GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — As many sheriff’s departments across Michigan continue to deal with a shortage of deputies, a new law is giving law enforcement a helping hand.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed House Bills 5569, 5732 and 5772 into law in late September. They passed the House earlier this year. The law helps county sheriff departments properly patrol secondary roads outside of cities and towns.
Previously, the secondary road patrol program, created in 1978, was funded by traffic citations. Local sheriffs tell News 8 the money has dwindled over the decades.
“We’ve seen a decrease in the number of citations issued,” said Allegan County Sheriff Frank Baker. “Which results in a smaller pool of money to be dispersed through this road patrol program.”
With the new law, it will be permanently supported by a more reliable source: liquor sales taxes. It will add $15 million in its first year and an extra 5% in subsequent years to cover for inflation. No new taxes are being created.
It’s the culmination of years of efforts by State Rep. Tommy Brann, R-Wyoming, to make his plan law.
“Why try to patch up a broken funding system year after year?” Brann said in a statement. “Let’s solve the problem instead. Now we’ll have a sustainable road patrol with stable funding. Deputies will know they’ve got a job and families in rural communities will know they’ve got law enforcement on duty.”
‘THIS WAS A BIG WIN’
Sheriffs across West Michigan told News 8 it’s a “game changer.” Many of them had gone to Lansing for years to encourage the change.
Kalamazoo County Sheriff Richard Fuller said traffic problems have “exacerbated since the pandemic to the point we know there is so much more dangerous driving.” The sheriff believes the permanent source of money will have a “huge impact.”
“This was a big win for everybody to make sure these are continuously funded,” Fuller said. “This allows us not to have to go to Lansing every year to try and advocate for the dollars needed. There’s a set program in place that will fund it for quite a while. And we’re very happy about that part.”
Kent County Sheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young said “there’s not a single county in the state of Michigan that doesn’t rely on this funding to provide basic services to the citizens they serve.”
“Our communities and our neighborhoods deserve to know their safety is provided for,” LaJoye-Young said. “That there’s going to be services available in their moment of need.”
The Kent County Sheriff’s Office is getting $650,000, covering five patrol deputies and a sergeant.
“They’ll do traffic patrol as their primary function,” LaJoye-Young said. “They’re also trained as accident investigators. That helps us prepare the right documentation when a crash happens, and we can hold someone responsible criminally. That gives us the evidence to do so.”
LaJoye-Young said there have been “growing gaps” in Kent County with the old program.
“This program doesn’t fix gaps that were happening,” the sheriff said. “But it shores up the amount of patrol that’s there now and allows it to continue into the future. If it had continued to shrink, much of the service that was being provided under this program statewide would have ceased.”
DEPARTMENTS SEE LAYOFFS, SHRINKING FUNDING
Right now, Branch County doesn’t even have a patrol deputy on the night shift, forcing Michigan State Police to come and help.
“We were catching an awful lot of folks doing a lot of awful things that are just not being caught now because we just run from one complaint to the other,” said Branch County Sheriff John Pollack. “We’re a reactive force now instead of a proactive force.”
Pollack says the new funding is critical.
“It’s been 12 years now that we’ve been this short,” Pollack said. “It’s just one more step to the light of the end of the tunnel where we’re starting to get some patrol back.”
The Branch County Sheriff’s Office has been dealing with layoffs since 2013. When the old program first began, Pollack said Branch County started with two secondary patrol deputies in the program.
As the funding supply went down, the sheriff’s office was left with just one. Eventually, his department only got 60% of the necessary funding to keep that deputy on staff. Pollack has gone to Lansing most years to get more money.
“We’re so short that everybody has to be on criminal patrol,” Pollack said. “What we’re hoping for is to get at least another body back so we can be out there on those roads and concentrating on those and not just running for one complaint to another.”
The Allegan County Sheriff’s Office used to have four deputies for secondary road patrol. Sheriff Frank Baker said because the funding from the program “dropped dramatically” over the years, the team now only has three deputies. The sheriff hopes the new law will help fill that last empty shift and said it will be discussed at future budget meetings.
“What we’re looking at is the additional funding will help secure the program and help keep it moving forward into the future,” Baker said.
LACK OF ROAD PATROL CAN BE DANGEROUS, SHERIFF SAYS
For many county sheriff’s offices across Michigan, Baker said this program is “basically their road patrol.”
“We’ve seen fatal traffic crashes,” Baker said. “We’ve seen a lot of drunk driving crashes. We see a lot of real roads where high speed ends up being a factor. So if we can provide additional patrols to act as a deterrent to try to make our roads safer, we all benefit.”
The law will double the amount of money the Kalamazoo County Sheriff’s Office gets, allowing them to pay for a second patrol deputy. Sheriff Richard Fuller said the law will have a huge impact for not only his department but the rest across the state.
“There are counties that this is the only road patrol they have,” Fuller said. “And this is the only way they have to put a patrol car out to respond to the emergencies that are happening in their communities. So this is huge for the entire state of Michigan.”
LaJoye-Young said that many areas without proper road patrol can lead to dangerous consequences.
“If you think of yourself, and you go through an intersection, and every time you get to that intersection people run through the red light because they’re trying to turn left,” LaJoye-Young said. “You become conditioned to it being OK to run through that red light because everybody does it. Nobody ever stops them so it means it’s got to be OK right. Behavior starts to cause repeated accidents at that intersection.”