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Detroit police stations to severely cut public hours

By John D. Stoll

DETROIT (Reuters) - Detroit, which has one of the highest crime rates of large American cities, plans to close its police stations to the public for 16 hours a day -- including the critical overnight hours -- as the cash-strapped city struggles to slash costs.

Public-facing desks at the eight stations that represent the eight precincts or districts of the Detroit Police Department will be closed at 4 p.m. every day and reopen the next morning at 8 a.m. starting on Monday. It means residents could have a harder time immediately finding face-to-face help from the police during key hours of the day.

The moves are expected to lead to "virtual precincts" as the police department plans to redeploy desk-bound officers to more time on the streets during the affected hours.

The plan comes as Detroit is seeing a sharp rise in its murder rate, up 14 percent in the first half of 2011 from the same period a year earlier, according to FBI statistics.

The administration of Mayor Dave Bing is under intense pressure to cut hundreds of millions in costs. The city estimates it could run out of money within the next 90 days if immediate action is not taken. The state is currently conducting a financial review that could result in a state takeover

The plan to cut public hours at police stations was first reported by Detroit media outlets and confirmed Wednesday by Stephen Serkaian, a spokesman for Bing. A spokeswoman for the police department declined to give further details and said the city's police chief will lay out a comprehensive plan at a press briefing Thursday afternoon.

"I think it is the right thing to do," Steven Dolunt, the commanding officer of the Eastern District, said in a telephone interview, noting that the majority of people needing help from police use the phone instead of coming into a station.

The police department plans to create online tools so citizens can use the Internet to reach out for help as well, he said.

There were 173 murders in Detroit from January through June last year, or one murder per 4,125 citizens, according to the most recent FBI statistics. Violent crime decreased during that period, but remains significantly higher than most similarly-sized cities. Detroit has 713,000 residents as of 2010.

Detroit's murder rate has risen as rates in some other cities with reputations for violence -- such as Baltimore and New Orleans -- remained essentially flat.

Detroit's police department, along with other critical services, has shouldered considerable cuts in recent years. The city has scrambled to reduce costs and structure in the face of a shrinking population, escalating legacy costs, and lower tax revenues.

In addition to cutting public access hours at police stations, the department will lay off about 100 police officers in order to trigger federal grants, Serkaian said. Those grants would pay for the immediate re-hiring of the affected officers.

Serkaian said Bing's administration is looking to minimize the impact that an ongoing city restructuring plan will have on police and fire services. Some in the city council have called for as many as 500 additional layoffs in those departments, but Serkaian said Bing opposes cuts that deep.

The city currently employs nearly 3,000 police officers, compared with about 5,500 in 2001, according to the Citizens Research Council of Michigan.

The latest downsizing plan is already reigniting criticism of the police department.

"I was a police officer in Detroit for 35 years and I can tell you they have wasted money for 35 years," John Barr, a representative for the Police Officers Association of Michigan, said in a telephone interview. "It's pathetic, just pathetic."

Bing recently laid out a plan to cut $258 million over the next 18 months, $102 million of which needs to be cut the middle of 2012. Michigan Treasurer Andy Dillon is heading a separate team looking into Detroit's financials in order to decide whether the city needs an emergency manager to take over.

(Reporting By John D. Stoll; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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