Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Budget woes weaken local police services

By NYSSA RABINOWITZ
Capital News Service

LANSING – With funds dwindling and no new money coming in, local police departments may be forced to cut services to make ends meet, officials predict.

“Everybody is stretched awfully thin right now due to budget constraints,” said Chris Luty, president of the Michigan State Police Troopers Association in East Lansing. “With fewer police officers to cover needs, services are going to suffer.”

With budgets shrinking, some local governments are pushing millages to provide more funds for offices, but some millages aren’t passing, said Tom Hendrickson, executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police based in Okemos.

This year for example, 12 of 13 Ingham County townships rejected police-related ballot proposals, as did voters in Washtenaw County’s Augusta Township and the village of Birch Run in Saginaw County.

“Our population is so averse to taxes that, regardless of the merits for it, they are voting against it,” Hendrickson said. “We’re between a rock and a hard place. There really aren’t any other revenues.”

However, some communities this year approved police funding millages, including Baroda and Benton townships in Berrien County.

Decreasing property values cause property taxes to fall, which means less revenue for local governments, Hendrickson said.

To cut costs, the Newberry Village Council disbanded its police department, relying on the Luce County Sheriff’s Department instead, said village manager Beverly Holmes.

“What we did is contracted with the county sheriff’s department to provide police services,” Holmes said.

The police department cost about $300,000 a year, Holmes said, and accounted for most of the village’s budget.

Voters rejected a millage for police funding, Holmes said, and with officers retiring and no money to replace them, it was more cost-effective to pay the sheriff.

Response time may not be as quick for ordinance violations now, Holmes said, but emergency response time has remained excellent despite the change.

In contrast to the disbanding of the Newberry department, the pending dissolution of the Pontiac Police Department and the shutdown this month of the Parma-Sandstone Police Department in Jackson County, Hendrickson said, “It’s rare for a department to completely disband.”

Instead, some departments may not keep any officers on duty at certain parts of the day, relying on the sheriff’s office and State Police to fill those gaps, Hendrickson said.

But deputy sheriffs and state troopers may also be unavailable, Hendrickson said. “The biggest problem is response time to high-priority problems.”

That’s the situation for the Ingham County Sheriff’s Department, which will have its budget reduced for the fifth time in five years, said Undersheriff Allan Spyke.

In 2006, 34 deputies were funded to provide law enforcement services for the county’s townships, Spyke said. There will be only 12 deputies left to cover the 466 square miles and about 33,500 people in 2011.

“We just aren’t going to have the resources available to provide the type of police service that they have had in the past,” Spyke said. “We’re get there eventually, but we just can’t guarantee when.”

The Trooper’s Association’s Luty said that with fewer people to cover more area, priorities are necessary to determine which calls get answered first.

“Crimes against persons are always going to take priority” over burglary or destruction of property, Luty said.

Ingham County’s Spyke said, “We want to provide services to citizens and ensure they are safe, but you can’t do that without bodies. You can’t do that without deputies and troopers.

“You can’t continue to cut police officers and expect the same level of public safety,” Spyke added.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Tops in seatbelt use, state hits 85-year low in traffic deaths

By NYSSA RABINOWITZ
Capital News Service

LANSING – For the past two years, Michigan has led the nation in seatbelt use. Now, the state has reached a new milestone, according to the Office of Highway Safety and Planning (OHSP).

Michigan recorded 871 traffic deaths in 2009, the lowest since 1924, according to OHSP. That reflects a decrease from 980 deaths in 2008 and a 23 percent drop from 2005 to 2009.

Several factors contributed to the lower death rate, including expanded education and awareness programs and periods of strict enforcement, said Eddie Washington Jr., director of the State Police. Innovations in highway safety also helped to bring fatality numbers down.

Concentrated enforcement efforts include seatbelt enforcement and “Click it or Ticket” and “Over the Limit. Under Arrest “campaigns aimed at seatbelt compliance and drunken driving,.

“It’s always a combination of things” that leads to a decrease, said Anne Readett, communications manager for the OHSP.

Michigan’s seatbelt use has been more than 90 percent for the last six years, according to OHSP. Seatbelt use reached 97.9 percent in 2009, the highest in the nation, amid strong enforcement efforts by local, county and state police.

Of the 598 drivers and passengers who died last year, 210 weren’t wearing seatbelts, according to State Police.

A recent crash in Cheboygan County shows how critical seatbelts are.

A young man was driving at the speed limit, said Lt. Timothy Cook of the Cheboygan County Sheriff’s Department, but it was foggy. He went off the road, struck a tree and was pinned inside the vehicle, which was totaled.

Given the damage to the car, the driver probably would have been thrown from the vehicle upon impact without his seatbelt on, Cook said.

Had he been ejected, he would have landed in a heavily wooded area and probably would have been seriously injured or dead, Cook said. He survived, however, and is in a rehabilitation program.

Highway innovations also helped cut deaths, said Bob Felt, safety outreach specialist for the Department of Transportation (MDOT).

For example, rumble strips and cable guardrails were installed on many roads to help keep drivers in their lanes, Felt said. Highway signs have gotten bigger with clearer fonts and brighter backgrounds to help drivers see them from a greater distance, especially at night.

Pedestrian countdown signals in downtown areas let pedestrians know how many seconds they have to cross an intersection safely, reducing pedestrian fatalities, Felt said.

One of the biggest contributors is the installation of roundabouts, he said.

“When communities are initially aware of roundabouts, there’s a tendency not to support them,” Felt said. But they force people to go slower and yield, which leads to fewer serious accidents.

MDOT has been involved in educational campaigns that promote safe driving, and it’s more involved in research about driver behavior and best driving practices, Felt said.

“The safety of any roadway is a combination of engineering, education and enforcement,” Felt said. “When these agencies work together to share the message, it makes a big difference.”

Of the 871 deaths in 2009, 425 victims were drivers, 173 were passengers, 121 were pedestrians, 103 were motorcyclists, 19 were bicyclists, nine were ORV or ATV operators, 14 were snowmobilers, five were moped operators, and one was operating farm equipment, according to OHSP.

Readett said fatalities have decreased consistently from 1999 to 2009.

But there’s still work to be done, Readett said. Thirty to 40 percent of fatal crashes involve alcohol and a large percent of fatal crashes occur because people didn’t wear seatbelts, so federally funded campaigns will continue to push hard to bring deaths even lower.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Efforts credited for decline in reports of hate crimes

By NYSSA RABINOWITZ
Capital News Service

LANSING – The recent burning of a Quran in front of an East Lansing mosque drew international attention.

It also represents only one recent example of hate crimes in Michigan, according to the Department of Civil Rights.

Among the others: a Latino man was beaten in Bay City by attackers yelling racial slurs, said Harold Core, the department’s director of public affairs.

Elsewhere, crosses have been burned in front of houses and nooses hung in workplace lockers, apparently targeting African Americans.

And a young man in Kalamazoo was assaulted because of his sexuality.

Despite such incidents, Core said he is personally optimistic about the future because the number of reported hate crimes decreases year by year in Michigan.

Hate crimes are motivated entirely or partly by bias against the victim’s race, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, mental or physical disabilities or ethnicity, according to the State Police.

While most states have experienced an increase in reported hate crimes, Michigan’s reported number dropped because of improvements in community education and police training, Core said.

In 2007, the Michigan Alliance Against Hate Crimes hired staff to train 6,000 crime victim service providers about how to determine whether an incident was a hate crime and how to respond, Core said.

The group continues to work with communities and to train law enforcement officers on effective response and identification techniques, Core said.

Michigan moved to having the fourth-highest number of reported hate crimes in 2008 after having the third-highest for years, Core said. California, New Jersey and now New York have the most.

Last year, 502 incidents were reported as hate crimes, a drop of almost 25 percent from 2008, State Police data shows. The incidents involved 652 victims, a 10 percent decrease from 2008.

The number of incidents varies by location, with more incidents in cities than in rural areas, State Police data shows.

“I haven’t noticed any change in this county,” said Chippewa County Prosecutor Brian Peppler, past president of the Prosecuting Attorney’s Association of Michigan. “We’re not faced with those crimes that often because it is a rural community.”

Young adults in their 20s were most likely to be victims. People between 10 and 19 were the second-most targeted group in 2009,  according to State Police figures.

Anti-black discrimination was the most common theme across age groups, but victims between 60 and 79 reported anti-white discrimination as the primary motive, the data show.

It is not known what the numbers mean or why perpetrators choose the victims they do because not enough research has been done, Core said.

“We need more research into the numbers of hate crimes,” Core added.

African-Americans have been the most targeted group since the 1800s, Core said.

The percentage of hate crimes against immigrants, homosexuals and Muslims is increasing even as the total number goes down, Core said.

Most reported crimes are committed at the victim’s home by neighbors, strangers and acquaintances, the data show. “Personal weapons,” such as hands, fists and feet, were used in about 17 percent of cases.

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Crime down, Drug and alcohol crashes up

By TRENTON JOHNSON

Capital News Service

 

LANSING—Car crashes caused by alcohol or drug use have increased, even as the statewide crime rate drops, according to crime statistics.

State Police Director Eddie Washington Jr. said the declining crime rate is not surprising, perhaps because fewer crimes are being reported and there are fewer officers to handle complaints.

One question is whether the crime rate has been influenced by the unemployment rate.

“The number of people injured in car crashes involving alcohol or drugs increased from 6,248 in 2008 to 6,271 in 2009. Much of that increase involved drivers who had drugs in their system, which accounted for 83 additional injuries last year compared to 2008,” said Jamie Mathews, secretary of the State Police Criminal Justice Information Center.

At the same time, arrests for impaired driving are down.

In 2009, Mathews said, there were 45,893 alcohol-and drug related driving arrests, 1,358 fewer than in 2008. The presence of alcohol in a driver’s system has long been a factor in arrests for drunken driving.

            Since 2003, driving with any trace of drugs such as heroin, marijuana or cocaine in a person’s system is illegal, and testing for those substances has doubled over the past five years, Mathews said.

In 2009, Alpena County reported 899 impaired driving crashes. Three of those involved fatalities and 106 involved injuries, Mathews said.

In 2009, Emmet County reported 1,353 such crashes, including three fatalities and 208 injuries.

Also last year, Grand Traverse County had 3,298 reported crashes. Five of them involved fatalities and 534 resulted in injuries.

Among the three counties, the number of crashes increased only in Emmet.

Statewide in 2009, Mathews said, 11,451 crashes were caused by the use of drugs and alcohol. The age group most involved in such crashes was 25- to- 34-year-olds, she said.            

Meanwhile, cities like Flint and Detroit have had significant reductions in law enforcement officers. Other cities that have lost officers include Highland Park, Pontiac and Benton Harbor, said Shanon Banner, State Police public affairs manager.

Washington said that’s due to agencies laying off officers and others retiring and not being replaced for economic reasons.

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Divorce rate dropping but varies across Michigan

By JULIET WANG

Capital News Service

LANSING—Divorce rates have been declining statewide for reasons that include the fact that couples  are waiting longer to get married and living together rather than marrying.

Financial considerations also affect the divorce rate, experts say.

The counties with the lowest divorce rate are Oscoda with 4.7 divorces per 1,000 residents, Houghton with 4.7, Leelanau with 5.0 and Washtenaw and Arenac counties, both with 5.1 in 2008, according to the  Department of Community Health (DCH).

The counties with the highest divorce rate are Crawford with 12.1, St. Joseph with 10.1, Iron with 10, Grand Traverse with 9.6 and Clare with 9.4 in 2008, according to DCH. The state average in 2008 is 6.7 and in 1998 it was 7.8.

Thomas Blume, an associate professor of counseling at Oakland University, said there several reasons why divorce rates are falling.

“It can be traced to marital habits to the 1960s and ‘70s up until the ‘90s that people are waiting longer to get married. These kinds of marriages are not as impulsive and not as risky,” said Blume.

“In the 1970s, the option of living together without marriage wasn’t there.  When the couple breaks up, it. won’t show up as a divorce. I would like to think people are more accomplished, more aware. But people have unrealistic expectations,” Blume added.

Linda Glover, executive director of the Resolution Services Center of Central Michigan and a domestic relations mediator  for 10 years, said finances are a factor in the lower divorce rates.

“The times are different. It costs money to divorce, and two households split up the amount of debt,” said Glover.

“We‘re seeing a lot more people divorcing in serious debt. The debt gets worse. It used to be a single household — then it splits.”

There are less expensive alternatives to divorce, but couples still might not divorce for economic reasons.

“We have couples at the point of divorce and mediation helps without litigating in court. For other couples, it prevents more debt,” Glover said. “Then because of the debt, divorce is just talked about.”

Glover’s center provides mediation services in Ingham, Eaton, Clinton, Ionia, Gratiot and Shiawassee counties.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Advocates aim to boost hunter numbers

By LANE BLACKMER
Capital News Service

LANSING—The number of hunters is gradually decreasing, so officials and advocates are aiming to increase license sales in Michigan this season.

The economy, limited hunting land, urbanization and age restrictions are to blame, the advocates say.

To help reverse this trend, Michigan received a $500,000 federal grant to give farmers an incentive to increase access to hunting land, and advocates are proposing a bill to eliminate the minimum hunting age.

License sales have been shrinking about 1-to-2 percent a year, said Mary Dettloff, press secretary at the Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE).

Hunting is important not only for animal population control, she said, but also to fund DNRE operations, such as wildlife management, habitat work and biologists’ salaries.

“The money has to go back into game management,” she said. “And if we are not bringing in a good amount of revenue every year, there are certain program cuts that have to occur.”

Not only is hunting essential to funding the DNRE, she said, but it contributes $1 billion to the state’s economy yearly through purchases of ammunition, guns, fuel and food. And that, she said, creates jobs.

A shortage of hunters also contributes to deer overpopulation, she said, especially in Southern Michigan where hunting grounds are limited. People may hunt only on preserves, federal and state land, their own property and private land with the owners’ permission.

The new $500,000 federal grant will pay farmers with a minimum of 40 acres to allow hunters on their land.

Jordan Burroughs, a wildlife outreach specialist at Michigan State University, said hunting on farms helps to reduce crop damage.

“It’s becoming more and more difficult to control the deer population in Southwest Michigan,” she said. “Hunters do play a huge role in managing overabundant or nuisance wildlife populations.”

Burroughs said the over-abundance of deer contribute to crop damage, vehicle accidents, and an increased potential for disease.

Hunting preserves are also suffering, DNRE’s Dettloff said.  In 2008, there were 585 preserves, and this year there are 442.

Brian Shoemaker, manager of the Raging Rooster Hunting Preserve in Coopersville, said preserves are expensive to operate, and follows economic trends.

Burroughs said there are two main reasons hunting is declining. First, communities are becoming more urban and people are moving away from rural areas.

“Hunters have farther to go to find hunting,” said Burroughs.

Second, she said as a social group, hunters are aging because typically youth aren’t as involved with hunting as they used to be.

Dave Nyberg, legislative affairs manager for Michigan United Conservation Clubs (MUCC), said for every 100 adults who no longer hunt, there are only 26 replacements.

“Youth are gobbled up by busy schedules and the media buffet that’s at their disposal,” he said. “This is a national problem, not just a Michigan problem.”

Although Michigan recently lowered the minimum age for bow hunting from 12 to 10 years, and for firearm hunting from 14 to 12, MUCC plans to propose legislation to eliminate the hunting age, but requires adults to accompany young hunters.

“It’s defined to improve youth hunting safety but also designed to improve hunter recruitment,” Nyberg said. “Michigan is one of the most restrictive states when it comes to getting kids outdoors to hunt.”

He said Pennsylvania adopted a similar law and saw licensed hunters jump from about 33,000 to almost 44,000.

“Hunter decline isn’t something that isn’t going on throughout the country,” Nyberg said. “In Michigan we believe one of the main factors is the restrictive laws.”

Meanwhile, Dettloff said, the DNRE is campaigning to get youths and women more involved in hunting.

“Research shows that if mom is out in the woods, that children will likely follow and want to participate,” said Dettloff.

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Spread of meth labs worries officials

By JULIE MIANECKI

Capital News Service

LANSING – Police raid a meth lab in Cadillac. Five people are arrested for running a meth lab in Constantine. Four people die in meth lab explosions in Southwest Michigan.

These and other recent events highlight the fact that methamphetamine remains a major problem in Michigan, and officials warn that it’s growing.

“We’re just trying to keep our heads above water,” said Deputy Jerimiah Abnet of the St. Joseph County Sheriff’s Department. “At this point we’re just hoping that it doesn’t find its way into the schools.”

The problem is most serious in the southwest part of the state and the Northern Lower Peninsula, but there has been a statewide increase in meth manufacturing and use, according to Detective Lt. Tony Saucedo of the State Police Methamphetamine Investigation Team.

The Southwest is a hotspot for meth because of its proximity to major meth-manufacturing locales in Indiana, Saucedo said. The meth industry began in the western United States and moved eastward over several decades, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

“The thing that makes methamphetamine unique is that everything that’s used to manufacture the drug you can buy, and buy legally,” Saucedo said. “Most people have probably half this stuff in their own homes because these items have legitimate uses.”

For example, Saucedo said, meth manufacturers use ingredients from over-the-counter cold medicine and ordinary lawn fertilizer to create the drug.

Another concern is that a new manufacturing method makes it more difficult to detect the labs. Called the one-pot method, the meth is cooked in one container, so less of the drug is created.

“In the old days, the labs were bigger and were putting out a more pungent chemical smell, so the neighbors would call and complain,” said Detective Sgt. David Toxopeus of the Cass County Drug Team. “Now that they’ve gone to the one-pot method, the chemicals aren’t as strong, and people and aren’t reporting it to us.”

The problem is on the rise in Northern Michigan as well, said Grand Traverse County-based Detective Lt. Daniel King of the State Police.

“Gaylord, Traverse City, Reed City, Cadillac – the labs are all over Northern Michigan,” King said. “We just had a meth lab here in Cadillac about three weeks ago.”

He said meth activity has increased in the last year in particular and attributed it to Southwest Michigan residents moving north, the availability of recipes on the Internet and the rural nature of the region.

Toxopeus said educating the public on what to look for, including the combination and placement of ingredients, is a vital factor in discovering meth labs.

“For every 10 labs we get, nine of them are initiated by citizens complaining rather than us detecting them,” Toxopeus said. “It seems like every time we speak to a group, within a month someone that heard us is calling about suspicious activity in their neighborhood.”

A 2005 law attempted to alleviate the problem by requiring that drugs containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine be stored behind a pharmacy counter and sold in a limited amount to individual buyers, but Toxopeus said the requirement hasn’t had a significant impact.  

“They’re just adapting to that,” he said of meth makers. “They’re having their friends buy it, they’re going from store to store. We can keep changing the laws, but they’re just going to figure out a way to go around it.”

Saucedo suggested that making ephedrine- and pseudoephedrine-based drugs available only by prescription could might slow the manufacture of meth.

Oregon and Mississippi have such laws, Saucedo said.  Although it’s too early to tell if Mississippi’s has had a significant effect, the number of meth labs in Oregon has dropped noticeably, he added.

“They’ve seen their labs go from about 500 or 600 a year to 10 for the whole state last year,” Saucedo said. “Did that get rid of methamphetamine in Oregon? No. They still get meth shipped in, but you can deal with that a lot more easily that you can deal with labs.”

Methamphetamines pose a big risk to children in Michigan’s child welfare system, said Elizabeth O’Dell, executive director of Community Mental Health Services of St. Joseph County.

The Department of Human Services (DHS) receives petitions from social workers requesting that either children or their guardians be removed from their homes, and O’Dell said the percentage of those cases that are meth-related is steadily increasing.

“Three years ago it was 36 percent,” O’Dell said. “Two years ago it was 50 percent. Last year, 56 percent of the kids came into DHS care because of meth.” 

O’Dell called meth an epidemic in public health. She expressed particular concern about a recent bust of a meth lab at a day care center in Colon, which resulted in the shutdown of the center.

The St. Joseph’s Sheriff Department’s Abnet said another serious concern is financial – there is little money available to finance meth lab cleanups.

“The future is not looking pretty,” Abnet added. “And unless we can get some money and some help, I don’t see it getting any better.”

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Pets suffer when owners can’t say no to more animals

By ANGIE JACKSON
Capital News Service

LANSING – For some pet owners, love knows no bounds. And animal hoarding –owning more pets than one can adequately care for — usually develops from love, experts say.

Mary Pelton-Cooper, a psychology professor at Northern Michigan University, said animal hoarding is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder among people who may neglect their animals’ need for food, water, sanitation and care, despite good intentions.

“They think they’re caring for their animals and it spirals out of control,” Pelton-Cooper said. “They don’t have the problem-solving skills to stop.”

In one recent situation, 13 dogs and five birds were rescued in October from a Monterey Township man with a history of owning exotic pets such as an emu and a bear. The Allegan County Animal Shelter has custody of five of the dogs, and more court hearings lie ahead.

“Conditions were bad,” said shelter coordinator Allison Koster. “There was no food or water left out. It was just gross.”

Pelton-Cooper said an animal hoarder may understand that they have too many pets, but can’t stop.  The process goes in loops and ultimately, they’re trying to avoid the anxiety that would come from giving up their animals.

“They don’t experience it in the same way you or I would,” Pelton-Cooper said. “They may know it’s bad, but to them, living in feces is better than the uneasiness they’d feel giving the animals away.”

When taken to court, animal hoarders can be charged with animal cruelty.

For example, in September, the Oakland County Animal Control seized 13 malnourished horses in Rose Township, and their owner was sentenced to two years’ probation in November. One horse was put down and most of the others have been adopted, but five still need homes, said animal control supervisor Joanie Toole.

“If we feel as though animals are in the danger of dying or suffering, then we yank them. A lot of it had to do with financially, she couldn’t afford to feed the horses,” Toole said.

The animal control agency had given the owner one chance to improve conditions but she didn’t take advantage of it, Toole said.

While animal hoarding is a form of neglect, Chandra Grabill, a psychologist at the Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine, said many animal hoarders believe that keeping their pets, even in unhealthy conditions, is a valid way to help them.

“They often have strong emotional ties to animals,” Grabill said, adding that there are several reasons people hoard animals, such as anxiety disorders, delusions and extreme social isolation.

Jamie McAloon Lampman, director of Ingham County Animal Control, said she’s entered houses filled with decaying animal carcasses where the owners professed their love for their pets and meant it.

“We work hard to help hoarders, but it’s a no-win battle. No matter how hard they try to curb their behavior, they are like addicts to animals,” she said.

Northern Michigan’s Pelton-Cooper said hoarders often lack close human relationships. Their pets fill that void by providing a sense of closeness. Hoarders are commonly homebound, such as the elderly or people who don’t work.

And with such a secluded lifestyle, it’s difficult for an outsider to detect an animal hoarder, said Dayna Kennedy, shelter manager of the Marquette County Humane Society.

It’s important for anyone who suspects animal abuse to contact the local police department or animal control, she said.

“There’s absolutely nothing else we can do besides hope we get tips and make sure that people are held accountable,” Kennedy said, noting that hoarders avoid shelters and often acquire animals through newspaper advertisements or online instead.

“A lot of hoarders live in rural areas. Unfortunately, it’s hard to spot if they’re here because people don’t come around as much,” she said. “The mailmen and the meter readers are the ones who see it.”

Pelton-Cooper said, “When people engage in these kinds of behavior, they’re trying in their own way to help maintain their sanity. It’s hard for them to imagine how anyone else, or animals, feel.”

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Michigan preps for Civil War, again

By ERIC FREEDMAN
Capital News Service

LANSING – Michigan is arming for civil war – and not between Tea Party conservatives and pro-union liberals.

Instead, the state’s prepping for a 5-year-long commemoration of Michigan’s role in the Civil War.

“In many respects, the issues that confronted us 150 years ago still confront us — chief among them, what type of society are we, a society of equal opportunity or a society of class structure?” said Jack Dempsey of Plymouth, vice president of the Michigan Historical Commission.

It was 150 years ago that Abraham Lincoln narrowly won the presidency in a four-way race. He carried Michigan and 17 other states but took less than 40 percent of the popular vote.

Lincoln didn’t campaign in Michigan in 1860 but had visited the state four years earlier to campaign for the nation’s first Republican presidential nominee, John Fremont, according to historian William Anderson, a former president of West Shore Community College and ex-director of the state Department of History, Arts and Libraries.

On that visit, Lincoln told an audience in Kalamazoo, “The question of slavery, at the present day, should be not only the greatest question, but very nearly the sole question. This is the question: Shall the Government of the United States prohibit slavery in the United States.”

Fremont carried Michigan but Democrat James Buchanan won the election.

Lincoln’s own victory in 1860 triggered the secession of 11 southern states and the Civil War.

Looking back at the state’s part in the bloody conflict, Dempsey said, “It was a difficult time, a tragic time.

“You see 90,000 soldiers march off to war, a government apparatus that is adamant we are going to save the Union, and three quarters of a million Michiganders who, by and large, kept electing leaders who did not want two American nations to exist on this continent,” Dempsey said.

To make dusty history relevant, the commission’s Civil War Sesquicentennial plan includes a website for events around the state, classroom activities, programs at the Michigan Historical Center and development of a Civil War Heritage Trail.

How does the state intend to get children interested?

“By telling a great story and showing a great story,” not by burying them with dates, facts and figures, Dempsey said.

Telling great stories can range from historical reenactments to new technologies. One is a mobile phone application for self-guided learning opportunities – “maybe a battlefield, maybe a museum, maybe a park” – he said. “You can dive deeply into something.”

Some great stories involve little-remembered but intriguing Michigan personalities.

One was Sarah Thompson, who enlisted in a Detroit infantry unit under the name “Frank Thompson.” Disguised as a man, she participated in several battles, including Antietam, Fredericksburg and First Battle of Bull Run. She also served as a nurse and spy and infiltrated enemy lines 11 times.

Another was Elon Farnsworth of Green Oak Township, who was an Army general for only five days before being ordered on a “suicide charge” against southern troops at Gettysburg.

“His career was much abbreviated,” Dempsey said, noting that Michigan wants a monument erected in Farnsworth’s memory on the Gettysburg battlefield.

There also was West Point graduate Orlando Willcox of Detroit, who commanded the 1st Michigan Infantry, the first regiment from what was then the West to arrive in Washington.

Willcox was taken prisoner at the First Battle of Bull Run. Released more than a year later, he went on to fight at Antietem, Fredericksburg and other battles.

Other aspects of Michigan’s role in the war included its key stopping-points on the Underground Railroad for escaped slaves, farms that helped feed Union troops and the Upper Peninsula’s expanding iron mining industry that bolstered the North’s industrial might.

The sesquicentennial celebration also provides opportunities for further research.

For example, a new book by Martin Bertera of Wyandotte and Kim Crawford of Clarkston dives into soldiers’ letters, diaries and other documents to retell the story of a Michigan unit that fought at Gettsyburg.

“We hope the picture that will emerge from these pages is not of marble statue heroes or nameless men in sepia portraits, but one of real people who walked the streets of your hometown 150 years ago, or farmed the fields where your neighborhood now stands – men who volunteered, got sick, suffered, died, did heroic things, and who were afraid and lonely,” Bertera and Crawford wrote in “The 4th Michigan Infantry in the Civil War” (Michigan State University Press, $44.95).

 

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