By Riz Hatton, Elaine Mallon and Sheldon Krause
Great Lakes Echo
Editor’s note: A recent study evaluated the quality of 1,322 U.S. small cities by five measures. This story is part of a series taking a closer look at one measure as it relates to the 39 Michigan cities in the study.
ROYAL OAK – Michigan’s top five safest small cities are all in Oakland County, according to a recent national study.
The report by WalletHub, a personal finance company, analyzed more than 1,300 U.S. small cities with populations between 25,000 and 100,000. Michigan accounted for 39 of those cites.
The company evaluated economic health, education and health, affordability, quality of life and safety to come up with an overall ranking. Safety was calculated by factoring in the violent-crime rate, property-crime rate and motor vehicle crash deaths per capita.
The study found that the five safest Michigan small cities were Rochester Hills, Royal Oak, Novi, Farmington Hills and Troy. The least safe were Kalamazoo, Saginaw, Jackson, Pontiac and Battle Creek.
Royal Oak, which ranked as the second- safest small city, has nearly 60,000 residents.
“We have a community that’s very pro-police and insists on public safety,” said Lt. Al Carter of the Royal Oak Police Department.
“We know what to look for. We know what crimes are occurring,” Carter added. The department’s millage renewal received nearly 80% support from voters in November’s election.
Regional cooperation with surrounding small cities is another key to Royal Oak’s safety, he said. “We’re sort of bunched together and share similar policing techniques. We also work together and consolidate when and if we need assistance.
“We provide this blanket of extra protection that you typically wouldn’t have with a staffing level of a smaller police department,” he said.
Pontiac, just 20 minutes north of Royal Oak, ranked as Michigan’s fourth least safe small city in the study, something with which local officials strongly disagree. Rather than having its own department, Pontiac contracts for services from the Oakland County Sheriff’s Department.
Mike McCabe, former undersheriff of the Oakland County Sheriff’s Department, said that he oversaw the transition from the Pontiac Police Department over a decade ago.
About 35 to 40 years ago, Pontiac’s police department had 225 members, McCabe said. When Oakland County took over operations in 2011, the police department had been reduced to just 50.
Since the shift in 2011, the county agency has provided 93 deputies for the city.
“When we took over police services in Pontiac, roughly 50% of their 911 calls went unanswered,” McCabe said. “And then for those that did show up, the response time was over 81 minutes on 911 calls.”
Now, McCabe says that response time is under seven minutes for priority calls and just over 10 for non-priority calls.
“Businesses and people are relocating to Pontiac – because it’s becoming a safer city,” McCabe said. “It’s getting back to where it was back in the 50s and 60s, when it was a very, very prosperous city.”
McCabe took issue with WalletHub’s basis for comparison of Michigan’s small cities.
Rochester Hills, ranked as Michigan’s safest small city by WalletHub, also contracts services from the Oakland County Sheriff’s Department, he said.
Rochester Hills, with a population of about 74,000, received approximately 34,000 911 calls for service, he said. In that same time, Pontiac, with a population of 61,000, received about 70,000 calls.
“The bottom line is, policing in Pontiac is different than policing in Rochester Hills, or Royal Oak, or Farmington Hills or any other suburban community,” McCabe said.
He added, “Rochester Hills is 34 square miles. The city of Pontiac is 19 square miles. So your population density is higher. In addition to that, you have major routes of travel going through the city – you have Telegraph Road, you have Woodward, you have M-59. You have high traffic volume areas with a lot of people that travel in and out of the city.”
“You have to compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges,” he said.
Detroit police Lt. Chuck Gregory lives in a subdivision of Pontiac and says that community connections are important to keeping a small city safe.
Everyone has each other’s phone number, and everyone knows one another, he said, and that kind of communication keeps everyone accountable and gives the community structure.
Trash, broken windows and vacant lots are examples of blight that is a stepping stone for crime, Gregory said.
“So that’s what makes the cities like Pontiac and Detroit different because you have blight issues, and blight creates other crimes.”
Youth programs are another contributor to community safety, Gregory said.
“I would build a facility where you could come in. You could have mini golf and picnic tables and places where you could sit and enjoy and talk and come over and get some inexpensive hotdogs and tacos and be kids,” Gregory said.
During a recent Pontiac town hall meeting, former Deputy Mayor Mark Holland pushed for American Rescue Plan funding to turn abandoned sites into youth centers.
An existing one is open every weekday till 6 p.m. and helps keep kids out of trouble, Holland said.
“We have art classes going on here,” Holland said. “We’ve had conversations with the fire department to come start a program with our young children to get them ready for the fire department.
“We have basketball, cheer, dance— whether it’s jazz or ballet. We do encourage the city citizens to send their children.”
While youth of Pontiac flock to the Youth Recreation and Enrichment Center after school hours, in Royal Oak they hang out downtown.
Royal Oak’s main strip is an 11-minute walk from Royal Oak Middle School, a seventh grader named Hannah told a reporter recently.
After school — particularly on Fridays— she and her friends often walk over to visit shops like Toyology. Downtown Royal Oak is a place parents feel comfortable letting their teens roam, she said.
“We can go downtown without parents and just roam the neighborhoods. Royal Oak is pretty safe. I feel safe hanging out with my friends,” Hannah said.
Income plays a role.
Royal Oak, ranked as the second safest small city in Michigan, has a median household income of $81,655 — more than $20,000 higher than the state average.
In contrast, Pontiac, ranked the fourth least safe small city in Michigan, has a 30% poverty rate and a median household income of $33,000.
A well-funded, well-equipped police force is crucial for a community to maintain its safety – but it’s also important for a community to have strong social ties, said Robert Stephenson, the director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police, based in Okemos.
“So much of what drives crime is socioeconomic-related,” Stephenson said. “The police have no ability to influence what percentage of the city’s population is working, what percentage of the city’s population is in poverty, what percentage of the city’s population has two-parent dwellings.”
Former Pontiac Mayor Deidre Waterman and city council members have listed safety as one of five key issues to address with the nearly $38 million the American Rescue Plan allotted to the city.
Revised contracts were entered with the Oakland County Sheriff’s Department as leadership determined how to best use the federal funds, according to Waterman.
With the rising rates of gun violence, he said it’s important to address safety concerns.
Stephenson said a police presence also affects road safety.
“There’s a correlation to how serious traffic enforcement is taken in a city and to the crash rates, meaning that if you’re out there stopping bad drivers, there’s less pressure,” Stephenson said.
“But in a lot of these cities, they don’t have enough police on the road to answer their calls for service, much less to proactively go out and look to stop dangerous drivers,” he said.
Lt. Chris Lippo, a retired Royal Oak firefighter, said he feels the city’s road safety has improved over time.
“Early on in my career, it seemed like the fatalities were a little higher,” he said.
Now there are “plenty of injuries but nobody [is] dying.”
But road safety is more than additional road patrols.
Factors such as road maintenance are just as essential, experts say. For Pontiac, the lights in Phoenix Tunnel, an underpass running through Pontiac, were too dim. They’ve since been upgraded.
Waterman said these changes are expected to improve safety conditions on the road.
Gregory said it’s important for community members to know one another and to establish Neighborhood Watch programs.
“Everybody says that ‘Miss such-and-such is so nosey. She’s always looking out her window. She’s always calling the police.’ But that’s a good thing because Miss such-and-such is paying attention to what’s going on in the neighborhood,” he said.