HOWARD CITY — The police officers in this village are hanging up their blue uniform and donning a garment of brown.
Today, the Howard City Police Department officially merges with the Montcalm County Sheriff’s Office, bringing an end to the police department history of nearly six decades. It’s a noteworthy undertaking, unmatched by any other in county history, as far as Sheriff Bill Barnwell knows.
“This is the first time that I can recall existing employees were transferred into the sheriff’s office,” Barnwell said. “Over the years, we have contracted with the village of Sheridan and the township of Crystal after they ended their police departments. However, we did not absorb their personnel.”
Howard City Police Chief Steve DeWitt and Officers Brandon Allen and Trent Moeggenberg were officially sworn in as sheriff’s deputies earlier this week. DeWitt and Moeggenberg will remain in Howard City, working out of the same office and driving the same police cruisers. Allen will undergo some training at the sheriff’s office and another sheriff’s deputy will join DeWitt and Moeggenberg in Howard City to ensure three full-time officers are employed to serve the Howard City area’s 36 square miles.
The existing police agreement between the village of Howard City and Reynolds Township for 20 hours of police protection per week will now be handled by the sheriff’s office. Howard City will pay the sheriff’s office for 5,000 hours of police coverage per year and Reynolds Township will pay for 1,000 hours for a total of 6,000 hours per year, or three full-time deputies.
Howard City will pay Montcalm County a total of $511,170 over the course of the three-year contract, which expires on Dec. 31, 2016, at which time village officials can choose to renew the contract or reestablish their own police department. Reynolds Township will pay Montcalm County $29,820 through the end of this year, at which time township officials can choose whether to extend the contract.
Howard City Village President S. Michael Scott said he believes the merger will enhance existing police activity.
“We have had an excellent police department for decades, however, with changes in requirements and administration, it has become increasingly difficult to have our officers on the road as many hours as we would like,” Scott said. “This agreement with the administrative resources that the sheriff’s office provides will allow more proactive policing.
“It is always difficult to change, but we feel that it is the right time and the change will not only benefit both the citizens of the village and township, but also the sheriff’s department,” Scott added.
Citizens in Howard City and Reynolds Township should still call 911 for emergencies. For non-emergencies or to contact a sheriff’s deputy, citizens should call Montcalm County Central Dispatch at (989) 831-3500 or the Montcalm County Sheriff’s Office at (989) 831-7590.
A look back at history
The beginnings of law enforcement in Howard City started in the form of a village marshall. The village had 29 different marshals from 1873 to 1956, according to Scott, who enjoys compiling the history of his hometown. Harvey Williams, a sheriff’s deputy, became the village’s first police chief starting in 1956.
Scott had the opportunity to work alongside all six of the village’s police chiefs. Williams was the police chief when Scott was a boy and was still chief when Scott was first elected to the village council in 1972.
“I can remember Harvey’s 1956 Ford Police Interceptor police car,” Scott said. “Back in those days, the police officers purchased their own vehicles.”
Williams retired as a sheriff’s lieutenant in 1980. He was preceded as Howard City’s police chief by Frank Grannis, John Haurat, John Hannkins, Charles Shayler and DeWitt, the current police chief.
The village police chief position was officially a part-time job until 1985, when Shayler became chief, although Scott noted officers back then would tell you there is no such thing as a part-time police officer in a small town. Shayler had worked in law enforcement since 1966, serving as a Claire County detective, police chief of the village of Lakeview and deputy for Ionia County.
“Chief Shayler was instrumental in developing the Howard City Police Department into the efficient and effective department it is today,” Scott said. “Through his leadership, the police department has developed from basically one full-time and three part-time department to a three full-time person agency.”
DeWitt joined the Howard City Police Department in 1998, working alongside Police Chief Charles “Chuck” Shayler. DeWitt recalls thinking it odd at first that everyone in the community called the village’s police officers by their first name. He soon came to prefer the practice, as he felt it helped give the police department a feeling of hometown service.
“In the beginning it was just Chief Shayler and I,” DeWitt recalled. “I was immediately impressed with just how busy the Howard City police were. Our caseloads and calls for service were significant, reflecting both our unique geographic area, a major expressway and two state highways traversing our jurisdiction, along with a growing population contributing to those number of calls.
Shayler retired in 2008 and DeWitt was promoted to police chief. As DeWitt looks back at his 16 years with the village police department, he’s overwhelmed with memories, inspiring and tragic.
He remembers one night when three children got lost in a swampy area behind their home in the middle of winter. The temperature was zero degrees. As a certified diver, DeWitt was called in to search the icy cold river nearby. He kept praying he wouldn’t find the children in the water. Happily, the children were safely found after midnight. They had been hiding under grass and bushes along the river, cold and afraid, but otherwise fine.
DeWitt remembers another winter and another lost child, a little girl who went missing in a heavily wooded area behind her home. A coordinated effort of nearly 20 officers, two canine units and a helicopter all joined in the search. The girl was found huddled behind a tree hours later. She had fallen into an icy creek and was nearly frozen. The emergency room doctor told officers the girl’s body temperature had fallen dangerously low and she was lucky to be alive.
The girl made officers and emergency responders a poster thanking them for finding her. The poster still hangs on the wall of DeWitt’s office. He calls it “one of the best rewards I’ve ever received.”
Howard City police officers have tracked and located armed robbers, drug dealers, murderers and torturers. They have shoveled snow for elderly village residents. They have donated their own time and effort to Toys For Tots and other community events. They have contacted crime victims long after the investigation was over to see how they were doing.
“The list of stories goes on and on,” DeWitt said. “One common thread in all the stories is we have the officers’ consistency of serving our communities. I know it sounds a bit corny to say, but it’s true. The officers here really work at doing a good job and that started with the example I saw in Chief Shayler. It’s the same dedication that I’ve seen in officers working various agencies all across this area.”
A new beginning
As Howard City’s police officers turned sheriff’s deputies prepare for their first full week on the job, all parties involved are optimistic about their new adventure in unexplored territory.
“This agreement is an excellent example of government agencies working together to provide the best and most economical way to provide services to the citizens in their community,” Barnwell said. “All three of the officers are very qualified and have done an excellent job with the Howard City Police Department. I am confident they will continue to do so as they assume their new role as sheriff’s deputies.”
Scott wanted to extend his thanks to all past and present Howard City Police Department employees for their faithful and dedicated service to the community.
“We hope everyone will wish the best for Steve DeWitt, Trent Moeggenberg and Brandon Allen in their employment with the Montcalm County Sheriff’s Department,” Scott said.
DeWitt said there has been a growing level of anticipation and excitement over the past month and all parties involved worked to make the switch a successful one.
“The deputies and the administration have really gone out of their way to welcome us and make us feel welcomed,” DeWitt said. “We have returned the same. As with all new ideas and endeavors, there will be the small unknowns that will be worked out as we go, but I believe this merger will go very smoothly. We are all respected colleagues and the sheriff’s department has an excellent administration to lead it and very fine and well trained officers in its ranks.
“We tried to convince them to switch to blue uniforms, but practical as they are they pointed out it was more cost-effective for us to switch to brown, so brown it is,” DeWitt added with a smile.