Police chiefs say officers face crime spurt that includes more attacks on cops

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Oakland Circuit Judge Michael Warren speaks about challenges to law enforcement on Feb. 14, 2022 at Waterford Township Hall. Behind Warren, from left are State Sen. Jim Runestad, Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel. (Photo: Bill Laitner)
Oakland Circuit Judge Michael Warren speaks about challenges to law enforcement on Feb. 14, 2022 at Waterford Township Hall. Behind Warren, from left are State Sen. Jim Runestad, Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel. (Photo: Bill Laitner)

Crime rates have risen sharply during the pandemic, police are being ambushed, recruiters can’t find young people to become cops and too many lawmakers don’t understand the problems facing the nation's police.

Those were the messages from a bevy of police chiefs, county sheriffs and state lawmakers who gathered Monday in Waterford for a news conference labeled “In Support of Law Enforcement.”

The event came after nine officers were injured Friday, including five shot by a barricaded gunman, in what Phoenix police are calling an ambush. Over a 24-hour period on Friday, 13 police officers from Arizona, Maryland, New Mexico and Pennsylvania were wounded in shootings involving domestic disputes, traffic stops, serving warrants and going about their duties to protect citizens, in what some are calling a war on cops.

“We’re in a profession that’s under attack,” Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard told the gathering.

“Certainly, some in our profession have done terrible things and all of us have denounced that. But when legislators talk about removing qualified immunity” — officers are “willing to give their life for a stranger, but now they’re being asked to give up their family’s future, even when they do their job correctly,” Bouchard said.

He added: “In Oakland County, we had a barricaded gunman, and the guy shot at us like 30 times; we shot once and we’re being sued.” In the U.S. Congress, the pending George Floyd Act, named after the Minneapolis man whose death at police hands sparked nationwide protests, would end qualified immunity from civil lawsuits — a legal protection that police have possessed nationwide since the late 1800s, according to online summaries of the bill.

Defunding all police is no way to address the small number of abusive officers, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel said. Hackel was Macomb County sheriff from 2001 to 2010. If anything, more funding and more police are needed, along with better training, Hackel said.

One example of the recent trend to reform the nation’s criminal justice system has been to slash the number of defendants jailed for violating terms of their probation, Oakland Circuit Judge Michael Warren told the gathering at Waterford Township Hall. That effort has backfired badly, said Warren, who wore his trademark bow tie that replicates the American flag.

“The word on the street has gotten around. Probationers know they don’t have to comply (with some probation terms) because there won’t be any punishment" for what are termed "technical violations; "so, a number of judges have thrown up their hands and said, ‘We’re not going to bother with probation,’ and we’re losing the opportunity to change behavior at a crucial point” in the criminal justice process, Warren said.

The implementation of reduced or no penalties for "technical violations" of probation occurred in 2021 and "that was a legislative change" that tied the hands of judges, said Oakland County Chief Assistance Prosecutor David Williams, reached by phone after Monday's event.

State Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, last week introduced a bill in Lansing that he hopes will combat the spiraling rate of auto theft in Michigan. The bill would make it a felony to use a computerized device to disable a vehicle’s key-fob-actuated locks, a tactic used by an increasing number of car thieves, according to the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office. The Sheriff’s Office has reported that vehicle thefts in Oakland County increased 67% from 2020 to 2021.

At Monday’s event, organized by Runestad, he said Michigan could use part of its big budget surplus to bolster local and county policing in Michigan. Runestad said he planned to survey police and community leaders statewide “to ask them how we can help.” One way would be to fund centers to upgrade training, Bouchard said.

“Here we are in the most affluent county in Michigan and my officers are training in an old school,” Bouchard said.

Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard visits the Sheriff's Office Training Center, a former middle school in Ortonville, Thursday Oct. 8, 2020.
Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard visits the Sheriff's Office Training Center, a former middle school in Ortonville, Thursday Oct. 8, 2020.

One major shortfall in police budgets is the money to make salaries and benefits competitive with private-sector careers, said several chiefs as well as an executive with a major police union.

Because the state’s budget surplus is temporary, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and state lawmakers have been reluctant to commit to permanent outlays such as the operating expenses of police agencies. Citizens who are concerned should ask their communities about passing millage measures that would increase police pay, the chiefs said.

Nationwide, in response to the death in Minneapolis of George Floyd and other traffic stops that led to tragedies, many police departments are backpedaling on traffic enforcement, according to an editorial in the January issue of Police magazine. The editorial cites Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Portland and Seattle among the cities that have “adjusted the ways their police enforce traffic violations,” resulting in far fewer stops. In contrast, the editorial points to Detroit police as being appropriately aggressive in stopping miscreant drivers.

“During two recent traffic stops, Detroit officers rescued children from a kidnapping and rescued young women from sex trafficking,” the editorial said. Traffic stops play a key role in making Detroit a safer city, said Willie Bell, a retired Detroit police lieutenant, serving his fourth term as a member of the city’s Board of Police Commissioners.

“In my own neighborhood, we’ve had far too many drivers going 40, 50 miles an hour. So, Detroit is installing speed humps. But we do need more officers, more presence of officers on patrol,” Bell said. He said Detroit loses numerous dozens of young officers each year when they leave the city for higher pay in suburban departments.

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“Bottom line, you’ve got to give these officers a starting salary of $50,000 a year. The job requires so much of a person these days,” he said. Bell did not attend Monday's gathering in Waterford. The Detroit Police Department sent Assistant Chief David LeValley, who said freeway shootings were up markedly during the pandemic, suggesting that roadside cameras could be dedicated to pinpointing the shooters , catching some while deterring others.

Monday's event was held in Waterford because the township hall was made available, "not because there is any big crime problem here," State Sen. Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, said, as she thanked people for attending.

Contact: blaitner@freepress.com

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Police chiefs say cops face pandemic crime spurt including "ambushes"