Response times are climbing. And first responders are being pushed closer to the brink.

Lansing Mayor Andy Schor and State Rep. Kara Hope (D-Holt) are among several local politicians pointing fingers at the state legislature amid a plea for more cash. Lansing City Council members are also looking to shift around extra funds in next year’s budget. But inside the departments, concerns are approaching a critical mass.

“It’s no secret that the department — just like many other agencies — has lost resources over the years,” said Lansing Police Chief Michael Yankowski. He said that much-needed help from the federal, state, county and local governments has decreased across the country and will likely continue to do so. “Policing has changed,” Yankowski said. “We’ve been forced to change. We’ve really tried to figure out how to police this city with fewer officers on the staff.”

Assistant Fire Chief Michael Tobin said that every city department has had to do more with fewer people. “At some point, something is going to break,” Tobin said. “I’m not saying that we’re broken, but whether it’s increases in injuries or wear on equipment, at some point, you could run into quality of care issues.”

Over the last two years, high-priority response times at the Lansing Police Department jumped about 32% to an average of about seven minutes. Calls for service have climbed about 7% since 2013 to an average of 229 calls per day. The department, however, has lost about 20 percent of its staff (or about 50 officers) within the last decade.

Officials said overtime budgets are routinely exhausted within the first six months of the year. Community policing tactics, where particular officers are assigned to build relationships within local neighborhoods, have been bolstered under Yankowski’s leadership. But those officers are often pulled from those streets for other calls.

“If you speak to any officer in the city or to an Ingham County dispatcher, you will become keenly aware of the need for more officers,” said Councilman Adam Hussain. “We are regularly requesting (officers from other agencies) due to call saturation and a lack of resources. Our officers are doing the best they can, but they are exhausted and being asked to do much more with much less. This is bad news for our community in general.”

The FBI tracks an average of about 3.4 sworn officers per 1,000 residents nationwide. In the Midwest, that figure is about 2.2. Lansing’s average — given decreased staffing over the last several years — rests at about 1.7 police officers for every 1,000 residents. And some officials said only eight officers could be on duty at any given time.

“Traffic citations are down. Arrests are down for driving offenses like drunk driving because our officers just don’t have the time to be in the neighborhoods, on the streets, not responding to a call,” explained Tom Krug, business manager for the Capital City Labor Program, the labor union representing the Police Department.

Police and fire departments across the country that were hit hard during the Great Recession — like Lansing — have struggled to rebuild their ranks. New retirements are announced every month while officials frontload the department with newly graduated recruits. And it has left both departments both fresh-faced and understaffed.

Data shows that arrests in Lansing have fallen about 84% since 2007. The number of reports written and tickets issued are also at their lowest points in years. Tickets issued fell about 49%; Reports written dipped about 20%. And proactive, special operations arrests — like for narcotics — have dipped about 84% in the same period.

Accordingly, the number of those booked into jail dropped about 40% from 2007 to 7,156 bookings last year.

Officers are also bolting for the door. At least six LPD officers retired in March, April and May, according to minutes from the latest Police and Fire Retirement System meetings. All but one of these officers bought service credits to retire ahead of the 25-year minimum requirement for retirement amid ongoing collective bargaining with the police union.

“We are not supporting our first responders efficiently,” said City Councilwoman Jody Washington. “The added hours, stress and workload most certainly takes a hold of our valued employees. This can cause medical leaves and more. Our public safety employees deserve better. As response times increase, I do fear for our residents.”

Tobin and newly installed Fire Chief Mike Mackey painted a similarly gloomy picture at their department.

Call volumes across Lansing’s six fire stations have skyrocketed by about 45% since 2007 to about 22,000 calls last year. But while daily call volumes climb from 42 to 61, fewer employees have been around to answer the phone. City data showed daily minimum staffing has dipped from 53 first responders in 2007 to 41 in 2018.

Accordingly, the emergency response from LFD is about 11% slower than it was in 2015, city data showed.

“We can be our own worst enemy,” Tobin added. “If you take something away from a firefighter, we’ll just learn to overcome and adapt. We’ve seen a dramatic increase in on-duty injuries and mental health issues among our staff because of that. We’re starting to see the effect of us continuing to overcome and adapt all of these years.”

Added IAFF Local 421 President Dan Komm: “Do you want an ambulance in six minutes or three minutes? We’re to the point where our guys are getting tired. That all comes into play. It’s not that we won’t handle the work. We just need help to handle the work. We need to pay for these things.”

Schor and every member of the Lansing City Council wants to give more funding to public safety. Budgets for those departments — like nearly every year — continue to climb. Schor gave an extra $2 million to the Fire Department and $1 million to the Police Department for FY2020. Council passed the budget without a hitch.

Schor said the city is trying to do its best with the resources it has.

“Unless you identify where the money is coming from, then all you’re doing is complaining,” Schor said. “We’re maxed out on our millages. We just don’t have the revenue to make it happen. A solution going forward, I think, is about better prioritizing the needs of the community.”

If city support for police officers and fire fighters is increasing, why is the net still fraying? There’s a bigger picture to consider. Ongoing legacy costs and basic city services can’t be cut, and aren’t getting any cheaper. Lansing City Council shifted funds in this year’s budget to hire a Chief Strategy Officer — a newly created, six-figure executive position who can help reduce the city’s budgetary dependence on unfunded pension and post-employment benefits liabilities. Those currently eat about 22% of the city’s $226 million in annual revenue.

“We see this all the time with police and fire,” added Councilwoman Patricia Spitzley, who supports bringing a chief strategy officer on board. “Our core functions need to be on our neighborhoods and on public safety — meaning police and fire — and services for our residents.”

Council Vice President Peter Spadafore said layers of costs built into the city budget limit the resources available to beef up police and fire departments. “We can’t stop collecting trash or running other city services,” Spadafore said. “We really need to get a handle on our legacy costs before we start bringing in a bunch of new employees into these departments.”

Some elected officials also recognize that rising healthcare costs, newly negotiated salary raises and an overall increased cost of living can make it difficult for the city to keep those departments above water — even with modest, annual budget increases. Schor has also been vocal about a $101 million problem with the state of Michigan.

“No state was hit harder by the recession than Michigan, with property values — and consequently, tax revenues — dropping by as much as half in some communities,” Schor said in a Lansing State Journal editorial. “That has left cities, townships and other municipalities across the state wrestling with very difficult spending decisions.”

The Michigan Municipal League points to some $8.6 billion in state revenue sharing payments from sales taxes that have been diverted from local municipalities to plug holes in the state budget since 2002. The city of Lansing alone has been a $101 million victim of the legislature-sanctioned shakedown, according to MML officials.

“We can only guess how many lives might have been saved, how much property preserved, how many crimes prevented, had we had the benefit of the thousands of first responder positions that have been lost over the last 18 years,” Hope added, testifying in support of increased revenue sharing on the House floor earlier this month.

“This is their money. It’s not a grant or a gift. It’s money that rightfully belongs in local communities,” she said.

A portion of state sales taxes are redistributed to local governments. Those revenues have increased over the last decade, but revenues shared with cities like Lansing haven’t kept up with the pace, Schor argued. And unlike other nearby states, Michigan heavily restricts options for local governments to collect more tax revenue.

“While belt-tightening and penny-pinching have kept most communities from going bankrupt, there is only so much we can cut. We all need action from our state legislature,” Schor said. “Those are your tax dollars and they should have stayed right here in Lansing and gone toward funding the local services we all value.”

Officials at the Lansing Police and Fire departments, while their elected officials continue to navigate the budget, will continue to make do with the resources they have. They don’t have many other options.

“We need to take a long hard look at our budgetary issues and make some serious decisions,” Washington added. “We need to know what is necessary, what is duplicative, and how to have operations better run. This can has been kicked down the road for far too long.  I do believe we will be at the breaking point in the very near future.”

If not? “We will find it more and more difficult to provide for the safety and security of our residents, employees, business owners, and visitors and, consequently, will find it incredibly difficult to attract new and retain what we have,” added Councilman Adam Hussain. “In short, we have a tough job and difficult decisions ahead of us.”

 

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