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About 50 Ypsilanti Township residents gave the Washtenaw County Sheriff Office their input about law enforcement in the community Tuesday evening.
The information was shared at a community forum hosted by the WCSO at the Ypsilanti Township Community Center on Clark Road.
“The bottom line is you elected me sheriff,” Sheriff Jerry Clayton said. “It is my duty to hear and engage you as members of this community.”
The WCSO held a similar forum at the Ypsilanti District Library on Whittaker Road two weeks ago and has also been attending local neighborhood watch meetings, attempting to get a handle on public perception of crime and police services in the township.
After township voters turned down a proposed 2 mill property tax levy on the November 2009 ballot, the police services provided by the WCSO were reduced, meaning the number of deputies assigned to the township went from 38 to 31. The WCSO had 44 deputies assigned to Ypsilanti Township in 2008.
With cuts to overtime, fewer staff and a fairly level number of complaints still coming in, Sheriff Clayton said the preventative community policing that can help stop crime before it starts suffers as his overburdened staff becomes more reactive instead of proactive.
“I know we are getting close to squeezing all the water out of the rock,” he said. “I think we can meet your needs, but I'm concerned. At some point you reach the tipping point.”
Many people in the township, Clayton said, are currently under the impression that crime – and in particular home invasions – are worse than ever. This year; however, the WCSO is reporting fewer calls in general and decreasing home invasions.
“In the absence of facts, myths emerge,” he said. “When people think crime is worse than it is, it impacts the quality of life in our neighborhoods.”
These misconceptions are problematic, Clayton said, since it can foster an atmosphere of fear and keep people from leaving their houses. On the flip side, he said it can be equally dangerous if people think crime levels are lower than they are because it can stop people from taking necessary precautions.
As of the meeting, the WCSO reported that total calls for the year numbered under 5,000, 700 fewer than this same date in 2009 and 400 fewer than the same date in 2008. Home invasions complaints so far in 2010 have numbered 138, compared to 174 at this date in 2009 and 175 at this date in 2008.
Clayton said many of the home invasion cases this year have resulted in arrests, partially due to help from residents and witnesses—help, he said, is crucial for his deputies.
“You live there, you should tell us what you see,” he said. “Our focus is on long-term, sustainable solutions.”
In addition to the 31 deputies contracted to provide law enforcement in Ypsilanti Township, Clayton said the township also receives more of the office's county-wide resources than any other township in the county.
In the interest of gauging public perception and letting area residents play a more active role in law enforcement, residents at the meeting were asked a series of questions about crime in the township, which they answered using electronic remote controls.
These same remotes, WCSO Community Engagement Director Derrick Jackson said, are being brought to individual neighborhood watch meetings in the community as well, to establish a baseline for public perception. Residents seeking more information about the neighborhood watch program should contact Sgt. Lisa King at (734) 973-4694.
Questions asked during this part of the meeting included if the WCSO provided quality police services, what the biggest problems in the neighborhoods are, how safe people feel, how often they see police in their neighborhoods, how fair law enforcement is and how quick response times are.
Residents were also split into small groups to discuss what their top priorities would be for personal and property safety, what are the most important services that WCSO provides and what the Sheriff's office could do better.
For top personal safety issues, many present at the meeting listed suspicious youth loitering in the neighborhoods, vehicles speeding through subdivisions, safety in local parks and abandoned houses creating an unsavory environment.
Residents suggested that things the WCSO could improve included better response times, better informed dispatchers, more deputies in general and programs that engage the youth of the community.
One resident told the story of a dispatcher who said the WCSO could not respond to the report of a reckless driver near Grove and Harris Streets because it is in the city of Ypsilanti. The area is actually in Ypsilanti Township and Clayton said the Sheriff's office is responsible for enforcing the law in all areas of the county, not just the municipalities with which it holds policing contracts.
“We can't get better without you telling us about the times we are not hitting the ball,” he said. Clayton encouraged all residents to enter complaints through their website or via phone if they ever encounter issues working with the WCSO.
Police Services Director Dieter Heren, he said, could field these complaints, each of which is looked into thoroughly by a special investigator hired by the office. Another option to lodge a complaint, he said, would be to contact the local law enforcement community advisory board, which takes any issues to the WCSO if anyone is uncomfortable contacting the office directly.
Another resident said an ongoing problem in the neighborhoods is suspicious youth hanging out in the parks, possibly selling drugs or engaging in other illegal activity.
Clayton said the best solution would be to call the WCSO and tell them about the suspicious activity so they can look into it.
“It's all on us,” he said. “The community needs to work together to solve these problems. There should be zero tolerance for the victimizing of anyone in our community.”
After the meeting, Ypsilanti Township resident Isaac Wilcox agreed with the sheriff that everyone needs to work together to make the community a safer and better place to live.
“The community should be willing to step up and defend their fellow citizens,” Wilcox said.
Another resident, Crystal Culp said she felt much better about the direction law enforcement in the township was headed after the meeting.
“I'm really glad I came,” Culp said. “It helped me feel not so worried about calling 911 when I see something.”
Others were not so reassured. Laura Wade, who lives in the West Willow neighborhood, said her home has been broken into six times in the past seven months.
“If you ask me,” Wade said, “crime in the township is up. But, I think the sheriff's department is doing a good job.”
Individuals need to do their part, she said. Wade put LoJack, a tracking system, on her computer and was able to get it back after the last time it was stolen. She said residents should also take advantage of some of the little-known free services the WCSO provides, like vacation drive-bys and the home security assessment.