In 2014, WMUK aired a three-part series about what some call the “trust gap” between Kalamazoo’s Public Safety Department and the city’s minority residents. But many of those residents say that gap has yet to be closed.
As a gentle wind sings through wind chimes hanging from a home on Woodbury Avenue in Kalamazoo’s Northside neighborhood, residents stroll along the sidewalk, shaking hands, making small talk, enjoying a sunny late autumn afternoon. By any definition, it’s a peaceful day. But on the afternoon of November 18th, 2015, the 800 block of Woodbury was taped off. Swarms of Kalamazoo police and SWAT team members focused on an abandoned home where they believed a man inside had a gun.
A message came over the loudspeaker on an armored vehicle. "This is the Kalamazoo police. You’re under arrest. Come out with your hands up.”
But the suspect was not inside. Residents in the area say the incident was another example of heavy-handed policing. But Public Safety says it was there provide to protect for safety of both officers and residents. If there is a bridge spanning the "trust gap," it appears shaky to some residents.
Thelma Fry is a long-time Northside resident who lives on Woodbury. Walking the block past street signs still wrapped in yellow police tape, Fry says she doesn’t understand why her neighborhood gets so much attention from police.
“(Just like) any other neighborhood isn’t it? People are either at work or at school. There’s something that draws them to this neighborhood and I don’t know what it is for the life of me.”
At her dining room table, Fry expresses her frustrations. “I want the police to do their job. But what they’re doing right now is not fair to this neighborhood. We feel safer policing ourselves.”
A rash of high-profile incidents, some deadly, across the nation over the past few years involving police and minorities have set off a firestorm of criticism of law enforcement. Departments nationwide and in Kalamazoo have responded by trying to become more community-oriented and transparent.
Kalamazoo Public Safety Chief Jeff Hadley knows the mistrust that some minority residents have of police runs deep and crosses generations. But his officers still have a job to do. The Northside neighborhood is one of the highest crime areas of the city. There has been progress in Hadley's eyes over the past year, however. The department chose a body camera and will begin testing it soon, and is slowly becoming more racially diverse, Hadley says. He also wants his officers to knock on the door of every residence in the city and ask two questions: "How are we doing? and, "What can we do better?" It’s gone a long way, he says.
“Not only did we want the community to see us differently, but we needed to see the community differently. But I gotta tell ya, there’s a handful of officers who’d be very honest and say ‘you know what, when we started this, I thought this was bullshit, but now, I really see the value in it.'”
Hadley’s department is still overwhelmingly white. He demands that his officers respect those in minority neighborhoods. But he’s also clear that his officers have a right to be safe. Still, questions remain in the mission to grow trust.
“How do we have a relationship with our community that’s respectful, that’s understanding, that realizes the very real dangers and the very real things that we have to face on a day to day basis.”
But others have a very different view. Kaitlin Martin was a member of the former Kalamazoo4Justice group, a grassroots organization that sought to raise awareness about race issues and alleged police harassment of minorities in particular. The group is reorganizing but Martin has kept tabs on Public Safety, compiling accounts of harassment from mostly black residents that she says indicate that little progress has been made.
“I encounter the assumption that we just gotta trust each other and things will get better, but that’s ridiculous. I think things need to get better in order to build that trust. When they do, maybe it’ll start happening, if it’s intentional (and) organic. But until that happens, that trust won’t exist.”
It's clear that both perception and the very real realities of race play off each other in the quest for a better relationship between Public Safety and some minority neighborhoods. Just as it took decades for issues to develop, it will take time to break them down to build a new reality. And like any relationship that needs healing, the key is to open up more lines of communication. Thelma Fry thinks so.
“Probably get a group of neighbors and the police and you know, sit down and talk and really find out what the differences are. I don’t think they’re that big that we can’t work through some things. I don’t think they’re that big.”