They won't come. Not for a long time, anyway. Unless it's a real emergency. And even then...who knows?
That's essentially what's happened here in our county. While most people are aware of the dramatic police and firefighter layoffs in big cities like Camden, NJ, there is a somewhat different --- and more interesting --- dynamic at work here in our little corner of Michigan.
Like most counties in our state, the territory is divided up into large townships of about 30-35 square miles. Within these, there are pockets of incorporated municipalities which are administratively separate from the surrounding township. Our particular rural township has about 2,400 rural residents, and there are about 2,300 people living in its one incorporated municipality.
Most of the incorporated municipalities, including the one we live just outside of, have a small police force. (They seem to spend much of their time camped out with a radar gun at the municipal line, where the speed limit suddenly drops from 45 to 25.) However, that police force will not respond to crimes on our property; their responsibility ends at the municipal border. We and all other rural residents are under the jurisdiction of the County Sheriff, whose services are paid for by our property taxes.
Last summer, the County announced that they would need to slash the Sheriff's budget by $2.2 million for 2011, and that they would no longer have the resources (i.e. deputies) for routine patrols or response to non-emergency rural calls. If we wanted more police coverage than that, we would need to approve a special millage on the November ballot. The money raised would be used to contract with the county sheriff or a local municipality for police coverage, or to form a new rural police force.
The assessment would've been about $150 per residence and $250 per business. Of course, Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and I voted in favor. We tend to oppose most millage proposals, but police coverage should be a no-brainer. Public safety is one of the few truly essential and appropriate functions that government provides. I simply assumed it would pass, and didn't even bother checking the election results for several weeks.
As it turns out, the millage in fact failed. Miserably. Each of the thirteen townships voted separately, and the measure only (barely) passed in one. It came close (49%) in one other township. Five other townships were in the low forties. None of the remaining seven townships, including ours, could muster a "Yes" vote in excess of 37%.
Interestingly, the one township which passed the millage has chosen not to contract with the County Sheriff for services. They are instead going to hire a local municipality's police force to cover them.
Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and I have been scratching our heads and trying to understand the election outcome. MYF's working theory is it's similar to the "boy who cried wolf" one too many times not getting taken seriously. She reasons that voters have gotten sick of being told the sky would fall down if they didn't approve an additional property tax hike, and finally decided to stop listening. That's a plausible explanation, especially given that our property taxes are supposed to be covering police protection in the first place --- and that, according to some locals we've spoken to, the county commission has proven itself less than trustworthy on some occasions. No doubt, some voters thought the County was playing "chicken" with us, and would blink if we didn't.
The County didn't blink. The first week of January, they in fact cut the Sheriff Department's staff from 223 to 187 employees. That leaves exactly two deputies on duty at any given time to respond to calls in the entire 440 square miles they are responsible for.
What does that mean, exactly? We're starting to find out. Earlier this month, when a student took a loaded handgun into a rural middle school, it took deputies 20 minutes to get there.
Fortunately, our townships are not high crime areas. But many of us are concerned that could now change. If you're a burglar, what better place to ply your trade than one where, even if you're surprised by a homeowner, it takes the cops 20 minutes to show up?
Of course, burglars know that most of us here in the country are fairly well-armed. Few would be stupid enough to break in when a rural resident is at home. Our family is especially fortunate in this regard; because we homeschool, and because I work on the property, someone is nearly always here. We're also on a fairly well-traveled blacktop road that's not far from a municipality, so lots of eyes would be upon someone carting property out of our house. But that's not true of most other rural homes; many sit empty all day, and are on isolated lanes. What better target than a house where it'll take a deputy several days to come out and even file a police report of your burglary? Just imagine how contaminated the crime scene will be by then!
Already, there is talk of putting another police millage on a future ballot; it'll be interesting to see if, as residents experience the reality of life with reduced sheriff coverage, support for a special assessment increases.
In the meantime, what's especially heartening is the grassroots response in some townships. People aren't just sitting back and waiting for the criminals to strike, or for government to act on our behalf. In the true American civic spirit, they're forming voluntary associations to address the problem themselves. Residents of one township, for example, have been extremely aggressive in forming a neighborhood watch. Signs like these:
have popped up all over the rural roads. The churches, including the Catholic church in that township, have been especially active as centers of coordination. Down in the church basement, there's a big stack of these signs that the Knights of Columbus and others have been working to distribute.
It reminds me a lot of something that happened when we lived in Illinois, and someone in our rural county began setting fire to barns on isolated properties. As the size of territory was too large for police to keep an eye on, a group of locals began organizing active patrols of roads with likely targets. I myself started taking a different route into town, just so I could drive past and keep an eye on more isolated structures. Anyway, after just a couple of weeks, one of the local patrols caught the arsonist fleeing the scene of a fire. They held him until the cops could arrive.
I'm sure hoping it doesn't come to that here in Michigan. But we're all ready to step up for our community if it does.