MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — Muskegon Police Department Officer Al Hairston knows the value of residents seeing him not only as a police officer but also as a neighbor.

“They see you living in the city, they see you just as normal as everybody else. It really helps out. People feel a lot more comfortable, a lot more safe,” Hairston said.

Currently, only three of the city’s more than 70-member police force live within the city limits. Hairston is one of them.

He’s also among the recipients of a set of incentives aimed at encouraging more officers and other Muskegon employees to call the city home.

The privately funded Muskegon Police Residency Ownership programs, which offers up to $5,000 a year over six years toward mortgage payments and other costs, recently helped Hairston buy a home in the city.

The city also offers up to $5,000 in a matching down payment for new homes and renovations, depending on the neighborhoods.

“If you want to go live down by Lake Michigan, there might not be any matching down there at all. But if you come live in Nelson neighborhood, McLaughlin neighborhood, or one of the core eastside neighborhoods, you can get additional dollars,” Muskegon City Manager Frank Peterson expliained.

The newest incentive gives police officers living in the city an additional 6% in their paychecks. The bonus has been offered to other city departments over the years. It was included in the police department’s most recent contract.

It couldn’t have happened at a better time as police officer recruitment in Muskegon has hit an all-time low.

“We went from where we used to get 50 to 100 applications for every opening, it’s down now to about eight to 14 applications for openings,” Muskegon Public Safety Director Jeffrey Lewis said. “We have yet to see what this is going to do, but I’ll tell you, we’re getting a lot of verbal … interest, the most I’ve seen in maybe five to 10 years.”

The incentives are designed not only to help attract officers to the city, but also improve relations between officers and residents. Marquette Neighborhood Association president Staci Benson knows her neighborhood well. Having community policing officers assigned to it is helpful. Having an officer live there as a resident would go even further in improving the quality of life.

“If we could have officers living in our neighborhood, that would be willing take on some of the complaints, especially if the seniors are afraid of calling and retaliation, or anybody that would feel that way, at least they could so anonymously,” Benson said.

Hairston said the incentive goes well beyond what he’s able to put in the bank. It also delivers a message that police officers aren’t all that different from their neighbors.

“Going through the same struggles that you’ve gone through as well,” Hairston said. “At the end of the day, I still have to take out my trash just like everybody else.”

—Correction: A previous version of this article gave the wrong name for the Marquette Neighborhood Association president. We regret the error, which has been fixed.