Ken Eppenbrock is a law-abiding man. In fact, he’s a Detroit cop. But he’s so frustrated with changes in the city’s illegal-dumping ordinance that he wishes someone would dump a load of used tires in front of City Hall.
He wants officials to see how little recourse police now have when citizens illegally dump.
“You can only write them a ticket and they can drive away,” says Eppenbrock.
Under the old law, Eppenbrock — and the 30 or so other environmental officers who target polluters — saw violators jailed for up to 90 days and have their vehicles impounded until they paid fines and cleaned contaminated sites. Offenders also had to clean another dump site of the officer’s choosing.
“It really worked,” says Eppenbrock.
The City Council, at Mayor Kilpatrick’s request, voted in September to decriminalize illegal dumping, making it a civil infraction. The action was necessary because the criminal courts were inundated with these cases, causing a backlog, says Jamaine Dickens, Kilpatrick’s press secretary.
“A person issued a violation almost never gets the case heard,” says Dickens.
Nonsense, says the judge. “It’s simply not true that there’s a backlog,” says Judge David Robinson, who presides over environmental cases at 36th District Court.
J. Otis Davis, the court’s administrator, agrees. “We have kept pretty well up to date on those environmental cases,” says Otis.
The enviro-cops have gotten creative. They now issue illegal-dumping tickets under the state law, which still considers such dumping a criminal infraction.
Robinson says that many pending cases had to be dismissed — and much potential city income was lost — when dumping and other environmental violations were decriminalized. In fact, many officers learned about the new law when tickets they’d issued were tossed out of court.
“That’s how I found out,” says Randall Coleman, an environmental officer in the 6th Precinct who says it was “crazy” for the city to implement the law without providing tools to enforce it: Although officers were promised civil-violation tickets by Jan. 1, they still don’t have them.
“We were not able to make a smooth transition in getting the tickets in time,” says Sarah Lile, Detroit’s Environmental Affairs director. “But we will get them shortly.”
Lile and a task force have wanted the illegal-dumping law changed for years. She contends that jail time is no deterrent, and says that the two best ways to prevent illegal dumping are to raise fines and impound cars. Though the new ordinance raises fines from $500 per violation to up to $10,000 for repeat offenses, seizing vehicles is not part of the new law. So, if Lile believes that impounding vehicles is so effective, why was the practice halted?
She claims a “clerical error” omitted the impound provision from the final draft.
Lile says that officers can impound vehicles under state law. But officers say that is only after the polluter has been cited for a second offense. Eppenbrock and other officers say they have never caught the same dumper twice, which they see as an indication that the old law worked.
Detroit City Councilwoman Kay Everett regrets voting to decriminalize illegal dumping.
“I’ll be honest with you,” says Everett. “I slipped up on this one.”
Jerry Ashford, a former city attorney, fought the new law. In a February 2000 memo to Guy Hoadley, former supervising assistant attorney of the Environmental Section, Ashford wrote: “The possibility of jail time is what motivates these offenders to appear in court, to pay the fines and to clean up the dump sites. A fine alone is not enough.”
Ashford would not comment on the memo. Hoadley, no longer with the law department, could not be reached for comment.
Everett wants the former law reinstated. She says steeper fines won’t work.
“It’s not about collecting money,” says Everett. “Our objective is to keep the city clean.”
Eppenbrock and his partner, Gary Loftis, stand on Detroit’s southwest side in a lot littered with abandoned motorboats, tires, gas tanks, roofing shingles and other refuse. The officers say it is one of about 15 illegal dumps in the 4th Precinct.
“It’s a lot cleaner than it used to be,” says Loftis.
But when word about decriminalization gets out, Loftis and Eppenbrock suspect that this site — and hundreds like it — will get worse.
It’s not easy to catch dumpers because there are so many sites to monitor, says Loftis, who issues about 50 citations annually.
In the mid-’90s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave Detroit $600,000 to study the problem and create the Detroit Environmental Enforcement Project, which enabled police to train and deploy officers in two precincts to go after illegal dumpers; eventually environmental officers were deployed in each precinct.
Officers found that the laws on the books were not enforced, says Eppenbrock. That’s when they began locking up polluters and impounding vehicles. He says that the threat of jail time scared citizens, and that they couldn’t afford to be without vehicles, so they paid the fines and cleaned up.
Lile says that the EPA study showed that under the old law, 50 percent of the violators never paid fines or cleaned sites. (Lile would not provide a copy of the study.)
But what incentive is there for dumpers to pay fines if they are not threatened with jail time or loss of vehicles? Lile says that now if polluters refuse to pay the increased fines, the city can sue them. Yet civil litigation is rarely speedy. And will the city collect a $10,000 fine from a dumper if it can’t collect property taxes from residents? Can a cash-strapped city afford costly litigation? Lile says that this won’t be a problem, but offered no specifics.
When police officers and others complained to Everett about the new law, she contacted the mayor and other officials to see if it could be altered. She plans to meet with the mayor about the new law this month.Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org