Involved citizens are key to success of neighborhood foot patrol programs

Neighborhood foot patrol officers can make a critical difference — especially in communities facing tough budget cuts — if residents are willing to “step up” and work with their officer and each other.

“Community policing only works if the community works with you,” said Kirk McQuillan, who began and ended his career as a foot patrol officer for the Flint Police Department. McQuillan retired in April 2010 after serving the past 10 years as a foot patrol officer in downtown Flint.

McQuillan is hopeful that a recent $1.15 million grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation to reinstitute community policing in all of the city’s wards will encourage more resident involvement in public safety.

“You can’t post an officer on every block, so when you’re a mile away in the other direction, you’ve got to have people who are willing to act as your eyes and ears. An officer’s force becomes a lot bigger when people help police their own.”

Merchants and business owners in the central city are quick to point out that despite Flint’s high rate of reported crime, downtown is virtually crime free, mirroring the statistics of several suburbs surrounding the city. And they credit their foot patrol officer as a significant influence in keeping the area safe.

A policeman stands in front of a tall building.
Kirk McQuillan began and ended his career as a foot patrol officer for the Flint Police Department.

“Kirk has keys to almost every business down here,” says Edward Hoort, executive director of Legal Services of Eastern Michigan, who gives McQuillan high praise for his ability to spot and diffuse problems before they escalate into something more serious.

“We have his cell phone number in case of an emergency, though we’ve never had to use it,” said Hoort.

While technology has helped make his job more efficient — he has handed out his telephone number to hundreds of people — McQuillan is quick to point out that without his “partners,” responding to calls in his mile-square beat would be extremely difficult.

“It’s about cooperation,” he says of community policing. “I depend on the business owners and office workers like Ed (Hoort) and Julie (Prince) at the Brown Sugar Café to let me know what’s going on. I made sure I had a good working relationship with the Mott Community College and UM-Flint campus police and student security patrols and the deputies at the courthouse. When you think about it, downtown Flint has more police presence than anywhere in the county.”

Since beginning his career in the late 1980s, McQuillan has served as both a foot and motor patrol officer. Back then, he said, every sector of the city was covered by foot patrols, a result of the department’s groundbreaking neighborhood foot patrol experiment initiated in 1979 with $3 million in funding from the Mott Foundation.

The answer lies with the community. People have to step up — stop feeling helpless — and work with the police and each other.” Kirk McQuillan

“We had people from all over the world looking at our model and we had studies that proved it worked.”

Despite a recent grant from the Foundation to resuscitate community policing, McQuillan doesn’t envision a return to the original model, however.

“Problems don’t go away just because you have a foot patrol officer. They go away when you have time to interact with the community and they become activists for their own safety. That takes a lot of visiting, a lot of conversations and regular meetings with the merchants, the residents and the police. Right now, we just don’t have that luxury. Our motorized officers are running calls constantly — we have a real problem with manpower.”

Still, even with a shortage of officers, McQuillan believes training in community policing techniques will benefit the department. Flint’s current force has no choice but to reach out, he says.

“Things aren’t going to turn-around any time soon. And I just don’t know how you can have a safe city without pulling the community into the mix — we’re too shorthanded to do it alone.

“The answer lies with the community. People have to step up — stop feeling helpless — and work with the police and each other.”