Pure politics and needless tragedy

Did budget cuts at Wayne County Sheriff's Department lead to teen's death?

By Rod Meloni - Reporter, CFP ®

DETROIT - Only in a place like Detroit can this scene play out with the kind of fallout that is certainly coming.

There is no way to candy coat this one: Pure and ugly Wayne County politics might have led to a death.

A 14-year-old boy is found shot to death at 3 o'clock in the morning outside an abandoned home on the city's far-east side. He is brought to the morgue where they find he is wearing an electronic ankle tether. The phone call goes out to the Sheriff's Office to come pick up its tether. It is only when deputies see the body do they discover the identity of the teenager lifelessly lying before them on the morgue examining table.

More: Sheriff budget cuts may be tied to Detroit teen's death

Dionte Dixon was the boy they were out physically looking for the day before. You see, Dionte's tether is battery powered and the battery died. When that happened the Sheriff's Department was notified by computer the tether was down and one of its juvenile offenders was free to roam the streets again.

Dionte lived with his father on the city's far west side. His bullet-riddled body was found on the city's far-east side, at least a half hour drive away from his home where he would have been had the tether worked properly. But this story is not about an uncharged tether. It's about a young man who died unnecessarily.

The officers who were attempting to locate Dionte the day before were part of a Sheriff's Department unit called the Warrant Enforcement Bureau. It is funded by Wayne County Child Services and gets roughly half of its money from the state of Michigan. Well, Sheriff Benny Napoleon ordered the officers out looking for Dionte along with their colleagues [there are 12 officers in all] to return to the Sheriff's Office on Woodward Avenue where they were given the news their unit was being disbanded and they were being reassigned to the Wayne County Jail. The reason for this is Sheriff Napoleon is over budget again this year already -- the fiscal year started last October. Last year he was $30 million over budget and $30 million over budget the year before. The County Commission has been and continues to demand he get his spending under control. All along Napoleon has said his department cannot cut any spending because it has a constitutional requirement to protect the public.

So, by this rationale, any spending he does [and we have chronicled here the numerous bloated areas of his budget that could easily be pared back] is justified. Well, Chief Judge Timothy M. Kenny, who oversees the Wayne County Jails under Federal Consent Decree, ruled late last year the Sheriff cannot deficit spend with impunity. This has forced the Sheriff to start paring back, while all along the way warning public safety will definitely be adversely affected by such cutting.

Sadly, Dionte Dixon now may be the face of this political tension.

This battle has been brewing for a very long time. The County Commission has repeatedly reminded that Napoleon's primary job is managing the jails. The Sheriff makes it no secret this bothers him greatly despite the fact that it is the jails and the overtime deputies that rack up every year and put his budget into the stratosphere with contrails.

But this is a three opponent fight. Napoleon and Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano do a delicate and ambivalent dance with each other, too. Sometimes they sing from the same song sheet about the impact of public safety when cuts are discussed and then there are other times [like this one] they pillory each other about overspending, which as many a parent from my generation would say "is like the pot calling the kettle black."

Still, the bitter feud was never more clearly delineated than with Sheriff Napoleon's statement put out this afternoon regarding this tragic situation: "In response to the budget crisis and at the Commission's urging to put every viable officer into the jails, the CEO approved the Sheriff's request to transfer WEB officers to the jail to fill positions left vacant due to the hiring process. The tragic loss of this young man emphasizes what we have been saying—we need the jails and external units appropriately funded so they can continue providing critical law enforcement services."

Knowing the back story you can appreciate the daggers being sent Bob Ficano's way. But the Executive's Office was only happy to shoot back that there is nothing anywhere with Ficano's signature on it okaying this transfer of officers and, in fact, Local 4 has obtained a letter from Wayne County Human Services dated late January pleading with the Sheriff to not make this WEB unit transfer. The Executive's office told Local 4 today on the phone that this whole situation was avoidable and yet was a deliberately political and petulant move on Napoleon's part. They point out that there are a couple of dozen other outside units that could easily have been pared back or transferred to the jail instead but that Napoleon wanted to cause the most pain and make the most noise to create controversy.

Read: Wayne County Human Services letter

So here we are, Sheriff Benny Napoleon made his point, he has County Commissioners and the County Executives on notice. He also has them and a lot of others angry with him. The list includes Napoleon's own deputies, their union chief is furious.

Dionte Dixon's family was still grieving his death on Wednesday morning, too much to say much about this situation. When I told his father about the politics of the situation he could barely process it, it was just too much for him.

Wayne County and its taxpayers should worry that when the shock wears off he might have a lot more to say about the situation in a courtroom. Those WEB officers might have found Dionte and pulled him off the streets before his killers had the opportunity to shoot him to death.

In war they would call this collateral damage but that understates the reality. Ultimately, no matter what this child might have ever done, he did not deserve this fate.

This political firestorm turned nightmare is just beginning.

More from Rod Meloni: The Cushingberry Follies Continue

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