Big controversy in tiny village: Why so many reserve cops?

Robert Allen, and L.L. Brasier
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Traffic moves along Main Street in the village of Oakley on Monday, March 2, 2015.

An NFL player from Florida, a casino developer, a one-time candidate for Birmingham City Council and several prominent business leaders from metro Detroit are among those on a list released last week of reserve police officers in the village of Oakley in Saginaw County.

Oakley has come under scrutiny in recent months for having a roster of nearly 150 reserve officers, many of them living far away from the one-square-mile, mid-Michigan village.

A lawsuit has raised questions over why a village with little crime and fewer than 300 residents needs a reserve police force of that size. More questions center on how well reserve officers are trained and whether many of them actually help police the community — even though they are issued a badge and allowed to carry a gun.

Dozens of the Oakley reserve officers are among people who have made donations totaling almost $200,000 to the village in the last several years.

Oakley Police Chief Rob Reznick, 55, a former Flint narcotics officer who is at the center of the lawsuit and controversy, said he has done nothing wrong. The donations, he said, went straight to the village for good causes, including: flooring, refrigerators and stoves at village buildings; a playscape at a local park; stun guns; a golf cart; a police car and more for the police department.

Reznick had fought efforts by a local bar and others under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain lists of donors and reserve officers. The lists were released last week by the village following a lengthy legal fight with the Family Tavern in Oakley, which sued after what it claimed was harassment by the local police.

Names on list

Among the village's reserve officers are Michael Malik, a Birmingham millionaire who helped develop MotorCity Casino Hotel; Matt Cullen, a longtime civic leader and top executive in Dan Gilbert's Rock Ventures; Jason Fox, a former Detroit Lion, now playing for the Miami Dolphins; and Albert Depolo Jr., a prominent urologist who practices at several local hospitals. Records indicate all except Fox had also personally donated to Oakley.

Philip Ellison, an attorney who's filed lawsuits against the town on behalf of the local bar, said it looks like a "pay-to-play scheme," as close to half of the reserve officers have donated to the village either personally or through businesses in the past several years.

Reznick and others say there is no pay-for-play, and donating to the township is not a requirement to join the reserve police force.

Typically, reservists each pays $1,300 for a uniform, gun and armored vest, according to a former reserve officer who said he was not required to donate money to the township. The officers are not paid by the village but are granted special gun permits that allow them to carry pistols in places usually prohibited, such as casinos, bars and sports stadiums, even when they are not on duty.

Last summer, the Michigan Municipal League canceled the police department's insurance policy, citing "issues" with the reserve officers and the litigation.

More recently, the Michigan Attorney General's Office, in a filing supporting the release of the police department records under the Freedom of Information Act, called the donors "phantom philanthropists" who should not be allowed to use the FOIA laws to claim they are exempt as police officers. The "improperly-appointed reserve officers" don't meet state employment standards for police officers, such as completing police academy training, testing and more, the Feb. 9 brief from the attorney general's office stated.

Reznick said reserve officers must have a concealed pistol license before they apply, and are then background-checked. There's quarterly firearms qualification, and training sessions are offered through the year, he said. He declined to specify what training his reservists received, referring to pending litigation.

But he said their roles are like volunteers, as they don't have the power to make arrests and tend to help with cooking hot dogs at community events or inspecting Halloween candy.

"There's never been a complaint against any of my guys," he said. "Why would people not want doctors, lawyers and businesspeople who have the training to be in town (helping the community)?"

Funds raised totaled $183,000 from 2009-14. The lists released by the village don't detail the amount of money individuals donated, and Reznick declined to specify.

Reznick, who earns $500 a month as chief, said the donations go directly to the village, and he has not profited from them.

Also among those listed on the reserve force are Ray Jihad, owner of Target Sports in Royal Oak; Stuart Borman, of the Farmer Jack grocery store chain; Van Conway, head of Conway MacKenzie, the bankruptcy specialty firm that helped shepherd Detroit through Chapter 9; and Max Aidenbaum, a senior attorney at Dickinson Wright.

Herschel Fink, attorney for the Detroit Free Press, acknowledged that he, too, was once a reserve officer and paid — as did others — $1,300 for his uniform and equipment.

Bar owners sue

Oakley village resident Shannon Bitterman, whose husband owns the Family Tavern in Oakley is seen in the establishment on Monday March 2, 2015. Bittermn filed a lawsuit when she was denied knowing who the Oakley Police Department had on its' reserve force of nearly 150 officers.

The list was released after Shannon Bitterman, one of the owners of the Family Tavern, filed a lawsuit seeking the names under the Michigan Freedom of Information Act. Ellison said the bar owners suspected "secret, undercover" officers had been frequenting the bar to find code violations. Of eight counts that were filed, he said only one, of not displaying an occupancy sign, has resulted in a fine, which was about $50.

The small-town friction between the police and the bar dates back a number of years, and both sides indicate things were especially tense around a yearly biker event.

Ellison said they wanted a list of reserves to see which customers might actually be police. The resulting discovery was that, including reserves, there was about one officer for every two Oakley residents.

"At least one is a Miami Dolphins pro football player," he said, adding that nearly all live in metro Detroit.

Reznick fought the release of the names for more than a year, as did some members of the Village Council. But last week, facing a hearing Wednesday in circuit court, the council abruptly voted to release the names to Ellison.

"At its basic core this is about accountability, and who is responsible for running the government," Ellison said.

"And if these people would just step forward and defend what the heck they are doing, in a one-by-one-mile community with 290 people," he said. "That's the next question, now that we know who they are."

Reznick, who lives about a half-hour outside of Oakley, said he's never had a complaint against any of his officers or the reserve unit.

"I believe that the majority of the people appreciate what we do for them and support the police department," he said.

Cullen, president of Rock Ventures and CEO of the M-1 Rail project, said that he had been unaware of the controversy until he was informed of it by the Free Press. Cullen's name appears both on the roster of reserve officers and several times on the donor list.

Cullen said he donated to the department, encouraged by a group of friends with whom he's done scuba diving and other activities, but did so believing the contribution was the equivalent of a donation to a police benevolent association.

Cullen said he was given a badge and told he could take training to carry a concealed weapon and become a reserve officer, but he said neither option was something he pursued.

"I never participated in any police activities with them," he said. "There's a badge that I got but I don't know where it is. I've never used it for anything."

Given the controversy about the program, Cullen said, "It won't be a relationship I'll be interested in keeping."

Fink said he has not been active with the Oakley reserves for two years, but had joined as an act of public service.

"I think it is honorable to perform this kind of service," Fink said.

Fink, a prominent First Amendment attorney who has won many battles for access to public records, urged that the names of the reserves be kept private, sending village leaders an e-mail in October. That came after the FBI had widely issued a bulletin across the country, including to law enforcement agencies and media organizations, warning of threats by terrorist groups.

Robin Herrmann, a Michigan Press Association attorney, said it's routine for law-enforcement officers' names to be released. She said exemptions could be made for undercover officers, but that the rest should still be available under open-records laws.

Fink said that it's often justifiable for names of police officers to be released, but that in this case, the interest of disclosure didn't outweigh nondisclosure.

"It seemed to me to be a malicious purpose," he said of the Bittermans' efforts. "The purpose of the disclosure in this case is that police were targeting her bar."

Reluctant to talk

The Oakley Municipal building that houses the village's police department and offices on Main Street in the village of Oakley on Monday, March 2, 2015.

Other reservists reached by the Free Press were reluctant to talk.

"I need to talk to my chief, Chief Reznick, before I decide if I want to talk," said James Foxley, a businessman who made an unsuccessful run for Birmingham City Council in 2011.

Jihad said, "I don't want to comment on it. I'm very busy at work."

Responding to an e-mail seeking comment, Aidenbaum responded, "I apologize, but I am not available for such a call."

Depolo's office said Monday he didn't wish to comment.

Conway, Fox and Malik did not return messages.

Reserve officers are commonly used by Michigan police agencies, although there are no statewide standards that govern how much training they get. Some departments require reserve officers to attend police academies designed for them. For instance, the Oakland County Sheriff's Department sends its reservists to an academy operated by Oakland Community College, with an 11-week program.

Fink said he was required quarterly to show proficiency in handling a gun and underwent private training at his own expense.

"I can't say what other people did," Fink said.

Free Press staff writers Matt Helms, John Wisely and Katrease Stafford contributed to this report.

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