When Randall Coleman became a Detroit police officer 15 years ago, he was required to move from his Allen Park home to the city. The young cop headed to the far west side, where he has since lived among many fellow officers. At the time, the City Charter required all municipal employees to live in Detroit. But last March when state law made it possible for municipal employees across Michigan to live outside the towns in which they work, Coleman says that about 60 for-sale signs went up in his neighborhood. He also put his house on the market — after the police association succeeded in having the residency rule removed from its contract with the city — and plans to move back to the suburbs.
This may sound like the mass exodus that many city officials, including Mayor Dennis Archer, warned of when the state law and union contract went into effect. But according to the Police Department, only about 250 of its 5,000 employees have moved out of Detroit. Whether more will follow — and how it will affect the city — is anybody’s guess.
Last July, the Detroit Police Officer’s Association settled a long-standing labor dispute with the city. One issue, says DPOA President Marty Bandemer, was the city residency requirement, which the union wanted abolished, bringing city regulations into compliance with the new state law. The city fought the change, claiming that thousands of officers would flee, according to Bandemer.
But the state statute could not be ignored, and the union easily won this battle. That’s when the Police Department began receiving employee change-of-address forms, says Chandra Oden, personnel bureau director.
Oden reports that, as of Aug. 11, about 250 staff (including clerks, sworn civilians, supervisors and police officers) notified the department that they had left Detroit. The department is not tracking how many of those leaving are street cops. But with a 5,000-employee department, Oden considers the losses minuscule.
“It demonstrates that 95 percent of the department is settled where they are and remain in the city of Detroit,” she says.
Though Assistant Police Chief Marvin Winkler Jr. says that he expected fewer than 100 employees to move out of the city, he is not concerned by the higher figure. Winkler suspects that some had quietly moved before the residency rule was abolished. And he does not foresee the change having much impact on the city, particularly when it comes to safety.
“The chief lives here, I live here, it’s going to be a safe city,” he says.
But some residents complain that police protection is inadequate, and any officers leaving can only make matters worse.
“I’m a police officer, and when I try to call for an officer to deal with my neighbors, I can’t get the police to my house,” said one cop who is planning to leave the city. “My neighbors come to me when they have problems, they don’t go to the Police Department.”
Those observations explain why some officers may be motivated to leave, but also highlight how a neighborhood could be negatively affected when cops move from a community.
Archer’s press secretary Greg Bowens says that though the number of police employees leaving the city is not that significant, “We are disappointed when we have one person move out of Detroit.”
Bowens contends that city employees will invest more in their jobs if they live in Detroit.
Robert Feld disagrees. A Detroit police officer for 30 years, Feld says that doing away with the residency rule will benefit the city and the police department. Giving employees the option to live elsewhere will increase and improve the pool of applicants seeking jobs in the department, he says.
“Anytime you improve working conditions and give more freedom of movement, you improve the chances of getting quality personnel,” says Feld, who may move out of the city.
Arnetta Grable is a member of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, which opposed doing away with the city residency requirement. She predicts officers will be less connected to the community.
“It’s going to create a police force that is increasingly more hostile and alien to the residents of the city,” says Grable.
Staying and leaving
Some police officers, such as Dave Malhalab — who has been a Detroit cop 23 years — have no intention of moving. But Malhalab thinks officers should have a choice about where they live.
“Everyone should have the right to live in a city where they feel safe and secure and their kids can get a good education,” he says.
Sgt. Danny Marshall has been a Detroit officer more than 16 years and says he does not plan on moving until he retires early from the department — which may be in less than a year.
“Then we will be moving to the Canton-Westland area. The school system is better and I just want a change of environment,” says Marshall.
As for Coleman, he says he is leaving Detroit for many reasons: the city’s poor school system, safety, and wanting a break from round-the-clock police duty.
“There is no time to relax when you’re getting calls from neighbors who need your help,” says Coleman.
The officer, who has two daughters, also wants to ensure they get a good education. If Coleman stayed in the city, he says, he would have to shell out thousands of dollars to send them to a private school. But his chief concern is his family’s safety.
“Even though I’m a cop, I want to know when I call for a police officer that one will be there in time,” says Coleman. “My family is No. 1 and this job is No. 2. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it’s got to be.”Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org