After sheriff takeover, Pontiac crime drops, hope rises

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Pontiac — Crime is down and optimism is up these days in Pontiac.

Bucking years of escalating numbers, Pontiac has experienced a 37 percent decrease in violent crime since 2011 when the Sheriff’s Office took over law enforcement in Pontiac, according to Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard.

From 6,025 violent crimes reported in 2011, the total has dropped to 3,750 in 2014, a decrease of 2,285 offenses, ranging from homicides to burglaries.

Some violent crime categories have been cut in half or better: homicides, from 16 deaths in 2012 to four last year; assaults, from 2,415 in 2011 to 1,275 in 2014; burglaries, from 1,261 in 2011 to 589 in 2014; and robberies, from 248 in 2011 to 153 last year.

Bouchard credits the hard work and efforts of his deputies, who took over patrols on July 31, 2011; active community leaders and organizations; churches whose influence extends far beyond Sunday services; and most of all, the community, eager to shed itself of those who would destroy it.

“No knock on the previous Pontiac Police Department, but they had serious money and manpower problems,” Bouchard said. “They had maybe 40 officers on the street when we immediately brought in 74 officers. We were able to nearly double the manpower and focus our energy to cut arrest time in half. They had a backlog in emergency calls and an average of 80 minutes response time to a 911 call. Now we are there at six minutes or under.”

The takeover is reaping benefits. Not only are streets and neighborhoods safer than they were four years ago, but the downturn in crime also has been credited with spurring investment in the city, Bouchard said.

He and Mayor Deidre Waterman remarked about lowered crime rates at a recent groundbreaking for the M1 Concourse near Woodward Avenue and South Boulevard. That’s where a vacant 27-acre lot where General Motors cars were built for decades will soon be transformed into a performance track and private auto “condos,” where car collectors will store and work on their prized vehicles.

In a state of the city address last week, Waterman noted $754 million in development plans is finding its way to Pontiac, including a $124 million investment by GM and a federally funded economic recovery plan. There has been a 9 percent rise in property values, and one-third of the city’s 900 blighted homes were bulldozed over the past year.

“Stay tuned for what’s next,” Waterman said.

Pontiac went through three emergency managers, beginning with Fred Leeb, appointed by then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm in March 2009. Leeb lasted a year and was replaced by Michael Stampfler, who served until August 2011.

During his time, Stampfler signed a letter of understanding with the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office to contract services in 2011 and disbanded the police force. Stampfler also quit that year and was replaced by Louis Schimmel, who remained until August 2013.

Pontiac on the move

Residential property assessments increased 9.18 percent in Pontiac from 2014 to 2015, according to the Oakland County Equalization Division.

“Rising property values in Pontiac show the impact of new leadership, blight elimination efforts, a substantial reduction in crime and hundreds of millions of dollars in economic development,” Oakland County Treasurer Andy Meisner said.

“A rebounding property tax base helps the city provide essential services to residents and is a critical component of Pontiac’s comeback.”

Bill Lee, CEO of the long-shuttered Strand Theatre on Saginaw Street, which is slated to reopen in February, said, “Patrols and officers are very visible, both day and night, seven days a week.

“You can sense the comfort when parking, eating at the restaurants and when visitors are checking out downtown with all that is happening. With Slows (Bar-B-Q restaurant) and Strand opening, we both will be attracting people from not just the Metro area, but from all over the entire region.”

Alex Resnik, his wife and 2-year-old son moved into the Seminole neighborhood west of downtown more than a year ago, and “it’s been great” he said.

“We wouldn’t have moved into Pontiac if we felt it was unsafe,” he said.

Ruth Johnson and Stephanie White, both longtime Pontiac residents, were lunching at the Lafayette Market Cafe. They said they feel safe in the city but were glad to hear that crime is dropping even more.

“Now I wish the public school system and the city could get together to do something about our schools,” Johnson said.

Octavia Carson recently graduated from Central Michigan University with a degree in public relations and has enlisted in the Navy. She said while lower crime numbers and investment in Pontiac sound good, she hopes they don’t harm low-income residents.

“I’ve seen some buildings developed and it’s cool — I just hope it doesn’t push people out,” Carson said.

“You have to wonder, are people going off and committing those crimes somewhere else?”

City Councilwoman Mary Pietila is upbeat about the future, but also realistic.

“Yes, streets and neighborhoods are safer, (but) never will we have the streets of Mayberry RFD,” Pietila said. “Family morals have changed tremendously since the ’50s and ’60s. But we know the deputies are out and about, close by with a much faster response time. Although we have many of the same officers as we had in 2010, they have many more resources available to them, making their jobs easier to catch the wrongdoers.”

‘Thank you for your service’

Bouchard retained 50 Pontiac police officers and made them deputies, and brought back 13 other Pontiac officers who had been laid off in a series of budget cuts. The Pontiac department went from nearly 180 officers to about 50 officers between 2008 and 2011. Most retained Pontiac officers remained at the sheriff’s Pontiac substation.

Pietila has often gone on ride-alongs with deputies, sharing their view of the city. Rather than viewing law enforcement as indifferent or the enemy, Pietila said she has seen people smiling at deputies and saying, “Thank you for your service.”

“They assist deputies by filling out incident reports, and are participatory when it comes to eliminating or at least getting a handle on crime in our neighborhood,” she said.

Over the past decade, the cash-strapped city’s Police Department was rocked by budget cuts and layoffs, and at times had only a couple of patrol cars on the streets. It was finally disbanded in favor of contracting with the county sheriff.

At the time, the change was controversial and an emotional move for many within and outside the department. Some residents predicted the move would be too costly and the “brown uniforms” of deputies would never be accepted in Pontiac.

Millions in savings touted

Schimmel, the former emergency manager, said contracting with the sheriff and fire service from Waterford Township has saved the city millions of dollars.

“I’m out of the picture now, but I have not talked to anyone who has anything other than praise for the moves we made with the Sheriff’s Office and Waterford fire,” said Schimmel.

Pastor Douglas Jones of Welcome Missionary Baptist Church said crime is down because of the increased “visibility and presence of police” and “community interaction.”

“People are reporting things they didn’t before because police are responding,” Jones said. “People believe action is being taken, leading to results. And that is good for Pontiac.”

Jones said Pontiac residents are breaking out of a “don’t tell” attitude concerning crime in their neighborhoods.

“People want their community safe for their children, their families and businesses,” he said.


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