A New Sheriff In Town

An Exclusive and In-Depth Interview with Sheriff William Federspiel

Posted In: Politics, Local, Interviews, News, Local,   From Issue 675   By: Robert E Martin

15th January, 2009     0

It is almost one year to the day that Bill Federspiel tended his resignation to the Saginaw City Council announcing his intention to run for Sheriff of Saginaw County, launching an unprecedented challenge to then 10-year incumbent Sheriff Charles Brown.

Upon beating Brown in a major upset primary contest, Federspiel was elected Sheriff by the voters of Saginaw County in the November election and just recently was sworn into office.

Born in Saginaw, Federspiel is a strong advocate of higher education for officers and spent a formative stint, serving in a myriad of capacities, with the City of Cape Coral in Southern Florida.  

He accepted a position with the Saginaw Township Police Department in 1996, fueled by a desire to serve the community in which he grew up and the hometown that he loved, which he viewed as being torn apart by gangs, drugs, and senseless homicides.

During the first week of January The Review sat down with Federspiel to conduct the following in-depth interview on a broad range of topics in hopes of bringing readers closer into touch with the make-up, goals, history, and aspirations of Saginaw County's newest elected full time lawman – an individual riding the divide between order and safety within our society, and those forces who's activity constantly threatens to rip it apart.

Review: Let's start at the beginning.  How did you get interested in law enforcement? Was it something that you always wanted to be involved in?

Federspiel: I was born in 1968 and grew up in Saginaw on Maplewood Street. Ever since I can remember, I was drawn to law enforcement. In fact there is a Polaroid photo of me at the age of five with my brother, who's 10 months older. He's wearing a Lions sweatshirt and I'm dressed in a red and grey police officer's outfit, which kind of looks like a Canadian Mounted Police officer, but is rather telling about my desire.

As a child, I was drawn to Hollywood movie characters that were police oriented and watched shows like Hawaii Five-O and The Rockford Files. Nobody in my family was ever into law enforcement, but I remember my grandfather owned all the original Ian Fleming James Bond novels, which I read from cover-to-cover. This helped develop a fascination with law enforcement; but if you think about it, America as a culture is attracted to law enforcement, if you look at all the shows on TV starting with Dragnet all the way up to contemporary shows like America's Most Wanted and Cops. As a culture we're fascinated with this line of work, so I developed the bug for it at an early age.

As a teenager I attended St. Stephens and graduated from Nouvel High School in 1976, then went to SVSU as a law enforcement major with a minor in accounting. Before Jon Cisky became a State Senator, he was one of my professors, and I found his classes to be extraordinary. He told real life stories that pushed me to pursue this as a career. But after finishing my first year of college at the age of 19, I was fired up about becoming a police officer, only was too young to be hired anywhere around here, so I started phoning out-of-state. I landed a job in Cape Coral Florida and without it; I might not have pursued my bid for Sheriff.

The department in Florida gave me a whole new perspective about law enforcement because it was a progressive department.  Here we have departments that are stagnant or downsizing, but they had lots of money in Florida and a sizable tax base, so more programs and divisions open to serve the public.

From there I got into community policing and undercover work and was exposed to different Chiefs, some from big cities, some not, that helped me formulate what kind of officer I would be. But the differences were vast.  For instance, in Saginaw Township we didn't have computers in patrol cars until the year 2000; but in Florida, we'd already had them for five years.

When I returned to Saginaw in 1996, the city wasn't hiring so I got a job with the township and left almost 12 years to the day to become Sheriff. During that time, my stint on Saginaw City Council was a great experience as well, which I felt proud to do. It was a learning experience and without it I wouldn't be as prepared to do this job as I am.

I told my wife the other day, everything happens for a reason. I came to this point for a reason. All of these life experiences folded together, one serving as a stepping-stone to the other. Working in the township with limited supervision to the City Council with one major employer and a city manager overseeing large budget numbers prepared me for this next step, to work with County Commissioners to make large decisions and be accountable to the public.

Review: Is there one overriding factor that made you want to go after the Sheriff position?

Federspiel: That's a good question.  I always wanted to be a leader of a police agency and growing up in Saginaw, the focus is on the local municipality. The city police department was the forerunners, with 220 officers at its peak and two helicopters. I honestly didn't know much about the Sheriff department growing up, but in Florida, the Sheriff departments were the leaders and cities would follow their lead.

I wanted to be the leader of an agency, thinking maybe I'd like to be a police chief some day. But the change can when I sat on City Council. I would watch Chief Cliff come before Council, but I didn't have any direction over Chief Cliff because City Manager Earley did. Indeed, the City and Township manager positions are very powerful.  Ultimately, I police chief answers to the manager, whereas a Sheriff openly answers to the people that elected him.  That's what I really wanted – the direct accountability for my actions – not to a Manager, but to the people.

True as a Sheriff you must work with Commissioners, but you don't need to ask permission to do things within the department, so it offers a freedom I wouldn't have enjoyed anywhere else.

Review: Your election historically is rather significant. Traditionally, the baton is handed down from the Sheriff to the under-Sheriff, but you broke the mold by challenging and beating an incumbent, which must have been a daunting task. In retrospect, was it more difficult or easier than you thought it would be?

Federspiel: I always knew that it would be difficult and it became more difficult than I imagined as the campaign went on.  In all my research I hadn't found any sitting Sheriff in 170 years that had ever been beaten in a primary, so I knew if I won I would be making history.

But in the beginning, politics reared its head and I don't know if enough crow could serve the hunger now of certain people that opposed me. It dawned on me that I was up against a machine and people were siding with my opponent because he was in power. It's just like Vegas – players will side with the odds, but sometimes doing that can burn you. Some people chose to go with what was safe, but along the way, doors started opening for me.  I won't mention names, but when certain people started opening those doors for me, it became significant and revelatory.

Review: One big factor in your favor this past election year was that people were hungry for change on all levels when it came to politics…

Federspiel: Absolutely. A few people would start to listen to my message and then others started to listen and apparently they liked what they heard. It built up a momentum, but it took a lot of hard work and dedication. Plus I had to keep things separate. I promised my Boss in the township that I would keep my bid for Sheriff separate from my job, which was difficult to do. But it paid off in the end with a victory and should give hope to those who think they can't beat the machine. If you believe in something, you should always give it a shot.

Review: Is there a certain point in the campaign where you sensed a tipping point that your message was getting out there and you might possibly win?

Federspiel: Yes, it happened in early June. I had been talking about my platform of being a 'people sheriff' and answering questions and also acting as an educator, saying you don't have to take what's been given you. My message became one of how 'we' the people own the office and whomever we elect is a custodian. That message started taking hold. Plus I will say that my opponent did a few things that didn't help his cause, like the T-shirt incident at the courthouse and the billboards he ran – people saw through that. Politicians think voters are not that bright about things, but when you do that, it comes back to bite you. Voters are smarter than you think.

Review: Was the transition with Sheriff Brown a difficult one?

Federspiel: I beat Sheriff Brown on August 5th and we had talked a week before that and I didn't speak with him again until December 3rd. He had a tough time with it, but finally we agreed to meet and were able to get things done. It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be and I give him credit on his ability to get together and transition power. He didn't congratulate me, but I wished him well.

In fact, one of the first tasks I performed was to order both the former Sheriff and Under-Sheriff a set of retired badges because whether we got along or not, I feel they deserved that. Looking back, things are operating smoothly. We have a good staff that just needs direction on where to go. I need to work with the budget and find training money and in many ways, my job is going to be a resource manager.

Review: How's the budget process working now with the state of the economy and budgets tightening all over the place? Do you have any ideas on how to maximize efficiency?

Federspiel: Absolutely. One of the biggest things I learned was to work with people that you supervise and help their morale. The men & women that work with me I believe in and I think they'll do a great job for the public. My job is to make morale better, because it wasn't very good when I took over.

One of the first things I did was relatively easy. I was speaking to the night shift and one of the Sergeants pointed to his tie and said they'd been trying to get rid of those for a couple of years and wondered if they could have the option of wearing a black turtleneck.

So I made a command decision and said, 'Yes, you can'. You would think I gave them each a thousand bucks. So just little things like that can make a difference. Sometimes administrators become too rigid and if you take a half step it appears to be a major step. You have to evaluate what's important and what is not. Some officers are more warm-blooded than others and believe it or not, we have a policy that says on a specific date you move to short sleeve shirts. I can wear a jacket according to policy, but if I want to wear a long sleeve shirt it's against policy after this certain date. Those things make no sense. So my new policy is when the weather turns warm, you can wear short sleeves, as long as it's a prescribed shirt. Treating employees like adults goes a long way. They wear guns on their hips and make life-and-death decisions, so for me to free them up so they can make a decision like that goes a long way.

That's one progressive idea that won't cost me a dime.

Review: How big is the staff right now?

Federspiel: We have 130 employees and 89 in support services that are volunteer and special duty. For example, that posse member you see on a horse at the Saginaw Fair is not paid. As for actual road patrol right now we have maybe 25 officers. The department is shrinking, not through layoffs, but through attrition. We haven't been hiring replacements as the county population drops, which is unfortunate, but is what it is.

Review: What do you feel are the biggest issues pertaining to crime in Saginaw County right now?

Federspiel: Drugs and gangs are the biggest issues because they affect everyone. It's also a growing problem. We can say its based on the economy, but I don't buy into that argument. I worked narcotics in Florida and when the economy is booming it just means people can buy more exotic drugs. Here it's more psychological. People feel they can't operate in society under the current circumstances and need a spark in their life so turn to drugs. I don't think the economy can change that.

Review: That's true. A lot of kids that turn to drugs don't see a future. They think why spend money on college with no guarantee of a job when I can sell drugs and become a millionaire overnight…

Federspiel: Especially if they are kids with parents that don't care. I grew up by Weber school and my parents would never let me roam the streets past midnight. My Dad would have probably spanked me with a belt if I did that. A lot of these parents don't know where their child is, so you have this breakdown in communication and kids start searching for something else. This feeds into gangs. I can't control that as a sheriff but I can work with people to provide resources for these kids, especially when they end up in jail.

I look at the Sheriff as a 'law enforcer', which I am. Ultimately, I am a police chief of sorts, but I'm also a warden at a jail that houses 513 people, so I'm wearing two distinctly different hats.  One day I'm looking at law enforcement and on the other side, I need to provide safe conditions for inmates and get them help when I can.

Review: Crack cocaine is a huge problem in Saginaw.  Kids from Midland will drive to Saginaw to purchase it. Why is it so difficult to nail the known crack dealers?

Federspiel: That's a good question. First of all, a rock of crack is relatively small and these guys don't carry large quantities. It's usually the size of a fingernail and if they throw it on the ground, good luck finding it. Plus you need to know they have it and intend to distribute it and possess a known narcotic, which can be difficult to establish. They also find minors to sell it and even grandparents.

But like everything else, it's all about supply and demand. Reducing the demand is my goal, because then you can reduce the supply. You can bust five dealers right now and five more pop up because of high demand. The problem is to figure how to reduce that demand and education is a good place to start. Once you get them in jail you can provide incentives and approaches to educate them. Once they are in jail, I have their undivided attention and they have no access to drugs or alcohol, so maybe they can see the wisdom of making better decisions.

Review: In England they treat drug cases from a medical instead of a criminal perspective.  Did you favor the decriminalization of medical marijuana?

Federspiel: Yes, I was the only candidate that went on record in favor of it. My biggest problem is the cost and drain on resources. People say that I sound like a libertarian and in a way I believe ideology crosses over at different points. I've always believed we should have the freedom to live our lives as long as it's not infringing on the rights of others. When someone infringes on the freedom of another, that's when you need a sheriff. Drugs are not the problem but the fact people will steal or kill someone to get them is a huge problem. If people took responsibility for their actions, we wouldn't have these problems. Plus everybody knows when he or she gets jail time, somebody will come along and do something worse, so they may get released earlier.  We can't afford that luxury.

Review:  Do you support a metropolitan police force and do you feel that would be a big way to save resources when it comes to duplication of service?

Federspiel: Yes, I believe that makes the most sense. If it makes sense for Saginaw County in this day and age, I don't know for certain; but we do have 16 Chiefs plus a Sheriff, so lots of individual decisions are being made. This is based upon the 'no-boundaries' premise that crime knows no boundary, which is true. But criminals go where they think they'll derive the most benefit.

A Metro force is easier to start in areas of the southwest that are growing – areas that started out small and are booming years later.  Unions aren't the problem so much as command staff and the fact each city and township that moves to a Metro force perceives that they are losing control. It's the 'my agency' syndrome and the biggest stumbling block within the local municipalities.

 Local mangers know they can direct the Chief to do whatever they want, but they can't direct the Sheriff. But that's what you have with a Metro force – a sheriff in charge that is elected by the people.

Review: Can you elaborate on your desire to expand education within the department?

Federspiel: Certainly. In my own case, as noted earlier, I finished one year at SVSU and then moved to Florida for hands-on experience.  I didn't resume my education until I got back from Florida and when I moved back to the area, I took night classes at CMU while working in the township. Then I obtained a BA in community development and started working on my Masters Degree, which I am one credit shy of completing because the campaign kept me so busy.

Education is very important, not only in terms of educating the public, but we need to educate ourselves. I want to encourage my officers to get that degree. It opened my mind to new possibilities, such as the notion that I could beat an incumbent that had been in power for 10 years. Education provided me with tools that wouldn't have allowed me to be here if I didn't have them.

Review: What is the most challenging component facing you now?

Federspiel: The budget will be very challenging and I'm glad to work with the commissioners on it. I have a good relationship with the Board of Commissioners and should they give me a budget that is less than projected, that's where the tough decisions will come into play. They set the budget and then I do what I feel is necessary.

If I'm able to maintain the current budget level I can actually improve services by shifting some resources. But if they give me less then I need to get creative. The jail is a mandated function and road patrol is mandated. It may not say that specifically, but as Sheriff I'm mandated to monitor crime in the area and maintain the peace, so my take is that I need people out there constitutionally to preserve the peace. In a big sense, my job is to educate the commissioners and present my case as to why we need what we need. This is a big challenge, showing the public we're doing all that is possible to protect them and preserve the peace.

Review: The city just obtained some 'shot spotters'. Are there any things you'd like to see to augment that effort, which helps deter crime without necessitating heavy patrols?

Federspiel: If we have the money in the budget I'd like to put a camera on certain streets within the city to help reduce crime. I'd like to do things to supplement the shot spotter. We've got to protect citizens and businesses. Sometimes we forget about them. I don't want people to feel afraid to go into any business district, wherever it is.

Review: It's been reported that United States jails have 10 times the inmates as European jails.  Do all the 513 people in the jail need to be there?

Federspiel: Yes they do I talked with someone from the State Department of Corrections and we're not putting more people in prison every year so much as dealing with the fact that prisoners are being given longer sentences because of maximum sentencing. A five-year felony elsewhere might be a 20-year sentence here. This is more of a prosecutorial and judicial question.

As a warden the responsibility is great. I may have someone arrested for murder awaiting trial and holding them because they can't bond out, and then a little old lady from a farm town get arrested for drunk driving. Am I going to put her in the same cell? Absolutely not. So you have lots of different classifications. How awful would it be if a grandmother that god locked up for not paying taxes was in the same cell with an axe murderer? So I'm looking for ways to make the classifications better. I'd like to have a panel discussion with judges and prosecutors on this topic.

Review: Are you taking steps to add more officers of 'color' to the force?

Federspiel: That topic is on my mind. We have some very qualified individuals that would love to work the road patrols, but don't have the Academy training behind their belts. I would like to work with Michigan Works to help pay for a part timer to cover them while they attend the academy, have them sign a letter of intent so they stay with us for a few years and don't run off after we've trained them, and this may be a way to integrate the road patrol force better. As it stands, we don't have the money to send them away to the Academy.  Nowadays, I don't think I would have it either. In the old days employers would pay for this; but now it's up to the officer, and this can cost anywhere from $4,000 to $5,000 per year. But I want to ID people working for me and see if I can assist them in some way.

Review: Are there any living figures that you admire?

Federspiel: My grandfather was a huge influence and passed away in 1984 when I was only 16 years of age. That's the first time I cried really hard and he was a huge influence.

There are also a couple of chiefs that I had in Florida that were huge influences, for different reasons. Lynn Rowe came on-board in 1989 and brought with him training to Cape Coral, Florida, which is why I'm such a big believer in it. He raised the professionalism in that little southern department to leaders within the county in a four-year time span. And then Arnold Gibbs was the one-and-only Afro-American Chief I ever had but the best Chief I ever had. He's now an instructor at a University in Florida and retired, but was one of the fairest men I've ever known and a leader by example. He had a great style and was a mentor, if you will.

Review: Final question: What is your favorite motto?

Federspiel: Do the right thing. Or, more accurately, the entire saying: Even if it's wrong if everyone else is doing it; and even if it's right and nobody else is doing it; then you must do the right thing.


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