Photo by James Mitchell
Southgate Police Chief Jeffrey Meussner keeps busy during his final weeks on duty. At month’s end, Meussner will retire after more than 25 years with the department.
By JAMES MITCHELL
Sunday Times Newspapers
SOUTHGATE — When Jeffrey Meussner started patrolling the city, Northline Road was but a two-lane affair, and many streets and avenues needed only blacktop coating to handle the traffic load.
The roads have changed, but Meussner — bringing to an end his 26-year career in law enforcement capped with serving as police chief since September 2010 — said that in most regards the job is the same.
The city’s population of about 30,000 hasn’t changed much since the mid-1980s, and neither has the police department’s staffing. The city was watched over by 44 officers in 1986, just three more than the current roster of 41 that Meussner supervises.
Only outsiders are surprised that the city has avoided the types of downsizing and layoffs that have plagued other Downriver public safety departments.
“They planned for hard times,” Meussner said of elected officials and union representatives. Some nearby departments such as Taylor currently post a fraction of their peak force strength, while city officials maintained a balanced budget with few lost jobs. Credit goes both to city officials and labor leaders, Meussner said, willing to negotiate ahead of time to ensure length of shifts and benefits were in line with the municipal budget.
As a rule, crime itself has not changed much over the decades. Drugs remain a problem, whether the popularity of heroin in the the mid-1980s (an interest recently returning, he said), or contemporary concerns about synthetic marijuana.
“Drugs have always been an issue,” Meussner said. “They still are an issue.”
What has changed is the population to be dealt with other than Southgate residents.
“We’re a busier town,” Meussner said. “The amount of people that pass through has increased.”
While the population has remained stable in terms of sheer numbers, Meussner said the biggest change he’s seen has come from the increasingly mobile society of the greater Detroit area. The former two-lane roads such as Northline are now at least twice that, and provide to-and-fro access to a transient population.
To combat the increased potential for crime, Meussner said another constant during his career has been the cooperative efforts with nearby police agencies.
“We’ve always worked well with bordering communities,” Meussner said. A dozen police departments are linked by computer system, allowing officers to instantly obtain information on increasingly mobile criminals.
Technology and media, Meussner said, have brought the biggest changes since he began his career in a pre-Internet world. It’s a double-edged sword of information, he said, which at times brings unwanted attention to the department itself. It’s been a rocky year or so for the Southgate Police Department with two officers having been charged with crimes.
Former officer Mitchell Heaney was acquitted of felony charges but found guilty of a misdemeanor in April — a moving violation causing serious impairment — and was dismissed from the department. Former officer Emmanuel Paravas was found guilty by a jury of misconduct, a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. (The sentence is expected to be appealed.)
Meussner said the unfortunate incidents had the potential to reflect poorly on the department as a whole, but that the officers continued to perform and trust that the legal system would prove just.
“The troops look for us to do the right thing,” Meussner said. “They just want it to be fair. All we can do is treat if fairly, no matter the outcome.”
Through the technological changes, budget pressures, shifting demographics and internal issues, Meussner said the biggest change in law enforcement has been something of a return to fundamental purpose.
“When I started it was a police force,” Meussner said. “Now it’s more community oriented,” with an engaged population aware of each other and their ability to help protect themselves.
Meussner will officially retire from the department July 1, and will be succeeded as chief by patrol lieutenant Jeffrey Smith, an 18-year department veteran.
(James Mitchell can be reached at [email protected])