Police officers fight crime but to do that they face a bigger challenge: getting their communities to trust them. Today we begin a three-part series on what some call a “trust gap” between Kalamazoo’s Public Safety Department and minority residents. For the first report in this series, WMUK’s Chris Killian rode with a Public Safety officer to see how the issue looks to his eyes. This report contains some adult language.
It’s 7 p.m. on a Friday and Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety Sgt. Scott Boling starts his cruiser. Right away, a dispatcher broadcasts an ominous message over the radio: “Eight gunshots coming from behind the building towards the woods. He didn’t see anyone...” Boling doesn’t flinch. Other officers are checking it out, so, with a soft rain falling, he drives into another 12-hour night shift not knowing what to expect. The first stop of the night is a house in the Edison neighborhood. A few weeks earlier, a gunman fired shots at the home. Boling speaks to a woman there who called in the incident, letting her know that the man had been arrested and his gun confiscated.
Boling: “I hate to see it happen here. But you willing to cooperate with us – we arrested the guy and got a gun off the street and that’s huge for everybody’s safety. Like I said, you did a great thing and it takes a brave person to do that.”
Woman: “You know how people are. Like when they have a gun and stuff they’re not afraid to use it. Especially people like him.”
Boling: “We’re working to get those people out of here. And with help from community residents, we will eventually do that.”
This kind of law enforcement, trying to engage with residents, is something Kalamazoo’s Public Safety Department is trying to do more of: working with the community, following up with victims, and being genuinely concerned. That builds trust with residents, helps solve crime, and makes the streets safer for everyone, including police.
Few people encounter police outside of traffic tickets and other inconvenient run-ins with them. Even fewer know the challenges officers face even though they’re constantly under the microscope.
Kalamazoo officials say respect for public safety officers isn’t what it should be in certain mostly minority areas of the city, like the Edison and Northside neighborhoods. At the same time, some residents there say officers don’t treat them fairly, something the department says is not the case. A year-long racial profiling study released last September found that black motorists were being profiled and were more likely to be pulled over than whites. That didn’t help the department’s image. Then Ferguson happened and attention to police issues took center stage nationwide and in Kalamazoo.
Trust between police and residents in Kalamazoo has risen and fallen over the years. What remains consistent in the minds of some is collateral damage caused by heavy-handed tactics employed during the crack cocaine epidemic of the late 80's and early 90's. Back then, police often arrested first and asked questions later.
Kalamazoo Public Safety Chief Jeff Hadley says his officers aren’t perfect and that constant improvement is needed. But, at times, he feels that his officers can’t do anything right in the eyes of those in minority neighborhoods. Some are openly hostile to police. Hadley says officers must respect citizens and should be held to a high standard. But he also says his officers deserve respect, too, especially if they’re trying to build relationships.
“Honestly, I wouldn’t want to be a street officer today. When you get out of your car and you’ve got all this hostility and you’re just trying to do a job and you’re saying, ‘Gosh, I’m just trying to do what I’m supposed to do. I just can’t make anyone happy. People calling me names.’ You can deal with some of that but there comes a point where it’s over the top.”
After checking out the Loy Norrix-Kalamazoo Central football game, Boling returns to the Edison neighborhood. On Hays Park Avenue, a group of African-American men are standing on the sidewalk, listening to music. There was a group of women fighting here earlier and Boling wants to check in. As he approaches, one of the men pushes a friend back and tells him he doesn’t need to talk to the cops, then turns up the music.
Boling: “Have we ever had any problems?”
Man 1: “No sir.”
Man 2: “I don’t know.”
Boling: “I don’t think you’ve ever had any problems with me, have you? I’ve never shown any disrespect toward you have I?”
Man 1: “No sir.”
The men say they don’t know about any fights. Boling gets back in his cruiser, frustrated by the exchange: “If he doesn’t want to talk to me he has a right. If he wants to dislike me, that’s his prerogative.”
But that sort of thing bothers Chief Jeff Hadley.
“What I don’t expect is our officers to be humiliated. To be, you know, treated atrociously. Told to sit there and basically – excuse my French – eat shit the whole time. When someone’s sitting there MF-ing them the whole time and it becomes a distraction to what they’re trying to accomplish on that call for service.”
Boling is a Marine Corps veteran and a husband with four kids. With almost two decades in police work, he trains younger public safety officers. Boling says he’s seen that disrespect grow. But he also says cops can’t engage with it.
“There times when everyone loses their cool. That’s when we need other officers to say, 'Take a step back, take a breather, let me talk to this person.' When it comes down to it, we’re all human.”
Police officers work in the midst of many social problems: joblessness, drugs, racism, and a cycle of poverty. Boling says he’s had to go far beyond being just someone who enforces the law. He says that’s just a part of law enforcement today.
“It’s not just about being a police officer. It’s about being a social worker It’s about being a mediator. And it’s hard.”
About midnight, Boling makes a quick stop by the State Theatre downtown. A concert is over and a man who’s had a bit too much to drink can’t find his friends. Boling makes sure he has a ride home. There’s never a time to not make an impression, he says.
“Could have been: hey dude, you’re drunk, get out of my face. And that would have totally turned his impression of police. Be nice. He’s intoxicated, not doing anything wrong. He’s just worried about his friends and making sure they get home also.”
On Wednesday, October 22, WMUK will sponsor a public forum to talk about ways to improve ties between Kalamazoo’s Public Safety Department and the community. It will start at 7 p.m. in the Van Deusen Room at the main branch of the Kalamazoo Public Library.