County Sheriff, Chiefs from Southfield, Oak Park, Farmington Hills Discuss Race
(Crystal A. Proxmire, April 8, 2017)
Southfield, MI – What are the results of taking a proactive approach to community policing and addressing racial inequities? Police Chiefs from through SE Michigan and Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard were among the speakers at the Race and Law Enforcement in the Urban Community Summit hosted by the Michigan Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials on Saturday at Lawrence Tech. University in Southfield.
Each discussed the importance of “community policing” and the impact it has in their cities.
Oak Park Public Safety Director Steve Cooper, who oversees both police and fire services, said “Community policing is not some new phenomenon. And it’s not a program you can sign up for. It’s a philosophy of being part of the community and not just the people that enforce the rules.”
Each Chief discussed they things they have done in terms of community outreach, but one of Oak Park’s ideas brought the most smiles to the group. This summer police will be driving around in a van giving ice cream to neighborhood kids. The van is a former DPW van and the ice cream has been donated by a local business.
Other efforts include a citizen’s police academy and a student police academy where residents can learn about what the officers do behind the scenes. A city-wide block club picnic also gives residents a chance to interact with their public safety officers in a relaxed environment.
Tim Evans of National League of Cities has been working with local elected officials on understanding and discussing the problem of disproportionate incarceration of black males. Nationwide men of color are 30% of the population, however they are 60% of the population in prison. In major cities black males are the most common victims of homicide and other violent crimes. And they are also most likely to be killed by a member of law enforcement.
What Evans found was that “very few cities and officials were willing to have this conversation” regarding the fact that race is an issue and that there is more to reducing crime than policing.
He talked about systematic racial inequities, including in education, health outcomes, food, and employment opportunities. “In some communities there were no opportunities and no hope,” he said.
Evans showed a slide of all the systems that one family was trying to navigate, a web that included education, work, healthcare, food, social services, child and family services, mental health services and probation – a challenging situation easily made worse by not having resources, support or a two-parent household.
Addressing equity in all the systems that impact communities of color is not just a matter of justice, but of transforming communities, strengthening families, uplifting the economy, and saving lives.
OAKLAND COUNTY SHERIFF
Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard has been using a holistic approach to community policing, particularly in Pontiac. In Pontiac there had been 200 police officers at one time. The State of Michigan took over with an Emergency Financial Manager who reduced police services and eventually contracted with Oakland County Sheriff’s Department which now has 75 deputies covering the city.
Since the change, Bouchard and his team have been part of community conversations to identify what the situational challenges are and find ways to be part of the solution. They’ve instituted a number of programs to offer support to families, including a Police Athletic League, Cell Phones for Seniors, Coats for Cold, a program where police give teddy bears to kids who are in challenging situations, a program where they feed students at three elementary schools on the weekends, a program that gives free cribs to new mothers along with advice about preventing infant death, activities through the year for kids and more.
“It’s not only a way when you see a void in the community where there’s a need, like kids need to have food on the weekend, that’s not police work. but it is,” Sheriff Bouchard said. “Because it allows us to develop relationships with those kids, who when we first started the program kind of walked up like ‘what are the cops doing here?’ and now they’re giving high fives and showing report cards to our deputies because now they’re buddies.”
These efforts build bridges, but funding is an issue. “I constantly hear ‘community policing, why don’t we do more of it?’ and I think we all would like to do more of it,” he said. “If you really want to impact communities, restore some of these cop grants and grants that allow police to put people specifically into that role in the street.”
In addition to uplifting communities, the issue of violence and racism within police forces is also an issue. Evans read dozens of names of those killed in interactions by those in authority, including Trayvon Martin, Eric Gardner, Michael Brown, and Freddie Gray.
For all the departments represented, budgeting and recruitment are issues that impact their ability to create more diverse law enforcement agencies and to provide the best service possible.
Southfield Police Chief Eric Hawkins said that with budget cuts come reduced staff sizes, leading to more pressure on the officers that remain as they answer more calls and work more hours. “Have a police officer that’s stressed, you put that type of stress on them, it impacts operations,” he said. He said the nature of social media fueling emotions add to the stress officers are under.
In his department, addressing stress and service was a top priority upon becoming Chief. He created opportunities for officers and staff to work out during their shift and also began tracking complaints. “I needed to track behaviors,” Chief Hawkins said. “Every officer is reviewed monthly… With this system I’ve been able to identify officers who just needed help.” He spoke about how in one case an officer’s complaints had increased and by recognizing that they were able to identify that a personal issue was impacting them at work. “We were able to connect and talk it out. And that may have prevented a use of force incident in our community.”
He also said the way agencies recruit is starting to change. “Interpersonal skills are the number one skills I want PO’s to have,” he said.
The Chiefs all agreed that recruiting was difficult because fewer people are interested in becoming police officers. Reasons given included declining benefits, increased stress and a belief in minority communities that police are against them. “There’s this perception people have of police officers,” Chief Hawkins said “They’ll say ‘why would I want to be part of this group that oppresses people who look like me?”
Hawkins tells young people that police work is a good opportunity to be part of they system change they want to see.
The City of Southfield also has a strong recruitment program where recruits can attend college on scholarship while also attending the police academy.
Farmington Hills Police Chief Charles Nebus spoke about how mental health issues and access to mental health care impact police work. “Our number one identified issue is mental health,” Chief Nebus said. “1 in 10 police encounters involve a person with a mental health issue, and 25% of the victims of police shootings has a mental health issue. …Every day we have mental health runs.”
Addressing this issue means improving access to services as well as training to make sure officers know how to recognize and address a person with mental health challenges.
This includes an increase in drug use, particularly heroin. Last year in Farmington Hills there were 9 lives saved by police administering Narcan and 25 saved due to administration by the Fire Department.
In terms of community policing and connecting with communities of color, Farmington Hills has led the way in being active in many community groups and events including the Sikh Community banquet, Muslim Community banquet, Community Cares Network, Middle Eastern TV, Hate Crimes Conference, Faith Based Community Support and more. The city has seen property crimes fall to 38% below the statewide average, and violent cries fall to 78% below average.
“The first thing I did when I started in Farmington Hills was that our Mission Statement must have a Civil Rights component to it,” Chief Nebus said.
The Race and Law Enforcement Summit was attended by police personnel, elected officials and administrators from around SE Michigan. Other presenters included Ypsilanti Councilperson Lois Allen-Richarson, Director of Leadership Programs at Lawrence Tech. Brian Craigo, Highland Park Police Chief Chester Logan, Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton, Michigan State Police Lieutenant Calvin Heart and Michigan Association of Police Chiefs Director Robert Stevenson.