2 More Michigan Cities Consider Combining Police, Fire

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

HARPER WOODS, Mich. (AP) -- Susan Uhl has lived in a "very Mayberry-like" neighborhood of Harper Woods for nearly two decades.

She and her future husband bought their 1,000-square-foot aluminum-sided ranch house in 1992 and moved in a year later after getting married. Over the years, the legal assistant has enjoyed the feeling of togetherness in the "typical, working middle-class" city of 14,236 that sits just northeast of Detroit and is dissected by Interstate 94, knowing either police officers or firefighters were a quick call away should the need arise on her tree-lined block of 80 houses.

These days, though, that sense of community has been strained, and Harper Woods finds itself divided as much politically as it is physically.

That's because voters on Tuesday will be asked to decide the contentious issue of whether to allow for the combination of the city's police and fire departments into a single public safety unit. Some police officers would be trained to fight fires, and some firefighters would learn how to patrol the streets.

Harper Woods and its fellow financially struggling city of Jackson 85 miles to the west are just the latest communities in the state and nation to propose the cost-saving measure.

Proponents see it as a necessary step to maintain the effective protection of citizens as the tax base shrinks and financial aid from Lansing dries up, while opponents worry that a public safety department would in reality lessen the public's safety.

The idea of creating public safety departments isn't new. In fact, Michigan is seen as a national leader, with communities such as Kalamazoo and Grosse Pointe Park having adopted the practice decades ago, and while Jackson and Harper Woods are putting it to a vote, several others in the state are currently considering it.

Uhl, 44, says she's voting against the measure because she's concerned about the plan's lack of specificity. She doesn't know what a Harper Woods public safety department would look like if the measure is approved.

"There's no plan," she said. "I need to know that if I dial 911, I won't hear we don't have any police available because they're out fighting a fire."

Leonard Matarese, director of public safety programs at the International City/County Management Association and a recognized authority on the subject, said combining the departments has been shown to work in other communities.

"Can you train personnel to do both? Of course you can," said Matarese, who in March accompanied a group of Swedish officials who are considering public safety departments on a tour of Michigan cities where the plan has become reality.

Although he cautioned no comprehensive study had yet been completed, Michigan State University criminal justice professor Jeremy Wilson said he has compiled a list of agencies that have formally consolidated police and fire functions. That research showed there are 125 such operations in the U.S. and 39 in Michigan.

It's a finding Wilson said demonstrates how dire the budget situation is for civic leaders in this state.

"What's happening in the economy, we're seeing things that generally have been protected in the past are completely on the table. Any option is considered," he said.

Jackson, a city of 33,534 that has lost 7.7 percent of its population over the past decade, plans to trim its police force of 56 by seven or eight officers in early May and also reduce its 26-person fire department by that same number by July.

Such moves are necessary, officials say, because of a 4.5 percent drop in property tax revenue.

Monetary issues aside, a firefighters' union is urging voters to oppose the measure because of the effect it expects it to have on safety.

A statewide television ad from the Michigan Professional Fire Fighters Union features a narrator who says "combining police and firefighters won't save lives."

Tracy Stanton says it will.

"If this passes, I will get better protection," because it would mean more public safety officers on the street, said the 30-year-old nurse, wife of a Jackson police officer and daughter of a restaurant owner in the city.

The ballot proposals are revealing a rift between police and fire professionals.

Many officers say they are willing to receive so-called "cross-training" to become licensed firefighters, while firefighters in some cases resist, fearing such a combination would create jacks of all trades who are masters of none.

"I have a lot of friends in the fire department. ... But what it comes down to is: The police officers are all willing to change and adapt to the environment we see with emergency services. ... The firefighters want to stay back in the days of old," where they sit around the fire house waiting for an emergency call, said Shane LaPorte, 41, a veteran Jackson police officer and SWAT member.

The run-up to the vote in Harper Woods has featured community-wide "informational meetings," aggressive door-to-door politicking and the widespread use of campaign signs.

Uhl is proud to display two signs in her front yard that loudly advertise how she'll vote on the ballot measure: "No."

Matarese said the confusion over how the combined departments would work is a key issue.

"I'm not sure the whole situation's been articulated properly," he said of the Harper Woods and Jackson votes, pointing out the widely held misconception that firefighters don't want to become police officers and vice versa.

In most public safety departments, police officers and firefighters are encouraged and offered incentives, but not forced, to receive cross-training. For those who refuse, they remain in their jobs until retirement, and any new hire automatically is trained as a public safety officer, Matarese said.

"Some can do both. Some can't. (But) nobody's forced," he said.
APNP 04-30-11 0926EDT


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