Behind the walls of Wayne County’s three jails are some of the most underpaid and overworked police officers in the state.
Starting wages for a new deputy in Wayne County are barely $15 an hour, health care has been slashed and some benefits have been cut entirely. When deputies are guarding the county’s more than 1,700 inmates, they’re working sometimes up to 100 hours a week, according to Wayne County Deputy Sheriffs Association President Brian Earle
"There’s a lot of officers who are working 6 days a week, 16 hour shifts," Earle said. "The inmates that our police officers deal with are some of the most hardened criminals, not just in the state but the country."
While the county is budgeted to have 925 deputies on staff, they haven’t had nearly that many in years. Today, there are less than 760, leading to forced overtime every day in the jails and costing taxpayers a fortune. Over the last five years, Wayne County has paid out between $14 and $16 million just in overtime every year.
But more worrisome than the cost to taxpayers is the cost to deputies’ well-being.
"People are collapsing at work, they’ve had to rush people to the hospital," Earle said. "We’ve got, right now, close to 150 officers who are either on full-time medical leave or part-time medical leave or restricted hours they can work, and it’s a direct result of the amount of work they’re doing."
Understaffing has been a problem for as long as Ray Basham has been a Wayne County Commissioner. In his seventh year now, he says the solution should be simple.
"We’re a dog chasing its tail around a tree," Basham said, who has urged for higher pay for deputies.
"A good answer is to pay them more money," he said. "Why would you stay with the county when you can go work for another city or municipality and get a higher wage?"
New hires in Wayne County start at $31,183 a year. Down the street in Oakland County, deputies earn $36,687, or 16% more. Most cities pay even better, like Livonia where officers start out at $49,795 a year, or in Novi, where new officers earn $51,348.
But Wayne County is struggling. It just barely staved off bankruptcy, and officials say can’t afford to pay its deputies any more than it already is.
Making matters worse, the county loses between six and eight deputies every month, according to Pfannes, due to attrition. Despite an aggressive recruiting campaign, the ranks are still thin, he says, with no solution in sight.
"It’s undoubtedly taken some toll on our workforce," Pfannes said. "We have tried to implement measures that would bring about some relief with that, we just haven’t hit that right mix yet."
When a new jail is finally built, Pfannes says conditions could improve. By consolidating the county’s three jails, fewer deputies will be required and, hopefully, take a bite out of overtime and deputy fatigue. But a new jail hasn’t even been selected, and when it is, it will take years before it’s ready.
"If we’re sitting here two years from now, what do you think the odds are we’re still pay $14, $15, $16 million dollars a year in overtime?" asked Channel 7's Ross Jones.
"My guess is we will probably continue to spend within that trend line," Pfannes replied.
In the meantime, Corporal Brian Earle says his members will continue fighting what feels like a losing battle. In April, 17 new deputies joined the department. In just the next two months alone, that’s about how may will leave.
"When you’re being forced to work those excessive hours in that environment, it’s going to take its toll and it has taken its toll," Earle said. "And it’s going to continue to take its toll until we can hire more people."
Contact 7 Investigator Ross Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (248) 827-9466.