Will layoffs hamper cops hunting a serial killer?

Police sketch of the serial slasher blamed for five deaths in Flint, Mich.
Police sketch of the serial slasher blamed for five deaths in Flint, Mich.Michigan State Police
/ Source: msnbc.com

The already shorthanded police department in Flint, Mich., has a big problem on its hands — a serial killer who is roaming the streets at night and randomly and repeatedly knifing lone men he encounters.

At least 13 men — all but one African-Americans — have been stabbed repeatedly by a young, muscular white man since mid-May, and five of them have died from their wounds, according to police in the financially strapped auto manufacturing city. Ten of the attacks have occurred in Flint, with the other three taking place in nearby townships.

The Michigan State Police released a sketch of the attacker on Friday — a lightly goateed man shown wearing a white T-shirt and baseball cap and sporting a stud in his left ear.

City officials have not labeled the attacks as racial in nature, though they say that there does appear to be a pattern in the selection of victims, the Detroit Free Press reported Friday. In addition to being black, most of the victims have been old, disabled, small of stature or otherwise vulnerable, it said.

Flint police said the victims were all outside alone at night. Survivors have said the attacker approached them under the pretense of needing directions or help with a broken-down vehicle.

"He then pulls a knife and attacks them without saying anything more," Flint police Lt. T.P Johnson told The Associated Press on Friday.

Detectives have been investigating the attacks since they started, but a pattern only became apparent on Tuesday, a day after 49-year-old Arnold Minor was found slain along a Flint street, Johnson said. That led to the announcement that a serial killer might be on the prowl in the working-class city ravaged by economic turmoil, budget problems and police layoffs.

State police are heading a task force assembled to try and capture the killer.

That assistance is a godsend, as Flint’s “Thin Blue Line” is looking a little threadbare as a result of recent budget cuts and a high crime rate.

The city — ranked no. 5 on a list of U.S. cities with the highest crime rates released last week — indefinitely laid off 40 police officers in March, a move precipitated by lower than anticipated tax revenues.

And Mayor Dayne Walling told msnbc.com on Friday that the budget for fiscal 2011, which began July 1, projects another cut of 10 officers from the department, which now has 135 officers — though he hopes to save most of those positions with federal grants and a deal with a local private college to expand patrols around the campus. The department also was hit by a budget cut of $445,488 last year — forcing it to leave five jobs vacant.

In this photo taken May 12, 2010, Flint Mayor Dayne Walling is shown in Flint, Mich. These days, he has 230 million reasons to be optimistic _ the amount GM is investing in Volt projects in his city. Most of it will go to renovate a plant where about 200 workers _ the number is expected to grow _ will build a 1.4-liter engine for the Volt and Chevy Cruze compact. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)Paul Sancya / AP

Despite the painful cutbacks, Walling said the slimmed-down force is up to the challenge of finding the killer.

“By having a 130-plus officer force and the partnership with the state police, we have the ability to take on very difficult, sophisticated cases like this,” he said. “The impact has really been slower response to low-priority cases.”

But Ed Jacques, services director for the Police Officers Association of Michigan, said the cutbacks can’t help but hamper the investigation.

He said the city of approximately 110,000 residents, despite its high crime rate, had a significantly lower ratio of officers compared with similar-sized cities.

“In this particular situation, where you’ve got a serial killer running around, a lot of these guys get picked up after a traffic stop or when they have a run-in with a cop who’s working a beat,” said Jacques, whose organization represents police officers in 400 state departments, though not Flint’s.  “Certainly the odds of preventing or stopping those kinds of crimes is greatly diminished when you’ve got fewer officers.”

But Walling, who was elected mayor last year, said that resilient city residents will help take up any slack caused by stretched police resources.

“Now that we’ve have a very good description of the suspect because of the cooperation we’ve had from the surviving victims, there will be people organizing all across this community to try and identify this individual,” he said. “We’ve been through a lot, but we’re still working together.”