Independent Police Study Provides Saugatuck Officials Options For Future Coverage
A police service’s study by an independent consulting firm that Saugatuck city officials commissioned identified several deficiencies in the current arrangement between Saugatuck and the City of the Village of Douglas which oversees the local police department’s operations.
Saugatuck has long contracted with Douglas for its police services and splits half the costs to operate the Saugatuck-Douglas Police Department.
The newly released independent consultant’s report yielded six different options for Saugatuck officials to mull over as they explore alternative ways to provide police services to their residents.
“The good news is there is not a lot of crime here,” Alexander Weiss, Ph.D., president of his namesake consulting company, told the Saugatuck City Council during a special meeting held Monday night relative to his report, conducted with the input of a 12-member citizen focus group.
The report shows the Saugatuck-Douglas Police Department (SDPD) had few reported offenses and arrests for the 2015 year, (i.e. no homicides, no robberies, no arsons, one sexual assault, two motor vehicle thefts, and so on.)
In 2016, the department responded to 550 calls for service in Saugatuck, meaning fewer than two calls per day, with a peak at 2 a.m. (when the downtown bars close), according to the report.
In Douglas, local police responded to 511 calls, slightly less than Saugatuck.
“My reading of the contract with Douglas (Douglas administers the department and to whom the police chief responds to) is that what is supposed to work as a partnership, works much more as an agreement,” said Weiss.
“Community members in Saugatuck appear frustrated with the current arrangement with Douglas, and the situation appears to be worsening,” the study noted.
Some of the issues, according to the study, include officers spending time on low-priority issues, a lack of Saugatuck identity, and little to no connection between police and community.
These complaints, as well as a wish to reduce costs (the current contract with Douglas takes up about a third of Saugatuck’s annual budget of more than $500,000 per/year) prompted Saugatuck leaders to study alternative police service models.
The local police department currently employs seven officers and an interim chief of police, with two officers 24 hours per day, 7 days per week.
Also addressed in the report was the long-time complaint by Douglas and Saugatuck officials and some of their constituents that Saugatuck Township and Laketown Township, in particular, are acting as “freeloaders” when the Saugatuck-Douglas Police Department responds to calls in their jurisdiction, which is outside the designated agency patrol area, although neither pays for those services.
The Weiss report affirmed this point, finding that Saugatuck-Douglas police officers responded to calls outside Saugatuck or Douglas 19% of the time in 2016 (meaning 243 times, with 148 in Saugatuck Township alone).
“This is an extraordinary fraction of calls outside of the jurisdiction when typically it occurs two or three percent, not 19 percent (in similar outside jurisdictions),” said Weiss.
Under a mutual aid agreement with the Allegan County Sheriff’s Department, the Saugatuck-Douglas Police Department responds to calls in the townships and elsewhere when there is a potential loss of life or property.
This local coverage occurs even though county sheriff’s department and the Michigan State Police provide Saugatuck Township with service, with many arguing, however, that that service is quite limited.
Saugatuck Township officials have long bragged about their low tax rate for township residents which is aided by their not paying for local police services, but have repeatedly rebuffed requests from Douglas and Saugatuck leaders to chip in and pay their fair share since they receive the benefit of the local police services.
Among the alternatives Weiss provides Saugatuck includes forming a stand-alone police department separate from Douglas, which, in fact, was the case prior to 1998 when Saugatuck entered into an agreement with Douglas to form the Saugatuck-Douglas Police Department.
“The biggest issue of creating your own police department is, quite frankly, the cost,” Weiss told council, explaining that the advantage was “more control” over the officers and more personalized services, but it would come at a hefty price tag.
Building on the Saugatuck Township District Fire Department infrastructure—which is supported by a millage by all three members of the Tri-Community (Saugatuck, Douglas and Saugatuck Township)—Weiss said Saugatuck would be a good candidate for the creation of a public safety department.
This is an increasingly popular option—and relatively common in the state of Michigan—for reducing costs by consolidating police and fire services and cross-training personnel, Weiss pointed out.
“For example, rather than send a police officer and a fire engine to an EMS (emergency medical services) call it might be adequate to simply dispatch a cross-trained public safety officer,” the report indicates.
Other options for Saugatuck include contracting with the Allegan County Sheriff’s Department for additional and better services; negotiating a new contract with Douglas that gives Saugatuck more control; forming a regional police department or a hybrid staffing model.
Saugatuck officials say they will be studying the report and discussing future options.