City Council Hears Recommendations to Repair 'Brokenness' in SPD, Former Employees Say Review 'Superficial'

 12/18/2015 - 02:10
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Jon Hess spoke to Saline City Council Thursday about his review of the Saline Police Department.

Though staffed by employees who valued their jobs and their community, the Saline Police Department suffers from “brokenness.” That’s one of the findings of a report by a consultant who reviewed operations and offered a series of recommendations for repairing the department.

Jon Hess, who was Kent County Undersheriff before retiring after 36 years with the department, gave his report to Saline City Council Thursday. Council seemed eager to move on many of Hess’s recommendations. Several former employees of the department said they were disappointed that nobody seemed to be addressing the issue of why the department was “broken” in the first place.

Hess was paid $5,000 for the revoew. While focusing on the problems faced by the department, he stressed it was an impressive organization staffed by employees who demonstrated a high degree of professionalism and dedication.

“I hope Saline takes this report and spends time talking to people about it, and immerses themselves in the issues to fix some of these things people feel. If you can do it, it’s important,” Hess said. “Some people are sick and tired and don’t want to come to work and deal with it anymore. It’s something I heard loud and clear. There is no individual to blame, though there’s a lot of finger pointing going on.”

Hess said the majority of people he interviewed, in and out of the department, felt positive about the department. He said if the city works on the issues he outlined and considers his recommendations, morale will improve.

Hess interviewed past and present members of the department. He also interviewed other city officials and people in the community. He offered confidentiality to those with whom he spoke.

The department has been plagued by controversy in the last two years. Former Detective Don Lupi sued the city and then dropped his lawsuit. Former Sgt. Chris Boulter took the city to the Michigan Employment Relations Committee to regain his stripes. At a public meeting on outsourcing Saline’s dispatch desk, officers showed hostility toward Police Chief Larry Hrinik.  Several employees have expressed dissatisfaction with the state of things in the department when leaving in the last few years.

Hess offered a series of recommendations:

  • Improving policies and procedures. Making sure officers are trained in policies and procedures. Keeping policies and procedures up to date.
  • Consider the consolidation/outsourcing of the dispatch desk.
  • Consider eliminating the department’s jail/lockup.
  • Regular audits on the department, evidence and equipment.
  • Focus on better communications. More meetings and face-to-face dealings.
  • If the city maintains four sergeants, delegate some middle management duties to the sergeant positions. Considering making one of the sergeants a “community police officer” who has a prominent role as “face of the department.” Rotate officers into specialized positions, like detective.

A couple of the recommendations didn’t get much support from council. Both Mayor Brian Marl and Councilor-Elect Jack Ceo, the former deputy chief, expressed a level of resistance to the idea of outsourcing the police dispatch desk. That issue has been visited twice and met with strong public resistance. The issue of eliminating local lockup to save on training and liability costs was also not favored by Ceo, who said he’d rather have local lockup so officers don’t spend too much time driving people to the county jail.

One recommendation council supported was redrafting policies and procedures and ensuring officers were well trained to follow them. Chief Hrinik discussed using a consultant firm called Lexipol for the work.

Coincidentally, Hess announced that he worked for Lexipol.

Council also appeared in support of having Hess check back with the department to see if things are improving. But council was split on when another review should happen. Council is also expecting progress reports from the police chief every three months.

Councilor Linda TerHaar asked Hess if he was able to conduct interviews without interference. Hess replied that he was.

“One of the things I take from the report is that you’ve identified brokenness in the department. The focus should now be on fixing the brokenness, not on finger-pointing,” TerHaar said.

Councilor Dean Girbach noted that there are several outstanding personnel matters that could present challenges to a department on the mend.

“Do you feel the individuals in the department can move forward with some concerns about leadership and some trust issues in the department? Can they move forward with unresolved issues hanging over us?” Girbach asked Hess.

Hess said it was difficult to answer while maintaining confidentiality, but allowed that the majority of employees feel confident in the department.

“Overall, the confidence level is more to the plus side. If you use this report and the recommendations as an opportunity to improve things, the plus side will grow,” Hess said.

Girbach also asked if council needed to strike a citizens’ advisory committee to oversee the department. Hess said those committees are usually used to deal with force complaints or discipline matters. He said if council sets benchmarks and guidelines than council should be able to monitor progress in the department.

Marl said he was intrigued by the recommendation of a new “community police officer” position and asked Hess for examples of communities where that position has been beneficial.

The review and the resulting discussion disappointed two former SPD dispatchers. Jean Bondie and John Heller both spoke during public comment.

Bondie said she was sorry she didn’t have the chance to speak with Hess. In her view, the focus on policy and procedures is a distraction.

“Policy and procedure aren’t what’s broken here. We’ve continually updated it. That’s an easy fix,” Bondie said. “Everyone who worked for and currently works for the Saline Police Department loves the SPD and loves Saline. What’s broken lies in the mass exodus of dedicated people from the Saline Police Department in the last two years. I don’t see how that being addressed or looked at in a really in depth way.”

Bondie said the report felt superficial because it didn’t speak about the cause of the “brokenness.”

She also spoke out against the idea of outsourcing the dispatch desk.

Heller, also a lifelong Saline resident and former dispatcher, echoed Bondie’s comments.

“This doesn’t address the problem. This was all brought about by Lupi’s lawsuit and Boulter’s issue. That’s not being talked about. Lupi’s lawsuit disappeared and nobody knows why. Nobody is talking about why Boulter’s case was being appealed,” Heller said. “To me, this was a whitewash. (Hess) was brought in to cover this up.”

Larry Wiedmeyer also expressed displeasure. He’s been with the department for 44 years, serving as sergeant of the reserves. He said he was upset to learn two years ago that he and the reserves were considered volunteers instead of employees of the city.

He also said he was disappointed that he was not notified of Thursday’s meeting.

Marl said he was unaware of the reserves’ status change. He took issue with the idea that council wasn’t addressing the serious issues.

“I don’t think updating policies and procedures is insignificant. I don’t think improving communication is insignificant. I don’t think quarter reports from the chief are insignificant. We take morale issues seriously and brokenness of the Saline Police Department very seriously,” Marl said.

 

Tran Longmoore
Tran Longmoore founded The Saline Post on Aug. 15, 2012. Follow him on Twitter at @tranlongmoore. Follow The Saline Post @thesalinepost. Follow The Saline Post on Facebook by clicking here.