Hillsdale County Sheriff Tim Parker sighs as he looks over a sheet scribbled with shifts for the week –– he just doesn’t have enough officers to fill all of them.
Like many sheriff and police departments across the nation, the Hillsdale County Sheriff Department can’t find enough qualified applicants to fill all of its open positions. This has forced Parker to cut the midnight patrol shift.
The shift reduction began Nov. 4, decreasing police presence between midnight and 6 a.m.
“I’m cutting the midnight patrol due to a loss of certified road patrol deputies,” Parker said.
Two deputies are on leave, serving the military. Two more resigned to take higher-paying positions. A fifth is recovering from a severe crash.
“This brings me to five deputies that need to be replaced,” Parker said. “But I cannot replace the two that are on military orders or the one on medical leave.”
Federal law prohibits replacing deputies away on military and medical leave.
“Finding qualified road patrol staff is challenging in today’s market,” Parker said. “A best-case scenario would be two new hires immediately, which would entail at least three to four months of training.”
The Jonesville Police Department faces similar challenges.
“We’re having the same problems as Hillsdale County,” Jonesville Chief of Police Mike Lance said. “There’s a shortage of police officers right now.”
Lance placed job postings online over eight months ago and has yet to find a qualified applicant.
“This December, we’re going to be cutting back also on midnights,” Lance said.
With both the county sheriff and Jonesville police cutting back on night patrol, the Hillsdale City Police Department will have to take on more responsibility.
“Yes, it will create more work,” Parker said. “Only Hillsdale City Police have a 24/7 protection program. All the other agencies are struggling to keep the officers they have.”
The county sheriff leads all of the other agencies in response to 911 calls in Hillsdale county. Data provided by the county shows from January to September of this year, the county sheriff responded to more than 7,600 calls. State police in the county responded to 6,200 calls. Both Hillsdale and Jonesville city police departments responded to less than 4,000 each.
As the only agency to guarantee service in the early hours of the morning, the Hillsdale City Police expects to respond to more calls.
“The Hillsdale City Police are anticipating an increase in contacts from subjects wishing to speak with an officer,” Hillsdale Chief of Police Scott Hephner said. “This could be by phone or subjects coming to the city to contact an officer.”
The state police are also preparing to assist the Hillsdale City Police in compensating for the reduced county and city night patrol.
“It won’t be additional work for us,” Michigan State Police Jackson Post Commander 1st Lt. Kevin Rod said. “We just need to adjust our schedules to ensure we can put appropriate coverage and increase the levels of officers in the area.”
The impact on citizens is potentially longer wait times, but all four agreed that crime will not increase.
“I do expect that people may need to wait for service calls,” Parker said. “Central dispatch will need to prioritize what will need an officer more than ever.”
Parker said the cuts to midnight patrols are temporary.
“I plan to reinstate patrols as soon as I have staff to fill the vacancies and they are trained,” Parker said.
A consensus among the sheriff and chiefs is that the problem they are facing is a national issue.
Lance recently returned from the International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference in Chicago and said the issue isn’t unique to the area.
“It’s a nationwide problem,” Lance said. “It’s difficult to recruit and hire people to come in and work at this time.”
Two-thirds of 397 U.S. law enforcement agencies reported in a December 2018 U.S. Department of Justice survey that they have seen a decrease in applicants compared to five years ago.
“It’s a national trend to not be receiving qualified people like we used to,” Rod said. “Folks used to grow up wanting to be police officers; now, it’s a challenge trying to keep up with those lost to retirement.”
Lance believes the lure of the job is still there, but the media coverage has an impact.
“There’s a lot of negative parts to this job that have been pretty well-publicized,” Lance said.
Officers currently on the job are working longer hours to keep the area safe.
“The current staff has been working excessive overtime including back to back double shifts,” Parker said.
Lance expressed how much it means to these officers when citizens show support for the men and women in blue.
“A lot of people in Hillsdale thank us, offer to pay for meals, and help in any way they can,” Lance said. “It’s appreciated and the people doing the job love it because they enjoy helping people.”