I-Team looks into claims of overzealous policing in Richland

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (NEWSCHANNEL 3) - The Newschannel 3 I-Team is taking a look at a police department in one of the smallest communities in West Michigan--the Village of Richland.

Several people in Richland asked the I-Team to investigate citizen concerns of overaggressive traffic enforcement.

Richland has a population of 751, and is one square mile large. By every metric, the community doesn't have a lot of crime, and in theory could contract with the county for police coverage.

So when the I-Team started hearing allegations that police officers in the village were "overzealous," that they were "too aggressive," and "always hanging around," we began to take a closer look.

In Richland, the officers also aren't just police officers.

If you live in this community by day, you may see a man taking care of the landscaping, mowing grass, or plowing snow, but by night, in a police uniform with a badge.

Officers both protect and beautify the community in Richland, but some who live there don't like it and have gone so far as to say they feel they're living in a police-state community.

"It just seems totally unnecessary in a one-square mile village," said resident Sue Miller.

She says she won't dare complain about a snow plow hitting the corner of her yard this winter, as she feels intimidated since officers are also DPW workers.

"You feel like if you go and complain you'll get retaliated through their police arm," Miller said.

She came to Newschannel 3 with concerns about the staffing levels of the department based on the village's size, and she wondered if getting rid of the village's government would make sense.

The I-Team found Richland police employs three full-time officers, four part-time officers, and two reserve officers.

A department of nine, serving less than 800 people, and we're told the department does not function 24/7.

"First it seems like he's empire building, trying to build a name for himself, so be it, but we don't have that kind of money here," Miller said.

The I-Team pored through dozens of audit reports of similar-sized villages and cities to Richland, and found some surprising numbers.

People in Richland pay more per person for public safety than anybody else we surveyed.

If you compare the Village of Climax to the Village of Richland, the audit reports show people in Richland pay 6.5 times more for the service than folks in Climax do. The populations for both villages are around that 800 figure.

Then, we took a look at the level of crime in the village--FBI statistics the I-Team put together show Richland's one of the safest communities in the state, with one violent crime in this village from 2009 to 2013, no sexual assaults, no robberies, no murders during that time.

Size of department isn't the only issue. In documents we obtained, Police Chief Jeff Mattioli wrote that he was proud of a 200% increase over one year in citations issued by the village's officers.

Miller says overaggressive enforcement is driving visitors to stay away from the village.

"It's not unbelievable if you're trying to build a big police force, because to get district court fees to double in one year and to project that they will double that in essence it sounds like a quota system," she said.

So we turned to Chief Mattioli to get his side of the situation.

"We average 4.6 tickets a day," he said.

The chief says he has a mandate to stop speeders.

"We've tried for more than three years here, we're not here to hammer people, we're just here to give a friendly reminder you can't speed through here; this is a residential area," he said.

But it's clear the aggressiveness in this square mile is perhaps wearing on some people. Through the Freedom of Information Act, we obtained 12 documented complaints.

One woman wrote: "it troubles me that the Richland department has moved away from serving and protecting and seems to be on a mission strictly to set a record for themselves."

Village Clerk Wanda Holewa isn't a fan.

"I don't trust them to do what is right and best for the village all the time," she said.

Former Police Chief Millard Ross, who was employed by the village for more than a decade and still lives there, said at a public meeting last month he was concerned about what the officers were doing.

"That tells me something is wrong in this village--the smell is overpowering--either you people are not doing their job, and it must be that, or the chief of police is not doing his job," he said.

Richland Trustee Rob Brinkerhoff disagrees with former Chief Ross, and says the department is running well, though he did say there have been some bumps in the road.

"I believe there were instances where one officer was being overaggressive, and our chief, he's an outstanding chief--he knows his people very well, and took some steps to intervene and do some coaching and he terminated that officer's employment about three months ago," Brinkerhoff said.

With all the concerns mounting, Chief Mattioli says people don't have anything to worry about--that his department's doing the right thing, and protecting people the right way, despite the size of the department and numbers showing an uptick in activity.

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