Shootings. Fights. Property damage. Theft. In recent months, residents along the 800 block of Baker Street have been plagued by violence and crime. Some said they’ve watched Lansing Police Department officers respond, pick up a few spent shells with their bare hands, pocket them and leave. Others have offered up video footage, only to have local cops reject them.
Since January, the neighborhood has been afraid. And some are looking at selling their homes. This reporter spoke with five residents near Baker Street. None wanted to be named. But city officials said their experiences are a problem related to a confluence of issues including budget concerns, inadequate training and a wave of new cops who may be lacking experience.
Interim Police Chief Ellery Sosebee said those reports of bungled criminal investigations from Baker Street residents were “alarming” and that he wants to “hold officers accountable” for those concerns. But at the same time, he pointed to low staffing levels in the city, increased violent crime and constant pressure on officers to respond quickly to priority concerns across the city.
(Click here to watch a video interview with Sosebee.)
Mayor Andy Schor was also concerned. He said he believes more police training is necessary.
And those assessments are backed up by a comprehensive independent audit of the Police Department that Schor ordered. It was released last week by Legal Solutions Law Firm and Blue Line Law Firm.
(Click here to watch a video interview with Blue Line Law Firm Executive Director Ann Charleus.)
The review found that local officers, while doing well in some areas, were also struggling in others — including issues often tied to financial restraints. Among them: Inferior facilities for training and police operations, too few employees and a mishmash of incompatible technology.
Sosebee said LPD has 191 police officers on the road. When he started with the department 20 years ago, there were 260. But budget crisis after budget crisis in the state and city led to layoffs and dwindling law enforcement resources.
The department still had 20 vacancies this week. Nine of those are in the process of being filled.
Vacancies are also complicated by retirements. The independent report encouraged LPD to hire 25 more cops before the end of the year to compensate for expected retirements as well as officers who may accept employment in another municipality, perhaps one with less crime.
Sosebee said the hiring process is not only complicated by competition with other communities, but also a sense of social disdain for policing that has led to fewer applications in the last year.
While the Police Department is actively recruiting, the report found that its hiring process is only interfering with its ability to bring on new officers quickly and efficiently. After they apply, it can take officers up to a year before they’re formally hired into the department. That delay is then followed by months of classroom training before the officer ever has a chance to hit the street.
Perhaps most notably, the recent independent report also found that no more than 10 officers are on staff to patrol the city on any given night — sometimes even fewer when cops call in sick.
Asked if that is a public safety concern, Sosebee said “absolutely.”
A shooting on the north side of the city, for instance, would typically require most (if not all) of the officers on duty to respond to the scene, set up a perimeter and assist in the investigation. Naturally, that would leave much of the city unpatrolled. And if there’s another incident on the south side at the same time, then officers are forced to rush across the city in order to respond.
“Time is crucial in those situations,” Sosebee said, noting that local cops may also have to rely on mutual aid another local agency — like Meridian Township — which “doesn’t know the city” and may be responding to a scene that “they have never seen or haven’t seen in a long time.”
LPD has a $47 million budget, but 36.2% of it is tied up in pensions and healthcare for retirees.
The recent report noted that the city has the ability to apply for grants — mostly through the federal government — but that potential is not being well utilized. Sosebee concurred, noting that writing grants “takes a lot of work” and that the city is working to onboard a new grant writer.
Police facilities are also a challenge, the independent report found. Training is often conducted in a barn which is no longer adequate, while operations are centered on the former Harry Hill High School — now the Alfreda Schmidt Community Center — on Wise Road. The downtown administrative building and lock-up at City Hall also needs substantial work, the report found.
Schor inherited a preliminary plan to move out of and repurpose City Hall into a hotel when he took office in 2018 but ultimately rejected the concept because there was no viable plan to address the Police Department facilities. That would have required about $50 million, he said.
A renewed request for proposals issued by Schor’s office in January still aims to find a new location for City Hall while the building continues to deteriorate. Just two weeks ago, the top floors were closed after a cooling tower on the roof sprung a leak and flooded three floors down, forcing some employees to work from home and pushing the City Council to meet elsewhere.
Can the city come up with enough cash to figure out a solution?
“I don’t know until I see proposals,” he said.
Financing the project may require a combination of bonds and reinvesting proceeds from the sale of City Hall. But while legacy costs climb, financing those bonds may prove to be difficult. The city’s bond rating was also downgraded this year, which could also drive up interest rates.
The report also identified the Police Board of Commissioners as a place for reform.
That eight-member body has the power to investigate allegations of police misconduct, including the ability to call witnesses and issue subpoenas. The board, however, has not used that authority and instead relies on the work of a police investigator. The board then approves an advisory opinion that is sent to the police chief, the only authority of officer discipline in Lansing.
The report recommended that the board begin using its power more effectively or instead consider launching an independent citizen review commission to review complaints in the city.
Both of those suggested reforms face obstacles before they can be implemented, Schor said.
While the City Charter enables subpoena power for the board, other legal determinations have since eliminated that power, he said. To address that discrepancy, the city would need to seek a charter amendment. Schor said he’s willing to talk with police unions to explore that possibility.
Sosebee said he is not opposed to more reforms — including a possible citizen review board.
“Transparency is big with me,” Sosebee said. “We don’t hide anything. Civilian oversight is part of that. It’s hard to establish civilian oversight, however, I am not opposed to it because — look, plain and simple — we are here the community. If the community wants oversight of their police department, that’s OK. That’s nothing to fight about or argue about.”
Visit lansingcitypulse.com to view five takeaways or to read the independent report in its entirety.
Visit lansingcitypulse.com to watch video interviews with Interim Lansing Police Chief Ellery Sosebee and Legal Solutions Partner Ann Charleus.
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