The Westside Marauders and Crime in Ann Arbor

This post has been edited and augmented; the original version was published September 9, 2009 and this edited version is published September 11, 2009.

It had to happen – our nice little safe neighborhood finally became the target for crime.  I live in the Sunset-Brooks area and for years have examined the Ann Arbor Observer monthly crime map with more than a little touch of smugness, since our section of the map was always so nice and clean.

But a couple of weeks ago the phone calls started to let us know that people were experiencing break-ins.  Someone is invading houses during the day, usually when they think no one is home.  According to the police memo, this has been going on since May.  Bad enough.  Lock your doors.  But apparently the efforts are becoming more strenuous.  I heard today that last weekend the thieves used an axe to break down a door.  This conjures up some pretty scary pictures.

As I have announced at the top of this post, we are meeting with the police on September 10 to learn what we can.  But this brings up a broader question, one that I have seen discussed in email listserve groups for some months: how are the city budget cuts and reduction in force of our police affecting our safety?

Informal figures overheard at council meetings indicate that between 25-27 officers accepted early retirement packages from the city as part of the budget cuts.  That is a reduction in force of approximately 20% (the force was about 138 officers).  Will this mean we are more vulnerable to crime?  Our mayor says we shouldn’t worry.

Here is his response to a constituent (widely published on a listserv; typos are as delivered):

I discussed your neighborhood this morning with the Police Chief and City Administrator. We went over the most recent crime numbers up to last Saturday and at this time there is no noticable up-tick in the statistacal data. However, our goal will be to insure that it does not get that far.  Perhaps it seems unusual in the way that many of us think about Police Chiefs but our Chief still goes out on patrol himself and often rides along with patrol officers. He was recently in your neighborhood with one of the patrol officers who grew up there.

The Chief will be scheduling a meeting for early September so the PD can communicate directly with you and your neighbors.

In the meantime it would be helpful if you could be as specific as possible in communications with the PD. Calling 911 when you see something suspicous would really help. Someone trying to gain entry to a house they do not own is something that should be reported immediatly.  Observing someone using drugs on the street, in a park, etc., would also qualify as a reason to call with specific information.

The number of officers on Patrol in our City is the same as it has been for several years and they will be paying special attention to your area. As I explained to someone else who wrote earlier today, crime statistics continue on a long term downward trend in our city but that does not mean certain areas don’t need special attention from time to time. The AAPD will do their best to keep your neighborhood safe.

John Hieftje

Somehow the reassurances about “no uptick in statistical data” are not very satisfying.  Do we have enough police officers to investigate and mitigate a crime wave in our little neighborhood?  I’m looking forward to hearing what the officer has to tell us tomorrow.  But I wish we would stop reducing our force at a time when the economy is down.  I’d like to go back to our nice little crime-free zone as soon as possible.

UPDATE: A neighborhood meeting was held on September 10 at the Free Methodist Church on Newport.  The sanctuary was overflowing (we counted over 100 people attending).  Sergeant  Matthew Lige spoke in general terms about how investigations are conducted.  He advised homeowners who detect entry to call 911 immediately (or perhaps Detective Michael Lencioni, who has been assigned to the case) and avoid handling items in the house (including a door or window that might have been used to gain entry, or places where there might be footprints).  He stressed the importance of keeping evidence intact (but joked that they rarely get “CSI moments” where a single piece of evidence solves the case).  In describing cases of burglary in our neighborhood* since May, a very common pattern emerged and a single suspect seems to be involved in at least many of them. (*roughly the area circumscribed by  Spring, Miller, Newport and Sunset)  Several members of the audience related their own experience with this man.  He is a young (18-25) African-American, thin, light-skinned, with a little bit of chin hair and sometimes wearing a gold cross.  He typically rings doorbells, and if the door is answered, engages in conversation in which he asks for help in  looking for a relative, sometimes named “Veronica”.  (A couple of people have described trying very hard to help, even getting out the phone book.)  One woman said that he was nicely dressed and spoke well, “very Ann Arbor”.  He carries a bag or backpack, and although this was not said explicitly, seems to be on foot.  Evidently if no one is home, he goes to the back of the house and enters either by cutting screens, breaking windows, climbing to the second story window, or in one case, using the homeowner’s own hatchet to break down a door.  Jewelry, electronics, and other easy portable items are taken.  At least 19 of these break-ins have been reported.  (Annarbor.com’s story says 20.)

The sergeant asked people to watch the neighborhood and to call if  “anyone suspicious” was seen.  But he cautioned that the police can not take a person into custody just for looking suspicious.  When asked about increased police patrols for the area, the sergeant shuffled his feet and said that “we are working as diligently as we can though we don’t have the numbers we had”.

About those numbers: in the last budget, police officers were offered an early retirement option.  The city budgeted $6.7 million to pay for it.  It was anticipated that about 12 sworn officers would take the offer.  As a result of a flood of early retirements, at least double that number have left.  (No official count has been released, to my knowledge.)  I’ll note that my experience with the county sworn officers is that they are often young enough when they retire to take another similar job with another law enforcement agency.

SECOND UPDATE: Thanks to the FBI data picked up by A2Politico and then by AnnArbor.com, a full article on crime in Ann Arbor now reveals that we have had increased crime citywide as well as in our northwest neighborhood.  A meeting with the police chief and the mayor is scheduled at Miller Manor The Community Center at 625 N. Main St. on Saturday, September 19, 9 a.m.

Explore posts in the same categories: Neighborhoods, Uncategorized

11 Comments on “The Westside Marauders and Crime in Ann Arbor”

  1. Lou Glorie Says:

    I do so wish that Mr. Hieftje would stop with the perpetual PR machine. We’re adults. Our world is not perfect and it does not have to be. Wrapping ourselves in the magic cloak of “annarborness” won’t change the reality that the people of this country have just recently been dispossessed of trillions of dollars in cumulative wealth. Washtenaw County and Ann Arbor are no exception.

    But our city is spending money on its bureaucracy, services are cut, fees are raised and we’re supposed to get all warm and fuzzy because “our chief still goes out on patrol himself” and the chief has even been to our neighborhood? Tis sure his holy presence will undevil our little hamlet and visit a plague of boils upon the brigands. The meeting is described as an event where the “PD can communicate directly with you and your neighbors”. I guess we’re gonna get a talkin’ to, too.


  2. [...] 8:32 pm Tags: Ann Arbor Police Department, Break-in Alert, John Hieftje, Sunset Neighborhood (from Local in Ann Arbor—thanks to blogger Vivienne Armentrout)—Announcement: Sunset-Brooks area neighbors meeting with [...]

  3. Jack Eaton Says:

    The refusal to admit inadequate police staffing is just a continuation of the Council Majority Party’s management-by-crisis method of ruling. City Hall was allowed to fall into disrepair until it was a crisis. Argo Dam was ignored until it became urgent. The Stadium Bridges are still falling down and will require emergency action that will allow the CMP to foist a bridge plan onto the community without regard to citizen preference.

    While we cut fundamental safety services staffing, like police and firefighters, the planning staff remains at full force with only busy work to do (the AHP project for example). Soon our desperate pleas for safety personnel will cause the CMP to insist that the crime crisis requires an income tax or some other crisis management scheme.

    We need to stop permitting foreseeable problems (like employee pension funding) to become emergencies. If the CMP would turn its attention away from the agenda of building unpopular projects and turn instead to setting reasonable priorities, we could avoid the endless list of “sudden” emergencies. That process must begin with a frank acknowledgment of our current problems, including the crime wave identified in this article.

    • Jack Eaton Says:

      I have to correct myself on the planning department staffing. I learned that the City has cut staffing in planning, just not among the planners. No one is submitting site plans, but we still have plenty of planners just in case someone does.

  4. Cendra Lynn Says:

    The City and the Police will not tell you that you are not safe. They will not lay out the real effects of cutting our police force by over 50% since 2001. They will not say that there is no longer a Crime Prevention unit. They will not tell you that all the behind-the-scenes jobs are done by way too few people, and that if there is an incident require more police officers, those jobs are set down until the incident is over. They certainly won’t tell you that in the last two waves of retirement, over 90% of the department’s knowledge base left. There are too few people with too little information being asked to do way too much. No, we are not safe. The emperor is naked.


  5. I take issue with the last comment. I was part of the Citizen Police Academy in spring of 2008 and we were told over and over again how detrimental the cuts have been and how we had to engage the council in dialogue about this matter. I think it’s the Council and Hieftje who are more trying to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes.

    I’d love to hear the aftermath of that meeting.

    I also wonder if the myriad area construction projects may have something to do with it, as I hear many of the construction/road teams are out-of-area workers.

    I also wonder how we have endless funds for repaving and fixing curbs, but so little to help retain our human services components. The construction projects may be stimulus-money funding, though. I don’t know.

    • varmentrout Says:

      I’ll do an update to the post tomorrow with some information from the meeting. There were at least 100 people there and there have been at least 19 break-ins. Most suspicion has been directed at the person described in the flyer linked to in the post, who is apparently a very nicely spoken and well-dressed (described as “very Ann Arbor” tonight) African-American male between the ages of 18-25. Out-of-town construction workers seem an unlikely answer.

  6. A2 Politico Says:

    You might check out my new blog entry today. FBI stats just in. Might interest you to have a look at the stats over the past three years. The “downward spiral” to which Hieftje refers is, typically, selective reading.

    http://a2politico.wordpress.com/2009/09/14/fbi-contradict-hieftjes-claim-that-crime-is-down/

    Looking forward to your entry about the meeting.

  7. John Says:

    I was the suspect in a breakin on the west side a couple months ago. I went for a midnight walk and noticed about 5 police cars circling the neighborhood. Then as I was heading home, a police officer told me to put my hands on the car as they checked my background and had the victims identify me.

    They were very professional. I actually fit the description of the criminal. My friends joked that I was left off because the description listed a 6 foot man, whereas I have to round up to be 6 feet tall.


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