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Kalamazoo's Police "Trust Gap" - Part 3

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Like many cities, Kalamazoo has a trust problem. Many minority residents aren’t happy with the way they’re treated by the city’s Public Safety officers. And many in the department feel the public doesn’t give them enough credit. Could changing a largely white, male police force into one that’s more diverse help bridge that gap? In the last part of our series on the issue, WMUK’s Chris Killian reports on differing approaches to building better police-community relationships.

Law enforcement experts say policing has traditionally been dominated by white men. But making an aggressive effort to add more minorities to police forces can go a long way toward building relationships with minority groups.

Both the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety and some residents in minority neighborhoods agree that a lack of trust exists between them. No one disagrees that preventing that gap from getting wider and eventually bridging it will be difficult. Race, class and differing perceptions of how police do their work are just some of the issues involved. But one thing is clear to Kalamazoo Mayor Bobby Hopewell: the community must be engaged in finding solutions to a community problem.

“You have the community help you write that story. So if you are gonna have improvements, no matter what…it’s sort of like community policing. The reason we had community policing is to have community members come together with their law enforcement to improve a set of circumstances. We have a set of circumstances here that requires a community policing approach.”

Kalamazoo is a majority white city but minorities make up a sizable portion of its population. Black residents represent almost a quarter of the 74,200 residents while Hispanics account for over six percent. But the racial breakdown of the Public Safety Department is quite different. Eighty-five percent of its 210 officers are white. Only 27 are female. Michigan law prohibits law enforcement agencies from setting hiring quotas based on race or gender. And the city can’t force officers to live in the city they serve, although some say that would go a long way toward building trust.

Credit Kutztown University
Gary Cordner

Gary Cordner is a retired professor of criminal justice at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania, and a nationally-known expert and author of books on effective community policing. Cordner says having a diverse force can go a long way toward easing the fears some minorities have of law enforcement and can help build relationships.

“The risk you run is that a lot of people living in a community look at the police department and don’t recognize themselves, or people like them, in the police. That makes it a little less likely, sometimes, that they feel trust or confidence in the police. And that’s what it’s all about is trust and confidence.”

But Cordner says fixing that can be difficult.

“Some police departments have been very aggressive in their recruiting, so that they get a lot of people of color and a lot of women interested in coming to work for them and build your diversity over time. It’s not easy. Police departments all over the country struggle with this to at least some extent.”

Johnnie Berry is a longtime resident in Kalamazoo’s Northside neighborhood. He says when it comes to how an officer is perceived in a minority community, looks can sometimes be everything.

Credit Chris Killian / WMUK
Johnnie Berry

“Living on this side of town all my life I grew up looking at officers who looked just like me. I had respect for those men because those men had families that lived in this community. So when you bring in a regime of young white men who aren't from this community, who don’t know us, don’t know nobody, that’s why there’s no trust.”

For Mayor Hopewell, diversity is all about a stronger department.

“It’s important to have more women. I think the LGBT community should be represented in Public Safety and certainly minorities – African-Americans, Latinos – all of the mix. I think it’s gonna make us better.”

Kalamazoo Public Safety Chief Jeff Hadley says his department gives some preference to residents of the city who apply to become officers. The department is also trying to increase diversity in its ranks while ensuring that those hired are the best for the job. But Hadley admits that it’s hard to find minority applicants from the city. Why? Some say there’s simply a lack of interest. Others say it’s because many minorities don’t want to be a part of a department they are leery of. Even so, Hadley has hired almost 60 new officers since he became Kalamazoo’s top cop in 2008. He expects to bring on 20 to 25 more in the next few years to replace retiring offices. While institutional knowledge is valuable, Hadley says the new hires let him shape Public Safety in the community policing image he believes so much in. The department still needs to improve but is well on its way, he says.

“You also have an opportunity to take a young workforce, a new workforce, and change the culture. Get them operating in a manner that maintains the public trust and keeps it safe.”

Kalamazoo City Commissioner Stephanie Moore says community talks and panel discussions are fine. But she says what really needs to occur is healing between minority groups that have felt harassed and disrespected, and Public Safety officers who often feel misunderstood. Moore says progress is possible if an effort to have an open, honest, consistent dialogue is made.

“There has to be real healing in this community. Sessions on healing and understanding. We’re not gonna always agree but let’s just understand that I’m here and I come from here and I’m just trying to do my job, and I’m here and I’m just trying to survive and I wanna walk away after you do your job.”

Public Safety Chief Jeff Hadley says he’s open to having that dialog. Whether or not that discussion begins is up to the community as well as city leaders, including Hadley.

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.

Chris Killian is a freelance journalist with nearly a decade of experience at WMUK, the Kalamazoo Gazette, the Grand Rapids Press, the Christian Science Monitor and other online and print publications.
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