I’m sitting in the passenger seat of a 2001 Chevy 3500 police van. Dubbed “the paddy wagon,” it is not new, it is not fast, and it certainly is not cool. To my left sits an AR-15, and next to that Flint Police Officer Dane Seltzer.
“You’re going to want to put that bulletproof vest underneath your jacket,” remarked Seltzer. The plan for the day is for me to accompany officer Seltzer as a ride around in Flint, Michigan: a city which continually ranks as one of America’s most dangerous cities. The only thing going through my mind: what the hell did I sign up for?
The morning starts off at 6:45 a.m. I make my way down to the Flint Police Department on E. 5th Street, only a quarter mile from my house. I get buzzed in the main doors and step inside. The building is old, and it smells that way. Two old fashioned, globe lamps hang on the wall with the words “police” written on them. They emanate a vintage noir feel, something you would see in a black and white film. I meet Seltzer for the first time and we get in the police van. It is used for mass arrests, as it can hold up to 11 people. Officers in the van are supposed to be taking low priority calls. However, Seltzer tells me this is not always the case, and will often respond to any call.
Seltzer has been an officer for 11 years, spending two of those with Flint. He was in one of the last graduating classes at the Flint Police Academy, which is now closed and remains abandoned. He says he wishes he could buy the property, but it’s not for sale. Seltzer shares that last year he personally handled multiple shootings and high-risk calls, also investigating numerous murders. He has been officer of the month for the past five months, and won one out of five department awards for saving an infant that was involved in a car accident. He is a real estate agent, landlord, entrepreneur, and owns multiple rental properties purchased through the Genesee County Land Bank.
Like many others, my outlook on the police was heavily influenced by the media, as well as hear-say. I had high hopes that this ride along would round-out my opinion of police officers. While not an officer hater, I personally experienced the long response time that Flint Police are known for. I share this frustration with Officer Seltzer and he understands. You’re always taught when something bad happens, call 911. But what do you do when the Police just don’t show up?
“I get it man,” said Seltzer. “When I tell you that there’s not enough cops, that’s an understatement.”
Seltzer explains that almost every call he responds to, the civilian remarks on how long it took the officers to get there.
During our Sunday morning shift, there are only seven cops on duty, which is the minimum. According to a 2016 US Census estimate, around 98,000 people live in this city. That roughly equates the officer-civilian ratio to be 1 per 14,000 persons. Grossly understaffed is an understatement. He shows me an example of a call for the previous day that was received at 4:35 p.m. Records show an officer was unable to get the the scene until 6:00p.m.
“When it comes down to it, we just need more cops,” said Seltzer.
He shared the Police Department requested for additional officers on the city’s next budget. He hopes it gets approved, as they currently only have around 100 officers.
“It would really help the citizens along with the Police Department; as police officers, we want to have very quick response time. However, we need the resources of boots on the streets,” said Seltzer.
I mention the issue surrounding police officers nationwide: the showcasing of excessive force. It seems like every day a new story breaks of an officer abusing power, and police brutality has become a pop-culture buzzword.
“I’ll never justify brutality just because it’s another cop. But there could be more to the story. The video you see might have had something before happen that you don’t know about. Someone off-screen might have a weapon, but you don’t know that watching that,” said Seltzer. “I’ve read all the articles…I’ve just come to believe that most articles written about us (police) are not to our advantage.”
Seltzer explains that he cannot always be gentle when someone is resisting arrest but “when they’re in cuffs, it’s done.” He stated he cannot name a single lawsuit brought against the Flint Police for an issue of over-reaction or what could be referred to as brutality.
“We care and have solid cops,” said Seltzer. “City cops get that reputation because we’re very hands on…I think yesterday I fought four times.”
However, he believes in something he calls “verbal judo,” which is diffusing intense situations through talking.
“You’re getting in somebody’s head to solve an issue,” said Seltzer. “It comes down to good training and practicing different techniques to solve most situations.”
I ask him why anyone would want to become a police officer, let alone work in Flint.
“It’s the best job in the world,” Seltzer explains. “Where else can you have a job that allows you to drive fast and catch bad guys?”
I find the speed comment humorous, as I doubt the van could hit 65 mph going downhill with a tailwind.
“We know what we’re getting ourselves into, so it’s not necessarily about the money,” explained Seltzer. “Anybody on this police department can go work for GM. Anybody can go back to school and do what they want to do.”
He strongly believes that everyone who works for the Flint City Police Department is there because they want to be.
“I enjoy helping people, I don’t do it for the money,” said Seltzer.
It is public record that Flint police are underpaid and understaffed, however, some news articles have overstretched this truth, according to Seltzer. This past September, The Flint Journal published an article titled “Flint tries to hire police with pay less than janitors, manicurists and bellhops.” The first lines of the story states $11.25 an hour is “the starting hourly wage for an entry-level officer at the Flint Police Department, according to a job posting for a new police officer recruit.” The story, which has been shared 7,200 times, would lead a reader to believe Flint police officers start by making $11.25 an hour.
However, this number is false, and according to Seltzer, the story has become a running joke within the Flint Police Department. The story was derived from a job posting from a Flint City Recruit position. This position is a sponsored one, in which the city pays potential future police officers $11.25 an hour to attend the Mott Police Academy, as well as the estimated $6,000 academy tuition. Once a graduate passes the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards (MCOLES) exam and is sworn in, base pay for a Flint officer is $18.50/hr. They are also eligible for overtime, which pays out time and a half. Additionally, those who work the night shift receive $1.50/hr. more.
Officer Seltzer shares some of the comments he has received in regards to that article.
“When that article came out we were going to houses and people were consistently saying ‘we feel so bad for you guys. How do you do it? I work at Save-a-Lot and make 12.75 an hour, I make more than you!’ and then I tell them I make $20 an hour.”
The article contrasted the $11.25 with low-paying positions such as substitute teachers, restaurant cooks, and janitors. Seltzer feels the story might portray police as inexperienced. He believes it makes them seem as if “we went from the grocery store bagging produce to here.” It also discourages new applicants. Seltzer believes new officers “won’t apply here because they think they’re making 12 bucks an hour, and that’s not the case.”
Despite the skewed facts, the paper has chosen to keep the article up. The Michigan Times reached out to the publication for clarification, but was unable to get a response. Seltzer remarks that the article “is just another media outlet getting a shred of information and running with it.”
I ask how after seeing a murder, getting yelled at by civilians he’s sworn to protect, or pulling up to a gunfight, how officers manage to go back home and leave work at the door.
“You can’t come in thinking people are bad. You’ve got to give them the benefit of the doubt. Even people that made mistakes aren’t bad people as long as they admit it, move on with their life, and are doing good now,” said Seltzer.
He shares that the best feeling is that of helping people.
“I practice being a good police officer every day,” said Seltzer. “I’ve talked to plenty of people who I know for a fact I changed their life. If I do end up hurt or dead, I had purpose in my life.”
My ride along was more than intriguing, even though Officer Seltzer insisted it was a very slow day. I believe my eyes were opened to a whole different side of the city I call home, and I saw inner-city police work at its finest. While I am contractually not allowed to share details on what I heard and saw, several calls included a heroin overdose, multiple domestic violence reports, and I witnessed an arrest. Almost every other call that squawked over the radio mentioned a gun, something Officer Seltzer explained was very normal.
“We’re not out here pulling over old ladies and giving out tickets,” said Seltzer. “We’re doing real police work, and trying to make the city better every day.”