Multitasking police -- successful for decades in Kalamazoo

Kalamazoo PSO Scott Brooks

Nowadays, everyone is doing more with less, including law-enforcement agencies.

Agencies in Michigan and across the nation are merging their fire and police departments and cross-training their offIcers.

Bay City is moving toward this model as well, but this is nothing new.

The city of Kalamazoo has been a public saftey deparment for decades. But how does it work and what are the drawbacks? I rode along with a PSO to find out.

It's a Tuesday in February. Officer Scott Brooks is patroling his district. The nine-year veteran is in the middle of a traffic stop when a call comes in from across town.

"It's always a constant movement of things, like things that are happening and things that are going on and it's never dull," Brooks says. "To be a PSO, you need to look at, can they multitask? Can they adapt to different things?"

Brooks and his K-9 partner, Bodie, are tracking a suspect. Bodie leads Brooks down the side of a building. The suspect's scent leads right back inside.

These partners are constantly moving, awaiting the next call, searching for suspects. As a PSO, Brooks wears many hats.

"Policeman, fireman, EMS, K-9, relief EO, relief dispatch, relief crime lab," Brooks says.

He travels with all the essentials.

"Everything goes in the trunk," Brooks said. "You have your heavy coat, fire extinguisher, fire gear. As far as your coats and helmet, your air pack, your assault rifle."

And a situation can switch gears in a matter of minutes.

"We dress right here, so when there's a fire, you will see all of us stripping and getting into our fire gear," Brooks says.

Kalamazoo went to a public safety model 30 years ago in order to save money.

"The difference and the benefit of public safety is that we immediately have a public safety officer on scene within minutes," says Kalamazoo Assistant Chief Brian Uridge.

But opponents say it's not an effective way to serve the community.

"I'm not a believer in cross-training," says Grand Blanc Fire Chief Jim Harmes.

Harmes is the former president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and he's an outspoken opponent of the PSO model.

"Something is going to be lacking," he says. "Something is going to be missed. Maybe you don't have a police officer to take some type of complaint because he or she is across town at a fire."

Then there's the cost to cross-train.

"The police side is anywhere from $3,800 to $5,000 a person," Harmes said. "The fire is $700 to $1,500 to cross-train a police officer."

Uridge agrees there is an initial cost up front and says it takes total cooperation for the PSO model to be successful.

"The firefighters are a key part in the transition. The police officers on the outside are key," Uridge said. "But you also can't forget the community. The community has to be involved."

Officers in Kalamazoo work 12-hour shifts. Those PSOs assgined as engine operators at fire stations work 24-hour shifts.

The city staffs a total of 30-plus personnel per shift -- 18 PSOs, 11 engine operators and between five to seven command officers.

Each PSO is assgined to a district, and when calls come in, the ballet begins.

"Like any other city, we have pre-assigned districts," Uridge said. "If we have a fire in a certain district, it knows what officers need to respond and what engines or trucks, so they're going to respond."

"The rest of the city adjusts and they take over the call volume if it starts to back up somewhere else," Brooks said. "The rest of the PSOs in the city, they will back fill the calls to make sure they get taken."

After 30 years, Kalamazoo has it down to a science. Since 1988, part-one crimes like murder and arson have decreased from over 10,000 incidents to just under 4,000. And in the last five years, they're down 28 percent.

Uridge says the transition to the PSO model doesn't happen overnight, but if it's managed correctly, it can work in any community. But that's a hard sell for some.

"I just think our community deserves better," Harmes said.

Meanwhile, Brooks and Bodie push on, responding to calls and helping to make their community a safer place.

After consolidating from separate fire and police departments to the PSO model, Kalamazoo estimates they save around $6 million a year.

If you would like to know more about the Kalamazoo Public Safety Department, you can log on here.

To find out more about Bay City's transition to cross-train officers here.