Pittsfield Township Department of Public Safety sees big changes
Art Aisner | For AnnArbor.com
The Pittsfield Township Department of Public Safety is seeing some major changes.
From an internal reorganization to improving officer and firefighter equipment, department leaders say they've focused on changing the philosophy of providing services while improving community interaction over the past six months.
“We’re looking to change the direction of the organization and look at it from the community’s perspective so that they get what they want out of having a public safety department,” said Matt Harshberger, who became department director last May.
Harshberger highlighted the changes and his vision for future improvements during a presentation at Wednesday night's township board meeting.
Harshberger said the department is in the initial phase of his long-term strategy to reshape it over the next three to five years. The goal is a more pro-active and community-oriented agency.
The first step was to address the department’s presence in the community. That included increasing officers' visibility throughout the 28-square mile township, quicker response times and more community interaction - which were sorely lacking, said Harshberger, a township resident for 13 years.
That required a shift in officer assignments. Pittsfield Township pulled its lone investigator out of the county’s major crimes task force, freeing up another officer to form a community patrol unit.
The new CPU team works flexible hours and responds to issues throughout the community.
Through early retirements, Harshberger also cut two lieutenant positions and added sergeants to support more road patrols. An overhaul of patrol-shift hours is also under consideration.
And officers have more tools at their disposal. Roughly $20,000 was spent from millage and grant funds to improve body armor, and the department added two vehicles, including a 4 by 4 for all-weather purposes. Standardized Remington shotguns and Colt AR-15 assault rifles are now in every patrol car.
By 2011, mobile computers and digital video systems will be standard in every vehicle through a $128,000 investment. The township board recently approved $16,875 for portable citation printers.
Turning the vehicles into “mini-offices” will help save officers' time amid increasing demands, said Deputy Director Gordy Schick.
Although the police department received 3,238 fewer calls for service between 2008 and 2009, the number of arrests and traffic citations issued climbed by 13 percent and 14 percent respectively, data shows.
Communication is key
Harshberger said the equipment improvements were necessary to bring the department on-par with other law enforcement agencies. But he believes the officers will benefit more from new methods of interacting with citizens.
The benefits of the community patrol unit, operational since last fall, are already evident, said June Kretzschmer, manager of the Spicetree Apartments along Washtenaw Avenue.
“I can’t say enough about them. The department has really stepped their game up and is really focused on what the community needs,” said Kretzschmer, who has managed the 551-unit complex for 20 years.
She said she's called on the unit several times to remove people trespassing in the Internet cafÃ©, settle disputes and even break down communication barriers as interpreters for Spanish and Chinese-speaking residents.
In a way, they act as a neighborhood watch for the complex.
“We don’t have anything like that here, and no matter how big or small the problem is, they’re there and are finding ways to solve problems,” she said.
The praise is not lost on the officers, who say they back the initiatives strongly.
“We’re doing a lot more pro-active contacts, and we’re just in a much better place now to help residents,” said Matthew Hornbeck, a nine-year veteran now assigned to the CPU.
The department also recently joined the Nixle community alert system, allowing officials to deliver important emergency information to subscribers by e-mail and text. Roughly 300 residents have registered since late last year.
Other communication improvements include a daily 24-hour incident log for the public. Harshberger said crime mapping and opportunities for citizen feedback on the township’s website aren't far off.
The department also made changes in fire services, including hiring three full-time firefighters and purchasing a new truck. The department now has 24 full-time firefighters and 10 paid on-call personnel.
But response protocols also were shifted, enabling just one unit to respond to calls when appropriate and reducing overtime costs by providing more “on-duty” training.
A ticking clock
As Harshberger sees it, the clock is running.Â
Although he was able to usher in the expensive equipment improvements by shifting expenditures in the budget, the township administration asked Harshberger to cut 10 percent from his budget this year.
And more could be slated for next year, given the state’s current economy.
Harshberger dealt with his share of budget cuts as Ypsilanti's police chief, but Pittsfield’s department depends solely on approval of a public safety millage, which expires in 2012.
The township has historically had strong support for its police and fire operations, and each of the recent expenditures had unanimous approval from the township board. But success at the ballot box is never a given, especially in tough economic times, officials said.
It’s too early to talk campaign strategies, but Harshberger said he believes implementing the changes now and making the strongest possible impact will help down the road.
“The renewal will be critical because our service levels hinge on it,” he said. “I think that when the community sees the service we can provide, it will be possible to get a renewal. But we have a ways to go.”