Police Chief Replies to Millage Questions

Police Chief Corrigan O'Donohue answers questions about the Nov. 6 public safety ballot measure in Royal Oak.

Questions and comments have been pouring in to Royal Oak Patch since the Royal Oak City Commission unanimously voted in July to start the process to put a referendum on the ballot asking the voters for a public safety millage of 3.975 mills over five years.

To answer readers' questions, Patch talked to Police Chief Corrigan O'Donohue. Here are his answers to frequently asked questions:

If this is being billed as a public safety millage why does a portion of the millage go to hire an additional city attorney?

In addition to bringing the number of sworn police officers to 79 and maintaining minimum fire department on-duty staffing of 14, funds from the millage would restore two code enforcement officers and add an assistant city attorney.

“The city attorney is part of public safety,” said O’Donohue. “There is a tremendous amount of work to follow a criminal case through the court system. If we are citing people, but there is not a city attorney to follow the case through, our efforts have been wasted.”

I have heard we aren't going to be adding those additional police officers in the short term to do normal requirements, so why do we have a millage that reflects that staffing level?

The Patch reader is correct; 13 sworn officers will not all be added immediately to the department due to a lengthy evaluation process, according to O'Donohue. 

To be a member of the Royal Oak Police Department, candidates must go through an evaluation process that includes a written test and a thorough background investigation, including medical and psychological assessments, according to O'Donohue.

There is also a four-month field training process in which candidates learn the position from field training officers, therefore requiring the attention of an officer currently on staff, he said.

"New officers are not as capable as experienced officers," Donohue said. "So even after the training is complete, new officers are mentored by supervisors and a senior officer.  We have to bring people in slowly to ensure the high standards we require are being met."

In the end, it can take up to seven months before a new officer is on the road by his or herself.

Candidates are on probation for the first year, and the chief doesn't assume every individual will make it through the process.

"If we identify problems that indicate a new officers lacks the ability or the judgment to do the job we won’t keep them, which starts the process over again” O'Donohue said. “We put a lot of resources into this process to get people who are willing and capable of doing the job.  This is not a job for everyone.  We demand a lot from our officers and I will only hire and keep people who can deliver.”

Additionally, to attract the very best candidates, the chief said there needs to be some reasonable assurances that a position will not be eliminated.

"A good candidate will not come here if they think they may be laid off," he said. “I have had extremely qualified applicants, with prior experience, who wanted to work in Royal Oak, but opted not leave their current position because of our current financial situation.” 

So, if voters pass the millage on Nov. 6, will Royal Oak instantly see 13 new sworn officers on the streets of Royal Oak? The answer is no, but the process to get to there will begin immediately.

I was hoping the Police Chief and/or Mayor could provide data on how much tax money is collected from the downtown compared to how much is spent on the downtown. I think this would help settle the argument about whether or not the homeowners are being asked to subsidize the downtown.

“I think Mayor (Jim) Ellison answered this question effectively in his State of the City address,” O’Donohue said.

(Read the entirety of Mayor Jim Ellison's State of the City Address.)

Isn't public safety one of the reasons city government exists in the first place? Doesn't the city have an obligation to fund public safety first before any other discretionary program?

"I would argue that public safety is the primary reason for a city government to exist," O'Donohue said. "But a city has many obligations, and currently police and fire alone cost more than the city collects in taxes.”

Residents want sewerage leaving their house and water coming in. They want trash picked up and buildings built to code, O'Donohue said. The police and fire departments fill a very important role, but so do the other city departments.  

Over the years the city has made cuts until there is no room left, he said. O'Donohue has seen his department lose nearly 40 percent of its staff. Ten years ago there were 103 sworn officers; today there are just 66 sworn officers.

While the city makes cuts, the police department continues to do what is expected of it, he said.

"People expect the same work from us," O'Donohue said. "We can't decide we are not going to do something and put residents in jeopardy, but I have to tell you - with current staffing levels - it is unsustainable."

The public safety millage will allow for the Royal Oak Police Department to increase staffing to a sustainable level.  

Exactly what improvements in service will we see? Specifically, will the police chase away all the cruisers around Woodward and Normandy who gather every Friday and Saturday night and loiter in business parking lots, roar up and down Woodward, squeal their brakes and disturb the neighborhoods or will they let this hooliganism continue?

"If the millage passes, we will be right-sized,” the chief said. "And, it will allow us to be proactive rather than reactive."

The chief compared the department's current situation to a circus performer spinning plates on a sticks, running from one spinning plate to another trying to keep everything in motion

"You can't keep that up forever. People get burned out,” O'Donohue said. “With 79 officers, I am confident we'll be able to police Royal Oak the way it should be.”

As for the Dream Cruise, O'Donohue said it's something you either love or hate.

"You have one business encouraging cruisers and its neighbors hating it," he said. "At the moment, Woodward cruisers can't be a high priority for us."

If the millage passes, O'Donohue believes he will have enough personnel to deal with the irksome effects of the car event - such as the loud motors and squealing tires.

How does a dedicated millage remain dedicated?

It's the responsibility of the city to do what it is supposed to do, O'Donohue said.

"This millage has a sunset clause. If after five years, the city hasn’t made good on its promises, voters can decide not to renew it."

I would like to know how much the crime rate has gone up this year versus last. Are there any specific areas where crime has gone up, for example the new LA Fitness or the movie theater?

At the Royal Oak Safe Neighborhood Community Dialogue in June, O'Donohue gave a presentation that showed the overall trend in crime is down over the past decade.

(See the attached video and graphs that O'Donohue used in his presentation.)

"Larceny from vehicle is very common at fitness places," O'Donohue said. "Thieves know people don't want to bring their wallets and purses into the gym."

As for the Emagine Royal Oak, the chief said there is no related increase in crime.

Again, the chief stressed that while crime is trending down (over the last 10 years), Royal Oak has seen slight increases in property crimes, larcenies and burglaries over the last two years. 

The dramatic cuts in staffing levels (down to 66 sworn officers from 103 a decade ago) have had an impact on his staff.

"We want to be proactive, rather than feel like we our constantly chasing our tails," O'Donohue said.

Are certain establishments drawing a disproportionate amount of crime?

"There are two good ways to track crime and the activities of the police department," said O'Donohue. "First, I would encourage residents to sign up for the weekly email updates from the police department.  Also, any citizen can review crime reports taken by the ROPD onCrimemapping.com."

Crimemapping.com also allows users to sign up for the free crime alerts so residents can be informed in real time about crime in their neighborhood.  

Several Royal Oak public safety officials have retired in their early 50s with a full pension due to overly generous programs where employees are able to boost credited service time. Will this millage enable more of the same? And, can employees still purchase service time?

“The millage is to fund additional personnel who are sorely needed,” said O’Donohue.

Changes were made with labor contracts and new employees no longer have the option to boost credited service time or purchase service time.  Officers must work at least 25 years to qualify for a pension.    

Previously, new employees with prior military experience could buy up to three years towards retirement and that’s been done away with, O’Donohue said.

Due to changes in labor contracts, new officers will not get health care after retirement and retiree health care, not so much the pensions, is the big drain on the pension system, said O'Donohue.

The chief also noted police and firefighters do not receive any cost of living increases in their pension and are not eligible to receive Social Security.

With current staffing numbers, it appears a millage won't bring the Royal Oak Police Department up to minimum levels. Is the request for 13 sworn officers enough?

It's true that in 2002 the Royal Oak Police Department had 103 sworn officers and today there are just 66 sworn officers. If the millage is approved, the plan is to add an additional 13 sworn officers for a total of 79, according to O'Donohue.

"I am confident with 79 sworn officers we'll be able to police Royal Oak the way we are supposed to," O'Donohue said.

While the number of sworn officers won't match the staffing levels a decade ago, the chief said the department will be restructured to make it as efficient as possible.

"There is no fluff in the number of officers we are requesting, but it is definitely enough to get the job done," O'Donohue said. "We'll be right-sized."

The chief added the millage has a sunset clause. "If we don't make good on our promises, voters can decide not to renew in five years."

In February, O'Donohue and Royal Oak City Commissioners studied the findings of a report that concluded the city's low crime rate is unsustainable at present staffing levels. The report was done by the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), a nonprofit public safety consultant. The ICMA report recommended adding officers, civilian employees and restructuring the department into two divisions. (A copy of the ICMA report is attached as a PDF to this article.) 

I was told by a previous mayor that 80-90 percent of police live outside of Royal Oak. How many police officers are there, and how many live within Royal Oak?

There are 66 sworn officers and about 20 (or 30 percent) live within the city limits, O'Donohue said. 

Is the millage large enough to keep Royal Oak safe and at or below current crime rates, or is it a compromise between what is needed and your perception of what the voters will support?

"Seventy-nine officers is enough to keep Royal Oak safe," O'Donohue said. "I have no doubt about it."

As for crime rates, there are lot of factors that come into play, the chief said.

"National and statewide trends will affect Royal Oak, but we need to ensure the local police department is adequately staffed to respond to crime in Royal Oak," O'Donouhue said.

In June, about 200 members of the community attended the first Royal Oak Safe Neighborhoods Community Dialogue at Royal Oak Middle School where O'Donohue presented a series of statistics that show show crime is trending down over the past decade.

2001 2011 Robbery 50 9 Assault 956 510 Burglary 321 228 Larceny 1245 887 Stolen cars 190 108

City Manager Replies to Millage Questions

City Manager Don Johnson also replied to reader questions. Cliick here to read Johnson's answers.


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