Branch Co. Sheriff on understaffing issues: ‘We need help here’

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COLDWATER, Mich. -- In 1958, the Branch County Sheriff's Department had nine deputies patrolling the roads for about 30,000 people. Today there are just eight in a county that has grown in size to nearly 45,000 people.

Sheriff John Pollack said the department lost 13 deputies in 2013 after the county was forced to cut more than $1.5 million from the budget.

"No more night patrol, no more property checks, no more answering calls after 6 o'clock at night," Pollack said.

"We've been two years at this now, and the undersheriff, myself, and the jail administrator have talked about that we need to rethink the way we do business."

In addition to the lack of the manpower, Branch County is also dealing with a perpetual problem with jail overcrowding in a building that was meant to serve as a temporary facility.

"It's been temporary since 1993, and it's just, the infrastructure is falling apart on it," Pollack said. "We have a jail evaluation committee that's set up that's now studying what to do about the jail. Do we go out for a millage? Do we need a new jail? What size do we need?"

Eight deputies serving nearly 45,000 residents doesn't measure up to other counties in the state with similar populations, Pollack said. For example, in Hillsdale County with a population of 46,101, there are 14 deputies on staff. In Mecosta County with a population of 43,108, there are 21 deputies, while in Newaygo County with a population of 48,001, there are 20 deputies.

"We're working short," he said. "I'm really proud of our officers. They're working very hard, and we ask them to do a monumental job."

Four deputies work each shift in Branch County, usually for about 12 hours, with no night patrol. Troopers from the Michigan State Police Coldwater post fill the holes overnight.

"It's a partnership," said F/Lt. James Coleman, post commander in Coldwater. "We have to work with them and make sure there's adequate coverage for this county. The people here want to feel safe."

Pollack said the situation has forged a stronger relationship with the MSP troopers in the area, but he's frustrated that his deputies can't fulfill the patrol duties for the county.

Lt. Greg Ware, who has served on the force for more than a decade, is one of the few deputies remaining.  He told FOX 17 he spends the little time he has during his shift playing catch-up. The idea of proactive policing and daily patrols are a thing of the past, he said.

"It's stressful," Ware said. "We are in a more reactive mode now."

Before the layoffs in 2013, Branch County deputies averaged about 320 property checks a month across the county. This past January they were able to complete just six.

“We normally are pretty much complaint-to-complaint, and since we don't have that night shift, it really cuts our patrol time down," he said. "[The patrols] are when you get your traffic stops, pull someone over for something simple like a taillight, and you get a drunk or you have marijuana in the car."

Ware said patrols along U.S. 12, one of the main thoroughfares through the county, have also suffered because of the cutbacks. The lack of patrols from Branch County deputies has meant an increase in crime in the area, according to Ware. "U.S. 12 from Detroit to Chicago is huge, and we just don't have the people out on the road, and the bad guys know that really quickly," Ware said. "They know we don't have the people out on the road."

Sheriff Pollack echoes the concerns, adding they've seen a big return in meth-related crimes, while heroin in the area is also on the rise. The lack of specialized patrols from Branch County on U.S. 12 is playing a big part in the uptick, Pollack believes.

"Water flows the route of least resistance, and it's the same thing with crime. If there's nobody down here fighting the crime, you're going to see an increase," he said. “And I'm sure if there was ever a concentrated effort on running drugs on U.S. 12, M-86, 66, I-69, you'd probably find there's a lot of traffic that bypasses the 94 corridor because it is heavily patrolled."

MSP's Coleman contends that's not the issue and that troopers do not favor patrolling I-94 over other highways in the area.

Either way, Pollack's admits his pleas for help could prove to be a double-edged sword. But he said it's too important an issue to not bring to the public's attention.

"If I don't tell everybody we don't have it, then they don't miss it," he said.

Pollack's spent the last few months stumping across the county in hopes of drumming up support for more funding. In October, several township supervisors in the county sent a joint letter in to the Branch County Commission asking for more funding.

Bud Norman, county administrator, said there is strategic planning already underway in the county that's working to restore funding. But he emphasizes it's an issue that plagues more than just one department.

"We're starting to see a recovery, and property taxes are starting to inch back up," Norman told FOX 17 by phone. "Whether it's payroll, county maintenance, we can't just focus on one and say we're going to 100 percent restore all the positions cut. It's going to be little by little."

Norman said the county wants to "do this right" and make sure its feasible to fund a new position long-term before rehiring. The earliest any positions to be restored won't be until 2016, but Norman adds the budget situation in Branch is turning a corner for the better.

"The commission, I think, is understanding that this is a priority throughout the community," Pollack said.

"We need help here, we really do."

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