ANN ARBOR – Nearly a decade had passed since Ann Arbor had designated downtown beat officers to stroll the streets when officers Jordan Murdock and Steven Van Alstine were tasked to reinvent the role in 2018.
According to Murdock, the reason for the absence was the economic recession in 2008.
"Ten years ago, we had almost twice the amount of police officers working for the Ann Arbor Police Department than we do today," said Murdock.
"The economy suffered to include the number of police officers working for the Ann Arbor PD. As our overall numbers went down, obviously, the most important thing is to provide community service, to respond to those calls for service that people need. Some of those specialty positions like beat cops, school liaison officers -- things of that nature -- those positions disappeared."
Beyond the disappearance of niche positions within the department, Van Alstine explained that as more and more officers retire, police departments nationwide are in need of officers.
"Back in the day, there were 12-plus officers that were just downtown for the beats, and now it’s the two of us," said Van Alstine. "We’ve been pushing ever since we started to get more people, and part of that hassle is just going to be the amount of staffing ability that we have. We’ve got a relatively high turnover rate for good reason: People are retiring because they hit their 25 years.
"But then at the same time, you see that nationally. Everyone is hurting for people right now. There’s more jobs than people in law enforcement, and we are held to a different standard than most other professions when it comes to the quality of people we have to have in order to do our jobs effectively."
The position is a two-year assignment, and the two officers work Wednesday through Saturday, from 1 p.m. to 11 p.m., strolling or cycling around the downtown area.
"Our area of responsibility (stretches from) the college bars on South U across to Main Street and Ashley to where all the townie bars are," said Van Alstine. "For us, a bicycle in that area is typically faster to get around. It’s much more mobile, and we have that boots-on-the-ground kind of feel where business owners can just talk to us. We don’t have to approach a car and wonder what’s going on."
The officers said many downtown business owners have their cellphone numbers.
"It’s a lot less quantity of calls," said Murdock. "Our goal is accessibility, especially to business owners. Everybody downtown has got my cellphone. I always tell people: If it’s an emergency, you call 911. If you’re like, 'Should I call somebody, but I don’t want to call 911,' they can call us."
A large part of their work is attending community meetings like the Main Street Area Association's breakfasts and public events. They said that often, they are given information simply because they are constantly interacting with business owners and residents in person.
So, what are their favorite parts of the job?
"Helping people is the cliché go-to answer, but it really is the best part," said Van Alstine. "We’ve been a couple blocks away on several emergency medical calls where we’ve been the first there. One of my concerns when we started this was not having a vehicle to get places quickly. Our bicycles only go as fast as we pedal. But having been working now for a year, we are on hand a lot faster for almost everything downtown than when I was in a car."
For Murdock, it's being active in the community.
"Mine is 100% being out around people," he said. "I could never work a desk job. That wouldn’t fit my personality, that wouldn’t fit what I do. Even being in a car, you’re very unapproachable. You’re driving by at or near the speed limit, and you can’t say hi to somebody like that. We also re-stock our pocket of stickers every week because we see so many kids. That’s the best part for me."
Both officers said they have been in situations where it was clear their role was misunderstood, and it can be challenging when the line is blurred between helping someone and enforcing the law.
"I've had a woman come up to me during one specific incident say, 'I don't know if you can tell me, but are you arresting him for being homeless?' And that really opened my eyes to how little people know about what we do and how we do it," said Murdock.
“No, we are not arresting people for being homeless," he said. "If anything, I’m handing out information sheets like, 'Hey, here’s some resources. Have you gotten on the list for the Delonis Center? Have you been in touch with Avalon Housing or the Ann Arbor Housing Commission?'"
Beside homelessness, Van Alstine said another hot-button issue in Ann Arbor is trespass forms.
"A lot of people have a misconception that that’s us telling people they can’t be somewhere," he said. "That’s not the case at all. That’s a private business exercising their right to have control on their own private property."
Trespassing is not considered a criminal offense, and newly updated trespassing forms provided by the Ann Arbor Police Department contain a list of more than 30 local resources so individuals can get help if they should need it.
"That includes housing, food, medical, everything you can imagine," said Murdock. "If you can solve those root problems, that makes everyone's life better and Ann Arbor a better place to be."
Halfway through their assignment, the officers say they have received a positive response from their department and the community.
"When we started, we were hearing names of people who were on the beats 10-15 years ago," said Van Alstine. "Recently, one of the sergeants said they’ve been hearing a lot about us just in the one year we’ve been doing it now from all the people downtown, both business owners and the homeless population. So, we see a lot of just that kind of personable contact that we have making an effect already. Whether or not they’ll still be talking about us in 15 years, I hope it’s all positive."
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