Saturday, July 30, 2016

(Editor’s note: I wrote this several months ago when news broke when Lenawee County law enforcement officials decided it was best to begin prosecuting individuals for overdue library books.)

Back in June 2014, five 16-year-old boys inadvertently closed down Tecumseh Park’s (The Pit) beach for several days after discharging blowgun darts near the waterfront. To comb the beach for darts, bring in extra sand and commission the Lenawee County Sheriff’s Office’s dive team to search the water cost City of Tecumseh taxpayers an estimated $6,600, according to The Tecumseh Herald, where I originally reported this story.

The five were never held accountable as they quickly retained a local attorney, David Stimpson, who mediated with former Tecumseh City Manager Kevin Welch, showing a city employee where the darts were used at The Pit. According to the police report at the time, the darts were about five-and-a-half inches and had a very sharp point.

Thanks to attorney-client privilege, Stimpson was able to withhold the names of his clients from the Tecumseh Police Department. Tecumseh Police Chief Troy Stern said in an interview with The Herald on July 17, 2014, “He’s protecting his clients. My hands are really tied.” If the identities of the boys became known, Stern added he would take statements and add them to the police report that would then be filed with Tecumseh City Attorney Scott Baker.

“What would we gain from charging them?” Stern said when asked if charges should be brought against them.

Uh, how about the $6,600 in taxpayer money spent cleaning up their negligence? Yes, they are minors, but they still cost taxpayers money, not unlike Cathy and Melvin Duren and their unreturned library books.

And even then, I did not hold the opinion that the boys should be held fully accountable for complete restitution but suggested maybe some volunteering to keep city parks clean. Live. Learn. Move on.

Stern added that it would be up to Baker and his interpretation of the city ordinance before any decision would be made on charging the boys with a crime. Stern said he would check with Baker and get back with the paper.

For reference, city ordinance Sec. 50-341 reads “No person shall shoot or discharge any firearm, air rifle, air pistol, spring gun, bow and arrow, crossbow, slingshot, or any other dangerous weapon or instrument in the city except as provided in this division.”

Stern never got back to The Herald—at least not during my additional 16 months at the paper—as to whether Baker felt discharging blowgun darts constituted a violation of the city ordinance. And without suspects, the city’s hands were tied in that regard. However, asking around just this past winter, I discovered I could easily get the names of those involved. I, of course, did not, as the police should be able to do the same.

All this brings us to the arrest of the Durens over two unreturned library books—one lost and one unreturned. Actually, we will get to that in a minute. Let’s go back to just before the November 2015 elections where two newcomers were challenging three open seats on Tecumseh City Council.

Gayle Keiser and Jason Ziemer, the two challengers, held a coffee hour just weeks ahead of the election. Several residents attended and a few brought up the idea that decisions for the city were made behind closed doors—that important issues were decided by city elites and not the citizens and their elected officials.

At the time, after covering city government and politics for over a year, I discarded the thought as preposterous even though I held a similar belief before becoming a local reporter, having lived in Tecumseh almost the entirety of my life.

Growing up, I had always heard about The Tecumseh Club or T Club as those hip to the spot called it, which is located downtown above Basil Boys and now has a prominent sign finally advertising itself to the world. Talking to those who live in the county, but not Tecumseh, you get the idea the city has a generally negative opinion about it. Though, often in these discussions, there is one caveat—if you have a name and money, there is no better place to live than Tecumseh.

With enough power and influence, and the right connections, you may even be able to get your police report altered before it hits the newspaper, scrubbing it of any potentially embarrassing moments (It happens, trust me). Others of lesser fortune are far from that lucky. If only we had money, right?

The outrage over the arrest of the Durens has little to do with the crime, which they did commit, and more to do with the perceived dichotomy between the rich and poor not only in the local community but the U.S. as well at the hands of the justice system and policing.

Take the case of Ethan Anthony Couch, who at 16 drove drunk and killed four in a subsequent automobile crash. A psychologist argued because of Couch’s family wealth Ethan was unable to understand the consequences of his actions. He was originally sentenced to a lockdown at a rehabilitation center. If this is not an example of money buying privilege, then I have no idea what is.

Yes, the Couch case is extreme, but it happens. And while it happened in Texas, far from Tecumseh and Lenawee County Courts, we still have to fight for some uniformity in how the rich and poor are treated in the justice system. Even if that means letting a couple resolve their issues with the library and move on. No fine, no jail time, no diversion fee.

In the April 21 edition of The Herald, Stern said, while responding to criticism of the department at the April 18 Tecumseh City Council meeting, his officers have to serve a warrant when it is issued by a judge. That is true. Not doing so breaks the law. However, it seems like Stern has his hands tied at the most opportune times. Or inopportune times.

And it is easy to criticize police in this situation. I am sure they would much rather spend their time sitting above businesses downtown during race weekend keeping an eye out for mysterious drink containers. Or combating our rampant chicken infestation.

However, if police are there to protect and serve the community, along with the entirety of the justice system, forcing a disadvantaged couple on a fixed income to pay to make the whole legal matter go away—well that is neither protecting nor serving the community, but instead putting duress on those least capable of protecting themselves.

If the Durens could afford a lawyer, would their fate be different? Yes, they should have returned the books and responded to the letters and court orders. But the issue has been resolved. If the Tecumseh District Library was most concern with taxpayer money, then having the Lenawee County Economic Crimes Unit spend $400, according to The Daily Telegram, to bring a case against a couple for a $5 library book, is misguided judgment and taking advantage of taxpayers.

As my father said, “They are jumping over dollars for dimes.” And boy, are they making a fool of themselves in the process.

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