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Detroit — There are fewer police officers patrolling the city than at any time since the 1920s, a manpower shortage that sometimes leaves precincts with only one squad car, posing what some say is a danger to cops and residents.

Detroit has lost nearly half its patrol officers since 2000; ranks have shrunk by 37 percent in the past three years, as officers retired or bolted for other police departments amid the city's bankruptcy and cuts to pay and benefits.

Left behind are 1,590 officers — the lowest since Detroit beefed up its police force to battle Prohibition bootleggers.

"This is a crisis, and the dam is going to break," said Mark Diaz, president of the Detroit Police Officers Association. "It's a Catch-22: I know the city is broke, but we're not going to be able to build up a tax base of residents and businesses until we can provide a safe environment for them."

Police Chief James Craig acknowledges he doesn't have as many officers as he'd like.

"These officers do the most difficult job in the country, and they need to get paid more," he said. "It's hard to keep people when other cities can offer so much more money."

Starting pay for Detroit officers is about $14 per hour, Diaz said. "But when you factor in the pension and benefits they're paying for, they're bringing home roughly $8 per hour after taxes. It's difficult to be a Detroit cop and make ends meet. You can't blame them for leaving so they can feed their families."

The department lost between 30 and 35 officers monthly last year, although that's slowed to about half that, Assistant Police Chief Lashinda Stair said.

A $75 million budget cut in the 2012-13 fiscal year — which represented 18 percent of the total budget — forced the department to shed 380 officers. There have been new graduating classes from the police academy added to the ranks since then, but officials say there hasn't been money to hire enough new cops to replace those leaving.

East side resident Ray Rutyna, 68, said squad cars are scarce in his neighborhood near Seven Mile and Hoover.

"You very rarely see a marked car drive by," he said. "They'll come if something happens, but you don't see them patrolling much. It's too bad, because we need them over here."

Staffing challenges

Police officials say staffing problems are exacerbated by a new contract provision that allows officers to go home sick after four hours with a full day's pay, and without using a sick day. The department's Lieutenants and Sergeants Association union has had the same arrangement for years.

"That's hurting us," Craig said. "You may think you have a precinct staffed, but if a few officers go home sick, you suddenly find yourself running around to replace them."

Diaz said officers often go home because they're exhausted from working double shifts necessitated by the manpower shortage.

"Being as my officers are falling from fatigue, the use of this benefit will not cease until we get more bodies," Diaz said.

About 15 percent of the city's officers are in administrative positions, although plans are under way to move them to patrols. The police department will put 400 more officers on the street in the next year, said Alexis Wiley, chief of staff for the mayor's office.

Plans call for hiring 150 new officers, and using civilians to fill administrative jobs currently assigned to cops, freeing them to patrol. A recently launched program will allow retired officers to serve as Police Assistants to handle some non-patrol jobs, allowing more sworn officers to be redeployed, Wiley said.

Police Commissioner Ricardo Moore, a Detroit cop for 10 years, said at least 550 new officers are immediately needed.

"I thought more was going to be done during the bankruptcy to immediately bolster the police department, but we haven't seen that," he said.

The city's post-bankruptcy plan calls for a $114.2 million increase to the police department's $315 million budget by 2018.

"Something needs to be done now," Moore said. "If you have only one or two marked units working in a precinct, that's a safety issue for the officers as well as the citizens."

The vast majority of people who apply to become Detroit officers are rejected because of criminal records, unpaid tickets and other issues, Stair said. Last year, of the 2,462 who applied, only 131 were hired.

Deployment shuffle

Precinct captains staff each shift with two to seven squad car units, said Deputy Chief David LeValley, who oversees deployment.

"We never start out a shift with one car," LeValley said. "But there are times when units get pulled to other precincts, there might be only one car. It's not an ideal situation."

Deployment decisions are based on recent crime trends, LeValley said.

"We try not to pull cars from higher-crime areas, but that changes every night, or during different times of the day," LeValley said. "We're constantly monitoring data to see which days and shifts need increased staffing."

Special Operations squads and undercover "30 Series" vehicles can be rerouted to patrol during busy times, LeValley said, although he said redeploying specialty units takes them away from their duties.

"The (manpower) numbers are what they are," he said. "But we're figuring out how to best deploy people. We try to be predictive — but we have no way of knowing when people are going to pick up the phone and dial 911."

Craig said crime statistics suggest the creative deployment tactics are working.

As of last week, there were 139 homicides in 2015, up from 128 during the same period last year, but down from 150 in 2013. There have been 475 non-fatal shootings this year, up from 473 last year, compared to 546 during the same period in 2013. There have been sharp reductions in robberies, carjackings, and property crimes since 2013.

"We're not letting our staffing challenges stop us from doing our job, which is taking criminals off the street," Craig said.

A recent spate of multiple shootings at parties presented staffing problems, Craig said.

"When you have officers at several major crime scenes, it doesn't leave many to patrol," he said.

'They're being preyed on'

Detroit's population has dwindled to about 700,000, but police and union officials point out officers still must patrol the city's 143 square miles.

Detroit's violent crime rate of 45 per 100,000 residents, the highest in the United States last year, is about the same as it was during the mid-1970s, when the city was known as the Murder Capital, and the police department had about 4,000 officers to serve 1.5 million residents.

Currently, there are 448 citizens for every officer, as opposed to in the 1970s, when the citizen-to-officer ratio was around 380. But former Detroit Police officer David Malhalab said the ratio of criminals to law-abiding citizens has increased since then.

"A lot of families who had the means moved out to get away from the crumbling schools and high-crime neighborhoods," said Malhalab, a 23-year police veteran. "That left behind a lot of criminals, and the poor residents who couldn't afford to move. They're being preyed on by the criminals."

Rutyna said he'd like to see more officers patrolling.

"When I was a kid, you'd see them two at a time walking the beat on Seven Mile," he said. "But those days are long gone. You've got to be realistic. Just seeing a car come by more often would be a good start."

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