New sheriff confronts 'critical staffing shortages' in Wayne County's jails

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — When Raphael Washington was named to replace late Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon in January, he inherited what the corrections officer’s union says are “critical staffing shortages” in the county’s three jails.

The Sheriff's Office has 476 full-time and 33 part-time officers, but it also has about 200 unfilled corrections positions, an issue Washington, Napoleon's former chief deputy, says isn’t new and has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic that is in its 14th month in Michigan.

Washington and other managers are concerned about burnout, and the union says morale is poor because of perceived limited opportunities for advancement and a mandatory overtime policy they say is unreasonable.

In fiscal year 2020, the department's $152 million budget included $9.6 million for overtime. The department actually spent $22.6 million, $13 million more than planned, and this year it has already spent $5.3 million of its $9.5 million overtime budget, and the fiscal year doesn't end until Sept. 30.

The department hired 27 new officers last year but had 98 departures.

Wayne County Sheriff Raphael Washington in his office in Detroit on Tuesday, April 13, 2021.

An overtime report submitted in mid-March showed one-third of sheriff's office employees have tested positive for COVID-19 at one point.

Napoleon himself died from COVID-19 on Dec. 17, 2020, after spending weeks in the hospital, and other staff members have also succumbed to the virus.

December:Wayne Co. Sheriff Napoleon dies after contracting COVID-19

When replacements are needed beyond those who volunteer for overtime, on-duty staff are forced into mandatory overtime. Depending on how great the need is, staff can also be called in to work on their day off.

Reginald Crawford, head of the Wayne County Deputy Sheriff's Association, the union representing Corrections officers and deputies, called the mandatory overtime situation at the jails a "labor plantation."

"Tonight, if I go to work, and I refuse an order (for mandatory overtime), that's considered insubordination, insolence they call it, and they'd send me home," Crawford said, adding staff is on unpaid suspension until a disciplinary hearing is held.

The union has filed a grievance over the matter, and the issue is in arbitration, he said.

"That wasn't in the contract, and that's why we're in arbitration," Crawford said. "I understand there are critical staffing shortages, but there has to be another way."

"It's at the very top of my list," Washington said about the staff shortage. "It's important that we have the adequate staffing in our agency so that we don't have to continuously force people to work overtime and run up our overtime budget.

"This is not a new situation, but it's one I'm taking on as a priority."

Wayne County Sheriff Raphael Washington (left) and Regina Parks, director of Community Outreach, Wayne County Sheriff's Department,  load free blankets into a car in Detroit on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2021 as 1,000 blankets were donated by Hearts of Humanity Michigan, a group that helps individuals combat the cold.

The recruiting pitch: Start young, earn money

Crawford said there’s a perception of limited opportunities for advancement compared to other agencies, as well as low pay.

Starting pay in Wayne County is about $36,000, not including overtime. In Oakland County, starting base pay is about $40,000, and in Macomb County, about $44,000.

"We can't attract the kind of officers we need at that low pay scale," said Cpl. Allen Cox, second-in-command at the union. "We're not competitive with anyone. We're the employer of last resort."

Washington sees things differently. While new hires start in a jail, he said those who get their law enforcement certification can advance to work as a deputy in a courthouse or in the vice or marine units, among other opportunities.

A recruiting push in the planning stage for later this year will include a campaign via social and traditional media, Washington said. It will also include traditional, face-to-face recruiting events, especially in the spring and summer. The target of these efforts will be young people, especially recent high school graduates, or people deciding their next move before going back to school.

June figures big in the upcoming recruitment push, Washington said. That's when high school students graduate. 

"We have to grab them, because if you're coming out of high school with nothing to do, that pathway is going to be right here to our jails," Washington said. "The idle mind is the devil's workshop, so we have to give our young people something to do."

Washington said he knows some young hires won't stay. But new hires would help the staffing crunch right now, he said. 

"Realistically, as an 18-, 19-, 20-year-old, you can make $50,000 or $60,000," including overtime, Washington said. "Everybody's not going to go to college right away. Some people go to junior college and have to work. We have to try to make it make sense to young people."

Washington worries that if hires aren't made soon, the burnout will cause experienced, retirement-eligible veterans to leave.

"We have a lot of people in our agency who have 30 years on the job and they're a little burnt-out right now," Washington said. "They tell me 'I love law enforcement, and this is all I ever wanted to do, but I'm tired.'"

Cox and Crawford of the union argue it's not appropriate to hold out money the financial aspect as a lure.

Corrections work can be dangerous. In 2020, Cpl. Bryant Searcy, an 18-year veteran of the department, was killed. An inmate, Deandre Williams, 28, has been charged in connection with his death. 

Crawford argued the chances of a mistake are higher when people are on mandatory overtime.

"When you work somebody 16 hours a day, consecutively, for weeks, they make mistakes. Exhaustion sets in," Crawford said.

Washington is upfront about the dangers.

"I can't tell you, coming into law enforcement, that you won't be hurt or something bad might not happen. That's the nature of law enforcement," Washington said. "But if you do what you've been taught and trained to do, you give yourself a better chance of not being hurt."

Irma Clark-Coleman, chair of the Wayne County Commission's Public Safety and Judiciary Committee, said she hopes Washington has success in recruiting, but notes that "he doesn't control many of the variables," including the pay scale. 

The county has not yet announced how it will use its $339 million in federal stimulus money, but Clark-Coleman said she hopes some of the money will be used to hire more deputies.

Next year, the Wayne County Jail will move from three facilities — two in downtown Detroit, one in Hamtramck — to a single jail off East Warren and Interstate 75.

"When we move into the new facility, we may not need as many new people," Washington said. 

Construction is scheduled to finish by the summer of 2022. 

Wayne County Sheriff Raphael Washington in his office in Detroit on Tuesday, April 13, 2021.

Competition, low pay hamper recruiting

Mandatory overtime is a common problem in corrections settings, including the Michigan Department of Corrections and at the Oakland County Jail. 

"That can create a burnout factor pretty quick," Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard told The Detroit News.

There was a night last week at the Oakland County Jail when seven shifts on the midnight shift had to be filled via mandatory overtime, Bouchard said.

The Oakland County Jail has job 50 openings for jail staff, while Macomb County has nearly 20.

All are in competition for the kinds of men and women seeking a career in the corrections field, or who see corrections as their entry opportunity to law enforcement certification someday. All lose candidates to one another, as well as to the Detroit Police Department and Michigan State Police.

High standards pose another difficulty in the hiring process, Bouchard said.

Not everyone who applies will survive the vetting. Having fewer applicants to sift through makes it tougher to fill any one job. Bouchard said the sheriff's office used to get 600 applicants for one job. That's down to about 40 per job now.

"The way you get better police outcomes is better hiring and better training," Bouchard said. "Wean out those who shouldn't be in the profession, and relentlessly train those who make the bar. God forbid, if we have to lower our standards to fill our ranks, that's not a good thing for anybody."

But the candidate who has the right stuff and is the right fit is often recruited by multiple agencies.

Bouchard said the sheriff's office recently lost out on a prospective hire because the competition offered pensions and Oakland County does not. Wayne County offers new hires a combination of a defined benefit/defined contribution retirement plan.

A negative perception of police also thins the applicant pool, said Matthew Saxton, executive director of the Michigan Sheriff's Association, formerly sheriff of Calhoun County.

"Law enforcement has not been portrayed in a positive light over the past year and, sometimes, rightly so," Saxton said. "Unfortunately, we do hire from the human race. Unfortunately, officers are going to make mistakes."

Wayne County Sheriff Raphael Washington (right) loads free blankets into a car in Detroit on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2021 that were donated by Hearts of Humanity.

'It's like campaigning'

Washington is one of 29 new sheriffs in Michigan's 83 counties this year, said Saxton.

Washington will be up for reelection in November 2022 to fill the remainder of the term Napoleon won in 2020 that expires in December 2024.

In December 2010, Macomb County Sheriff Anthony Wickersham was appointed in a fashion similar to Washington, to fill the shoes of a popular, departed sheriff. In his case, then-sheriff Mark Hackel left to serve as the county's first executive.

"As chief of staff, I had it good," Wickersham said. "I knew what I had to do and I knew what the sheriff wanted."

Being sheriff was very different, he said, and it meant wearing the hat of a police officer and politician at the same time.

"It's like campaigning," Wickersham said.

Washington said he feels he's not so much filling Napoleon's shoes as he is "carrying them with me."

He worked most of his career under Napoleon, first in Detroit Police Department.

Washington feels his time with Napoleon prepared him for his new role.

"If you had the chance to ask him if he believes in the person who succeeded him, I think the answer would be yes," Washington said.