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Kalamazoo's Police "Trust Gap" - Part 2

Danny Bailey
iStock Photo

The City of Kalamazoo had a violent summer this year. There was a significant increase in gun-related violence and several deaths, including the murder of a young boy in the Edison neighborhood. That incident, and others, aggravated a sense of mistrust in Kalamazoo’s Public Safety Department among the city’s minority residents. WMUK’s Chris Killian reports in the second of three reports about the “trust gap”.

Tensions between two rival gangs in Kalamazoo’s Edison neighborhood were like a fast-burning fuse on the afternoon of May 26, 2014. Public Safety officials grew concerned and added extra patrols in the area. Then, later that afternoon, 13-year-old Michael Day was shot and killed, sparking outrage and disbelief in the city, especially among residents in the neighborhood. Jacinta Gallegos is Day’s cousin. She says her sister called police to let them know tensions were flaring and that something was likely to happen. But Gallegos says the call wasn’t taken seriously. Then she offers a striking indictment of the city’s Public Safety Department.

Credit Chris Killian / WMUK
Jacinta Gallegos

Gallegos: “They basically just said, ‘call when something happens.’”

Killian: “This is maybe a hard question to answer. But do you think Mike would be alive today if they had taken your sister seriously?”

Gallegos: “Yeah.”

Kalamazoo Public Safety Chief Jeff Hadley says his officers were in the area all day and responded to the scene within minutes of the shooting. He says his department takes every call seriously and he says it's unfair to say that his department wasn't interested in responding. But Hadley admits that he understands why such statements are made: "I can understand the emotion, and I can understand that when tragedy strikes, people want to place blame.”

For some in the Edison neighborhood, Day’s murder confirmed what they already assumed: that public safety treats them differently than people in other, mostly white, areas of the city. Perception plays a big part in what some call the “trust gap” between Public Safety and some neighborhoods. Lori Mercedes, the executive director of Kalamazoo's Hispanic American Council, knows this all too well.

“There’s always three sides to the truth: My side, your side and then the truth. At the end of the day, I don’t think it’s the truth we are after. I think it’s the trust.”

Killian: “Does that environment exist here right now?”

Mercedes: “I don’t think so.”

Kalamazoo had four murders in 2014, up to the beginning of October. That’s the same as 2013 but gun violence in the city was up significantly, by more than 30 percent, with most of that gunplay happening in the Northside and Edison neighborhoods. Almost half of the aggravated assaults in the city in the past few years took place in those neighborhoods, according to Public Safety figures.

Credit Chris Killian / WMUK
Si'Erria Singleton

Some minority residents say they’re mistreated by police, whether it’s verbal harassment, intimidating tactics, or not engaging enough with the community. Si’Erria Singleton lives on Kalamazoo's Northside and wants to see Public Safety do more in her community.

“When are they going to take the initiative and come into the community and say, ‘What’s going on? Why is this happening? What can we do to help? To prevent, to decrease, to something.' I have yet to see that happen. When that starts happening, maybe that gap will come in a bit closer.”

A Northside resident herself, Kalamazoo City Commissioner Stephanie Moore has had family members who’ve had run-ins with the police and has heard complaints about police mistreatment. She says people there have been frustrated for a long time: “The average complaint of a police officer is really about respect. They are rude, disrespectful or people feel harassed.”

Moore says sometimes Public Safety officers operate more from a standpoint of power than of service, especially in minority areas.

“My point is the reaction. It’s not them (saying) ‘You know what? Let us figure out why y’all feel this way, and let us talk about how we can do better and work together.' It’s not like that. Police officers are like, ‘Look. We got the guns, we got the badge, and we run this.’”

Credit Hispanic American Council
Hispanic American Council Executive Director Lori Mercedes

Kalamazoo Mayor Bobby Hopewell says peoples’ perceptions of public safety vary based on their own personal experience.

“Depending on your perspective, where you come from, your interactions, what you hear from your friends about their interactions, creates this belief system that there’s a lack of trust there.”

Dr. Charles Warfield is a longtime civil rights advocate and president of the Metropolitan Kalamazoo Branch of the NAACP. He thinks that Chief Jeff Hadley is trying to create a more understanding culture in Public Safety. But Warfield also says old stereotypes die hard.

“They see color, not character. They see color, not character. 'We’re in trouble; let’s get up on top of him first. We don’t wait to find out who we’re talking to. We look at color not character.'”

Chief Hadley is a firm believer in community-based policing, even after a violent summer. He says the increase in gun-related violence hasn’t shaken his belief in a service-oriented police culture. But ask him if all 200-plus officers in his department are on board with his philosophy, he’s blunt:

Credit Kalamazoo NAACP
Kalamazoo NAACP President Dr. Charles Warfield

“I’m not gonna sit here and give you a line that everyone’s behind my philosophy. I think there are some that intuitively think, ‘We gotta take the gloves off.' I’ve heard that vernacular, that we’ve gotta go back to 'real policing.' But what got us into trouble in the first place? Some of those tactics.”

The chief says his officers have gone through a lot of training on “intentional” policing meant to increase sensitivity to class and race and to help them be more effective officers in minority areas. The department will also begin using body cameras on a few officers in an effort to protect residents and officers.

Mayor Hopewell, a long-time advocate of Public Safety and a strong supporter of Chief Hadley, says better relationships are ahead if the chief sticks to his plan. But the mayor admits there’s a long road to get there.

“The issue is culture, and the chief has to build that culture, has to keep working at it every day and it’s hard, difficult, frustrating work, and we’re in a frustrating time right now.”

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.

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