Detroit — A basement office inside the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office headquarters has become an unlikely front in the rising tensions between the union and Sheriff Raphael Washington.
As of Thursday, the union that represents 540 Wayne County deputy sheriffs no longer has space to operate there. In a June 25 letter to the Wayne County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, Daniel Pfannes, executive chief of the sheriff’s office, gave the move-out order, which goes into effect at 4 p.m.
The so-called eviction is the latest point of contention between the union and Washington, who have clashed over working conditions for deputies amid staffing shortfalls and mandatory overtime requirements within the department.
“It’s union-busting 101,” said Cpl. Reginald Crawford, president of the union, who regards the move as an insult.
But Washington counters that he needs the space for internal affairs investigations and that it’s a matter of “efficiency.”
“They do delicate work. Also, it’s my prerogative, who works where,” he said. “I’m the sheriff, and this is my building.”
Washington said he found during a recent tour of the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office that its internal affairs division “is in a wing by themselves,” and he believes that’s a worthy standard.
Union leaders on Wednesday, a day ahead of the deadline, pulled a moving truck up and cleared out the office. Another space will be provided at a different facility.
Robert Dunlap, chief of courts and jails for the sheriff’s office, identified in the letter as the contact for the new office space, says no one in the union has reached out yet.
Sheriff’s office officials describe the space in question as a one-person office in the basement, near internal affairs.
“We have space at the jails where they’d have access to hundreds of their members at a time, not just the few working at headquarters,” Washington added.
The one thing the sheriff and the union agree on is that the union does its work out of the Police Officers Association of Michigan building in Redford Township.
The sheriff-provided office space is contractually required, but the sheriff’s office says there’s no requirement that space be at headquarters.
The union sees it as a breach in custom. Crawford, the union president, said the association has “always” had space at the headquarters building at 4747 Woodward Avenue.
Crawford said he was left “somewhat perplexed” by the timing of the move-out notice.
While Pfannes wrote the move-out notice, Washington himself wrote a June 28 letter to Crawford, asking for the union’s help with recruiting.
There are 200 openings for corrections deputies at Wayne County Jail.
Washington, in the letter, said he shares the union’s safety concerns with the daily ordering of mandatory overtime for deputies at the jails. He says the only way to the other side is recruiting people to lessen the staffing pinch and spread the burden.
“I also realize that we are stronger and better together, and I welcome and invite you and members of the Wayne County Deputy Sheriff’s Association to partner with us and develop programs and strategies to attract, recruit and encourage qualified applicants to join our team,” Washington wrote.
Crawford says deputies are being ordered to work entire weeks of 16-hour days, without regard for their physical or mental health. He calls the jails a “labor plantation.”
Washington takes offense to that, noting the workers are compensated for their time and that the rhetoric hurts recruiting efforts.
“We’ve got guys making $150,000, putting their kids through college on what they make,” he said.
A recruiting event in Detroit in May drew only two applicants, 1% of what’s needed — and that’s if both men who turned up complete the application and screening process, and take the job.
The union argues that words aren’t why there’s a recruiting struggle, conditions are.
“Sir, as citizens of Wayne County who are parents and grandparents, we cannot in good conscience recommend that people come to work at the sheriff’s office knowing what we know about the handling of this (staffing) crisis,” Crawford wrote in his response to Washington.
Washington says that labor shortages and forced overtime are nothing new and predate his tenure. The other common gripe, that the pay scale is too low, is a decision made by the county executive’s office, not the sheriff, he said.
The starting salary in Wayne County, $36,000, lower than the sheriff’s offices in Oakland ($40,000) and Macomb ($44,000).
In May, the union issued a report card for Washington, giving the sheriff mostly failing grades, for issues including recruiting strategy and employee relations.
Washington was appointed in January. He takes over for the late sheriff Benny Napoleon, who died in December.
Crawford noted that Washington is an “appointed, not elected” sheriff, and that’s part of the reason the union feels he needs extra scrutiny.
An election will be hold in November 2022 to fill the rest of late Sheriff Benny Napoleon’s term. Napoleon won the 2020 election, but died in December. Washington was appointed in January.
“We’ve been dealing with these issues for years,” Washington said. “I don’t know how I became the monster in six months on the job.”