I recently caught up with our Peninsula Township Deputy, Virnell France, who talked about a variety of community policing issues on the Old Mission Peninsula, including break-ins, wellness checks, and one of the biggest topics of conversation among OMP residents – speeders. Read on…
Jane: The first thing I wanted to ask you about is speeding, because that’s about 90 percent of the conversation among residents on social media. And any time I post stories about speeding for Old Mission Gazette, they always get a ton of comments. But you can’t be everywhere, right? I see some of those digital speed signs on the roads – do those help?
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Deputy France: They don’t really stop speeders. They just keep track of when they’re coming through a certain point, so then we know how to patrol that area. We had four of them, but two of them were down [earlier this year]. The one we typically have at Haserot wasn’t working – it had a bad wiring issue – so I had to send that one off to get fixed, because the Township pays for maintenance on those. And the solar-powered sign … that wasn’t working, so I had to take it apart.
But you’re right. With one person, it’s not enough to deter the people that are going to speed. Because most people know I’m the only one that’s usually out here, and once they get past me, they know they can increase their speed. It was nice that some of the residents who live on Peninsula Drive let me park in their driveway. Then it’s harder to know where I’m sitting, and I can catch a lot of people.
Jane: Is speeding one of the biggest issues you see out here?
Deputy France: It’s an issue, but it’s not the biggest issue. We’re always going to have speeders. It’d be nice to get them to slow down, especially in certain areas with all the pedestrians and bikers. There’s no real safe area for [pedestrians and bikers] to travel along the roadway. There are no sidewalks out here. We have none of that.
Jane: Since you can’t be everywhere at once, what are some other solutions to the speeding issue? [At the Township Board meeting on July 13, 2021, Township Supervisor Rob Manigold said they are actively researching getting another deputy on the Peninsula. They will bring the issue to the next Board meeting in August.]
Deputy France: There are other options, like trying to get other guys to come out and do traffic enforcement. Sometimes we’ll have the Grand Traverse Interdiction Team come out, and they can run traffic, but they’re not out here a lot of the time. Pretty much only when I’m gone. The only time they come out here is when they get sent out here.
Jane: What other things do you see out here?
Deputy France: This past year, we’ve had a lot of larcenies from vehicles. People weren’t locking their cars, and they’re leaving things in their cars – money, car keys … you have a lot of transient people that travel out here and see opportunity, and they take advantage of that. These are things that I try to get people to focus on and understand, that yeah, speeding is an issue, but it’s not the biggest issue. You’re always going to have speeders.
Jane: So, the repair on the solar-powered and digital speed signs, is that in your job description?
Deputy France: Well, there’s a lot of things that … I’m law enforcement, so typically when there’s a criminal issue, something to do with law, I’m there to help. But as a community police officer … I’ve had to explain to some residents that a community police officer isn’t, per se, going to come out and write you a ticket for every single thing that you do, every infraction you do. That’s not really what a community police officer does. We get to know people in a friendly manner without always being the one to come lock people up and take them away.
Jane: What are some of the other things you deal with?
Deputy France: Things like checking on elderly residents with no family close by, helping them out with stuff they can’t do on their own. I end up spending a lot of time doing stuff like that. It’s not part of the job description, but as a community officer, that’s what I do.
Jane: How about disputes between neighbors?
Deputy France: I try to lead people in the direction of solving some of those civil issues on their own. I get called to homes all the time where people are cutting other peoples’ trees down, all for a view. Dealing with stuff like that is what ends up taking up most of my time.
Jane: On the speeding, I hear a lot of people talk about seeing you, or rather, NOT seeing you in particular spots. What would you like to say to OMP residents about those concerns?
Deputy France: I try to be in a visible area all the time, because you’ll have people say, “Well, he’s always parked by the fire station or one of the parks. Why is he there?” Well, you can only monitor traffic by being BY traffic. I have to be in an area where I can see them and also get on the road to get to them without crashing. So usually, that’s why I’m at one of those places.
And with the people who travel out here – we get issues with bikers running two abreast and not moving aside, and there’s not a lot of room. Even with passing zones on Center Road, it’s hard to get to where you’ve got to go. People follow so close together, and you’ll end up having a chain of five cars, and there’s only a few limited areas where you can safely pass. Half the time, you’re lucky if you CAN pass, because there’s always oncoming traffic, too. And it doesn’t matter if you have lights, sirens … that doesn’t always get people to move over.
I’ve gone down to Bowers Harbor Park because we’ve had complaints about strange cars coming in there, scaring people. And a lot of people run the stop sign between Neahtawanta Road, Peninsula Drive, and Bowers Harbor Road. I stopped someone the other day, and he was kind of upset with me, but he ran the stop sign. He was like, “What did I do?” I said, “You ran a stop sign.” He’s like, “No, I just didn’t fully stop.” I said, “You understand that for court purposes, when you don’t come to a complete stop, it’s the same as running it. And just so you know for future knowledge, that’s a $130 fine and three points on your license.”
Jane: We have a lot of those intersections where people treat it more like a merge than a stop – Seven Hills to Center, Smokey Hollow to Center, that intersection down at Bowers Harbor … What about people going too slow? Can people get a ticket for going too slow?
Deputy France: Yeah, you can get stopped for going excessively under the speed limit, because it becomes a danger. If you have cars that are driving a car length behind, and there’s multiple cars and they’re going so slow that they’re building up and causing traffic jams, that becomes an issue. Typically, what I try to do with those is just let them know.
A lot of times when a person’s doing that, it’s either somebody that lives here or somebody that’s a tourist. If they live here, it’s like they want cars to slow down, so they’re going to make sure that everybody’s driving safe and that they slow down. Tourists, a lot of times, they’ll slow down because they want to see everything. What I tell them is, if you want to slow down and see everything, that’s fine. But as soon as you see a group of cars behind you that start building up, pull over and let them pass.
Jane: Where were you stationed before you came here?
Deputy France: Before I came to the Grand Traverse Sheriff’s Department, I worked for Muskegon Heights Police Department. I worked there for about nine years, and when I left, I was a detective.
Jane: Was that a culture shock coming here?
Deputy France: Well, I grew up in Muskegon County. I grew up in the Heights and lived downtown. It’s about the same size as Traverse City, but the crime level is way different. Muskegon Heights Police Department covered only 3.7 square miles. They had about 12,000 to 15,000 residents, give or take. One year, we had around 14 homicides. So you’re dealing with that type of stuff on a regular basis. But it wasn’t always that way. Muskegon Heights was actually one of the first cities in Muskegon County, and it was a foundry town when it was built. When all the foundries left, they had nothing in place to bring that income back for people who lived there and couldn’t travel to other places. But it got that way slowly.
Jane: What were some of the biggest differences when you began working here?
Deputy France: Here, there’s a lot of open space, a lot of opportunity for people to do criminal things. And there are vulnerable targets, soft targets who aren’t prepared. People are used to the way it used to be, instead of being prepared for how it is now, and dealing with the fact that you want to be protected in all places. Cameras, lighting, things like that.
Jane: Would it be helpful to have cameras out here?
Deputy France: It would be nice to have cameras on the main roads to be able to see cars coming and going. Because sometimes stuff happens during daylight, and sometimes stuff happens at night-time, and it’s not always caught. One of the issues we had with people who were stealing from cars … no one had camera footage of them doing that. So even if that person had been arrested, if they weren’t caught in the act on video, a lot of times it will end up being a lesser charge, because they can’t prove that person specifically stole from that vehicle, even if they had the merchandise.
Jane: How much of your time is spent on the speeding issue?
Deputy France: Well, I’d say a good fraction. Usually on my dailies, I’ll spend an hour in the Mapleton area. I try to move it around – I’ll go to Peninsula Drive and Gray Road, which is another point where the speed limit changes from 35 to 45. Or at the base of Peninsula Drive where it’s 35 miles an hour. A lot of the residents say cars come through there at a high speed all the time. They’re usually still going 45-plus, at least, coming through there, because they just think it’s one speed and they don’t pay attention to the sign.
But when other stuff comes up, like medicals or anything like that, then I have to leave [and go attend to them]. And like I said, being a community officer, I try to give people a chance to let them know. I keep track of everybody that I’ve dealt with. Every stop I make, I take information and put it into a screen so I can log who I’ve stopped, how many times I have stopped this person for the same type of offense, and then after dealing with them, citations, of course. Especially depending on how reckless they’re being.
Jane: When the fire department responds to a call, do you automatically go, too, or does it depend on the circumstances?
Deputy France: It depends on the circumstances. We had a woman the other day that was not able to get her words together, but had called 911. I heard that come out, I saw it on the screen, and I went straight there. If I’m close by, I get there as quick as I can.
Jane: What do you want people to know about the speeding situation? What can we tell people who are concerned about it?
Deputy France: It IS important, and they’re absolutely right in the aspect that if an accident happens, I don’t care if it’s five miles over the speed limit, you’re talking about a full-sized vehicle. Typically, that can cause death at any speed. So just be safe. Take your time. There’s no rush for anything. If you’re late, you’re going to be late regardless. You can be late speeding, you can be late getting pulled over getting a ticket, or you can be late because you got in an accident. Just be caring about your neighbors.
Jane: What about residents who try to self-police? Get pictures of vehicles or plates? Is that a good thing?
Deputy France: If they’re having an occurrence of certain vehicles at a certain time, a good thing to do is get the plate information, and if they can describe what the driver looks like, that’s always good information to pass on [to Deputy France]. Then, I can make contact with them to let them know they’re being watched, and they need to slow it down.
Jane: So, people should look for what kind of vehicle it is, get a picture of the plate if they can, description of the driver, and then send that information to you.
Deputy France: Right. And the best way to do that is through email. I have an email through the Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Department which is on the Township website, [email protected]. Email me, because I can respond to people quicker that way. A lot of times, they’ll call the office phone [listed on the Township website], and I’m not usually sitting in the office. I usually only go there to check in and see what’s going on, and then I get back out.
Jane: Another question on the digital speed signs … so those signs not only tell us how fast we’re going as we approach it, but do they also track information on how fast the cars are going that go by those signs?
Deputy France: Correct. They have clocks built in, so when they’re working to perfection like they’re supposed to, it will give me a timeframe, so I can base my patrols on that. Out of the previous studies, it’s never been a heavy flow, at least at the points where the signs are located. But you know how stats are, they can be good and bad. They can tell you some things, but they don’t tell you everything. But it gives you a basic understanding of how it works.
Jane: So, they tell you how heavy the traffic flow is. That’s good to know.
Deputy France: People are going to speed, that’s not going to change. And adjusting the speed limit won’t fix it … Everybody thinks that will fix the problem, and it won’t.
Jane: … as we see on Peninsula Drive, where it’s 35 in by town, then changes to 45 at Gray Road. People speed through there all the time.
Deputy France: The most dangerous thing I see out here is people who’ve got these hot super cars and they think they can defy everything, go around a blind curve just because they can go through blind curves. I’m not saying all of them do that, but you get some of them that are just fearless, and they don’t care.
So, it’s just … be safe, be alert. And [drivers] have to understand there are [pedestrians and bikers] who are going to be by the roadway because there’s nowhere else for them to go. Especially during summertime, we get a lot of bikers and joggers and walkers that are along these roads. And I don’t care if a vehicle is going 20 miles an hour – if it hits somebody that’s walking or on a bike, it can kill them. So just be safe, be aware, and be courteous to your neighbors. A lot of [pedestrians and walkers] out here wear dark-colored clothes, even when it gets dark. It takes longer for a driver to be able to visually see that, recognize what’s going on, and react.
Jane: And by the time the driver sees that someone’s there, it’s too late. So wear bright colors…
Deputy France: Even Neahtawanta … I see kids that are heading to [Bowers Harbor Park], and they’re doing their best to stay out of the main part of the road, but they’re on the edge. And I’ve seen people come through there at a good amount of speed. One time I had to follow a group of kids just to make sure they got there safe. Because I know when people are coming, it’s going to be too late to react when they see this group of kids. And the nature preserve there [Pyatt Lake Nature Preserve] … people fly down there because it’s a dirt road, not thinking about it. I wouldn’t want anybody flying by my kids. That would scare me.
Jane: Now the Township is talking about a trail system similar to TART out here, and I’m just not sure how they’re going to navigate around all the farmland. You can’t put a trail through an orchard. I can’t even walk through my brothers’ orchards anymore because farming is so regulated. Even the farm workers are supposed to sign in and out of the orchards because of all the pest management systems and farm regulations. So if people are thinking we can put a trail system through the middle of the Peninsula, I’m not sure how that’s going to work.
Deputy France: And there’s not a lot of areas where they could truly widen the road or put a pathway, because some of them get pretty tight. Especially towards the base of the Peninsula, they get really tight on space.
Jane: And on Peninsula Drive, there’s really nowhere to put a path alongside the roadway or widen the road.
Deputy France: There’s no room. Everybody’s property is right up to the road. One of the other issues I get complaints about is landscapers. People will complain, especially on Peninsula Drive, about the landscapers having their vehicles in the way. They [landscapers] know better, but they don’t have cones, don’t have a setup. They don’t have the budget to pay someone to hold signs or have electronic signs to tell people, “Hey, slow down or come through.” So the most they can do is cones. Where can they pull those vehicles off the road other than on somebody’s property?
Jane: We see that where we live, too, on Bluff Road.
Deputy France: I try to be courteous and caring. I’m not a traffic car, but I do traffic stuff. And I’ve tried to explain the difference to people who really want traffic enforcement. You have traffic cars in the county. That’s specifically what they do, they focus on traffic. And if that’s something they want out here, we can get that. Cars like that will make 300 stops, and out of those 300 stops, maybe 250 are all tickets. It depends on what they’re really looking for. If they want more enforcement, there are things we can do.
Jane: Seems like it’s the main topic of conversation out here.
Deputy France: I heard about it before I got out here [from the previous deputies]. It surprised me that the biggest talk wasn’t about all the cars getting broken into. If you have someone physically coming onto your property, going through your things, that’s scary.
Jane: And what’s to say they’re not going to break into a house from there?
Deputy France: I hate to say it, but it’s not “Leave It To Beaver” land anymore. I’m dating myself, because I grew up watching shows like that, but it’s a different time. You have people from all different places that come through here. And with criminals, you don’t know what they look like. There’s not a specific person that looks like a criminal. The only thing you can do is try to keep yourself secure and safe and be prepared for it, so that you’re ready in case something happens.
Jane: And there’s that black Audi everyone was talking about… we’ve seen it speeding down Center Road…
Deputy France: It would be nice to get the plate. There’s a couple of them … I came across one by Pelizzari Park in one of those subdivisions there. I try to flex my hours a little here and there when I know there’s specific problems, but the majority of the time, I’m day shift, and a lot of people know that.
There have been complaints about kids parking their cars by the roadway and being kind of dangerous, but they’re legally allowed to park in that spot. Some of the issues come up when [residents] try to talk to them and the kids are really disrespectful.
Jane: I’ve seen people post pictures of plates and cars on the Nextdoor group, and they can’t be doing that, right?
Deputy France: No, they shouldn’t be doing that. But they can take pictures and send them to me – because I’m law enforcement – and then I can follow up with the drivers. Even if the driver isn’t the actual owner, as long as it comes back to that vehicle, I can make contact and find out who was driving the vehicle.
Jane: Once you have the plate number, what happens from there? Do you run the plate, figure out who it is, and go talk to them?
Deputy France: Yep. Absolutely. That’s what we did last year … there were kids that were coming out, and a few people had talked to them, and some of the kids were being verbally disrespectful. They didn’t do anything physical, but they were talking back to [the residents]. I made contact with them, found out who was driving the car and talked to the parents. I gave them warnings and just told them, “Hey, understand that if you end up getting caught, you are going to get cited and typically, your insurance rate will also go up.”
Read more about Deputy France on the Peninsula Township website here. There’s also a form you can fill out on that page if you’d like to have him check your property while you’re away.
Thoughts on any of the issues noted above? Feel free to leave comments at the bottom of this story.