By JON PRICE
A task force of local law agencies are working together to fight crime and perception in eastern Washtenaw County.
Local law enforcement officials and community leaders gathered for a press conference in Ypsilanti recently to announce the launch of the Eastern Washtenaw Safety Alliance.
State Rep. and former Washtenaw Community College Trustee David Rutledge (D-Ypsilanti) made the opening remarks at the press conference, saying the partnership is something officials in the area have been working towards since late last year.
Rutledge assured the audience that Ypsilanti was a safe area and the collaboration has been designed “to take advantage of the collective resources of three separate police agencies.”
Officials who spoke at the press conference, including Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton, were reluctant to acknowledge the growing number of violent crimes perpetrated in the area in recent years.
“Because of events that have happened in eastern Washtenaw County over the past few years,” Clayton said, “the perception of crime is that there are some challenges we have to work through.”
Clayton said his agency has looked at the data and “the reality of crime in eastern Washtenaw is that it’s not high.”
However, some in the community believe the area has more pressing issues than an image problem or outsiders perception of their community.
Lewis McMullen, 42, is a computer engineering student at Eastern Michigan University and says that, while he feels safe on campus, the city that surrounds the school is not so hospitable.
“I don’t really dally around outside of campus,” the 42-year-old Willis native said. “I used to have a late class and would kind of have to rush to my car, always looking around me at nighttime.”
The alliance is a collaborative effort by the Ypsilanti Police Department, Eastern Michigan Police Department and the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office. The agreement between the agencies would eliminate jurisdictional boundaries and allow each department to access one another’s private data more easily.
According to the sheriff’s department, there will also be a new focus on community policing – a method that puts emphasis on officers familiarizing themselves with the locality and citizens they serve.
“There are two things that we know for sure,” Rutledge said. “No. 1, that police alone cannot make a community safe. No. 2, crime can happen anywhere.”
Though crime could happen anywhere, statistics seem to indicate that in the Washtenaw County area specifically, it is on the rise.
According to the Michigan State Police database, there were a total of 8,667 arrests made in Washtenaw County in 2013, as compared to the 7,328 arrests made in 2012.
The same records show that 22 of these arrests were based on charges of murder or non-negligent manslaughter and 380 were in connection to various other violent crimes, including rape and assault charges.
McMullen emphasized that it’s not Ypsilanti’s image that keeps him looking over his shoulder.
“You get an email when something happens,” he said, “and a lot of times it’s somebody that got robbed. I don’t think it’s a perception thing. It’s actually going on.”
The student recalled the murder of EMU football player Demarius Reed, who was shot in his off-campus, Ypsilanti apartment last October.
“Murdered not even a year ago,” he said. “To me, that’s not a perception. I mean, that’s a dead body on the ground.”
EMU President Susan Martin also spoke at the conference, held at the Ypsilanti office of SPARK, an economic development organization based in Ann Arbor.
“As president, I’ve held safety as a top priority,” Martin said, noting that she is often in direct contact with EMU Police Chief Robert Heighes.
“When I first started here six years ago,” Martin said, “I changed the relationship with the police chief to report directly to the president. They call me 24/7.”
Martin said the university will spend a projected $1.7 million on campus safety this year.
“Those costs are associated with adding 10 new police officers and what they need to be effective,” Martin said, adding that that includes “additional lighting on the perimeter of campus and continuing to add more cameras to the more than 500 we already have on campus.”
These security upgrades to the campus, along with the formation of the EWSA, have some in the community feeling hopeful.
EMU student Joseph Pernicano, 21, said he is impressed by the efforts of local government.
“As a student, the question I receive most is if EMU is safe,” Pernicano said. “Now, not only can I say yes, but I can say the community and the university are working to improve safety on and off campus.
“That’s something I’m very proud of.”