Across the country, cities are struggling to provide adequate public safety in a time of reduced tax revenue, lay-offs and escalating crime. In many communities, cutbacks have shrunk the municipal police force, yet citizens have not adjusted their expectations for police service to match those circumstances. Flint, Mich., is no exception.
This “new reality” calls for drastic changes in the ways police officers perform their duties, says Jerry Boles, a retired Lansing police chief who is part of a training and technical assistance team from Michigan State University’s (MSU) School of Criminal Justice.
Boles and his team are working with the Flint Police Department to enhance both the police and city’s community policing capacity as a method of addressing crime, social disorder, and fear of crime.
“Like a lot of other cities here in Michigan, the level of service that Flint residents have come to expect from their police department can no longer be provided,” said Kim Lawrence, retired Lansing Police Captain and another member of the MSU Team.
“Going forward, the officers that remain need to be deployed differently. One way of accomplishing that is to look at what has worked in other communities and adapting those strategies to Flint’s needs.”
Restructuring the way Flint police take, prioritize and respond to calls is just one of many ways to increase “efficiencies,” says Lawrence. Another is to reassess every position, role and responsibility within the department.
“This kind of organizational transformation represents a culture change for officers and for city residents,” said Boles.
With $300,000 in support from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, MSU will continue that work for a second consecutive year. The grant is part of a the Foundation’s two-year commitment of $3 million in support of the city’s 21st Century Community Policing project. The goal is to increase the department’s capacity to use community-oriented policing techniques systemwide.
“2010 was a challenging year for Flint,” Boles continued, noting that the police department dealt with multiple, serious issues, including a record number of homicides, a serial stabber and drastic force reductions.
Despite these difficulties, foot patrol officers were trained and assigned community policing duties for a minimum of two hours each week; at least one volunteer mini-stations was established in each of the city’s nine wards; 22 neighborhood crime watches were recruited to work in coordination with the mini-stations and police; more than 250 volunteers stepped forward as part of a Blue Badge Volunteer Corps initiative; and 50 of these individuals attended 16 hours of training led by the MSU team and a police officer liaison.
In year two, MSU will continue to work with the police in developing short and long term goals as part of a police department strategic plan that can be reviewed and updated annually once the MSU team’s work is completed.
“We don’t want our work to become just another study on the shelf — believe me, the Flint Police Department has been looked at and written about enough,” said Boles.
“Our goal is to help them lay out a plan of action with a set of logical, incremental steps to allocate the resources they have by aligning workloads with staffing, utilizing technology more effectively and developing partnerships with volunteers in neighborhoods throughout the community.”
Mini-stations will play a vital role in this newly developing strategy.
However, Audrey Martini, another member of the MSU Team, indicates the mini-stations of the 21st Century will probably not look or operate as they did in the 1970’s.
“We are finding that we need to work with neighborhoods to reinvent the concept — develop a shared understanding of what services a mini-station can and cannot provide,” said the former Detroit Police Department Lieutenant and current Director of Outreach for MSU’s School of Criminal Justice.
“We’ve spent the first year developing policies and procedures, recruiting volunteers and putting together a list of tasks — ultimately, we hope these stations will become extensions of police services that in the past have only been provided from downtown or by police officers. Hopefully they will become a place for neighborhood organizations to meet with officers, identify crime and quality of life issues, and develop resolutions to those issues.”
William Shoemaker and William Krebs — “Will and Bill” as they are known to their neighbors — hope for that same outcome. Shoemaker, who serves as volunteer coordinator of Flint’s Westside Mini Station and Krebs, vice-president of the West Flint Community Watch, are long-time residents who are committed to keeping their neighborhood safe.
With the support of a growing number of volunteers and their community policing liaison, the Westside Mini Station is reaching out to other community groups, including blight elimination and beautification initiatives such as the city’s Park Tenders and Keep Genesee County Beautiful campaign. In addition to publishing and distributing a monthly newsletter, volunteers also are attempting to track incidents of crime, to provide police with a better sense of where and what types of crimes are occurring within their city ward.
Well-trained neighborhood volunteers have enormous potential to assist the police in any number of ways, says Martini. Technology upgrades that link the mini-stations directly to the department’s records management system will be critical to accomplishing these goals.
“There are some disconnects between systems, but we’re working to get everyone on the same page,” said Boles. “It’s going to require more technical and staff development — system changes like these are a slow process.
Boles and his entire team remain optimistic that Flint — once a national model for community policing* — will move forward.
“Flint’s troubles didn’t happen overnight, and solutions won’t happen overnight either. But people are clear that they want change. It’s going to take a lot of small changes to add up to big change.”
* Between 1977 and 1983, more than $3 million ($8.9 million in inflation-adjusted dollars) in Mott funding directly supported the operations of the Neighborhood Foot Patrol. In collaboration with MSU’s National Neighborhood Foot Patrol Center, established in 1982 with more than $1 million in Mott support, the Flint program served as a national model for reform through the end of the decade.