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Getting to Know You

KDPS' Canvassing Program has officers getting to know those they serve
Bob Kettemen of Taco Bob’s in downtown Kalamazoo shows his appreciation for Kevin Seckler, the KDPS officer who patrols downtown.

If you see a Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety officer on your doorstep and have not called 911 for an emergency, don’t panic. Officers are knocking on doors to introduce themselves, to meet you as fellow community members and to find out if there are any problems on your block.

The officer’s visit is part of KDPS’ Canvassing Program, an effort to improve communication between the department and the community. Officers go door-to-door with the goal of meeting every citizen on their beat over the course of a year.

“All kinds of positive things are coming from it,” says the Operations Division’s Capt. Jim Mallery, who initiated the program. “Such an approach is widely praised because it has huge benefits to making the city a great place to live.”

The program was one result of a yearlong study of KDPS’ relationship with the African American community. The study — conducted by Lamberth Consulting, a Pennsylvania firm that specializes in racial profiling assessments — didn’t paint a pretty picture: In KDPS traffic stops at 12 locations in the city, black motorists were more than twice as likely to be stopped as white drivers. And even though whites were more likely to be found with contraband such as guns and drugs, a far greater percentage of blacks were searched, handcuffed and arrested.

“It was tough on the officers,” KDPS Chief Jeff Hadley says of the study. “They were angry. They felt that I had thrown them under the bus. They felt attacked and called racist. But there had been negative perceptions out there for a long time, and this was an opportunity to seek answers to how we would deal with them in a responsible way.”

The study set in motion a new communications approach to building greater trust between citizens and KDPS. One part of the approach is the Canvassing Program. The program began in March 2014 and requires officers on each of KDPS’ two shifts to devotes two hours to cover two blocks. With more than 75,500 people in Kalamazoo’s 25.11 square miles, that’s a lot of people to meet. Officers can potentially make 12 to 25 contacts per shift and visit 50 residences on four blocks per day. Canvassing is done throughout the year in all of the city’s neighborhoods.

On one March evening this year, Sgt. Anthony Morgan visited seven homes in the Oakwood neighborhood in one hour. Highly personable and engaging, Morgan introduced himself to residents and explained that he was visiting the neighborhood, meeting citizens, uncovering their concerns and finding out whether KDPS was doing its job. At first, the residents he talked to were hesitant.

“People don’t usually say anything unless they’re asked,” Morgan says. However, as residents warmed up to him, they made some suggestions, which he wrote down in his notebook: The city should plow the sidewalks and roads; the neighborhood liaison officer should be reinstated; bike lanes around the city run into gutters. Morgan answered questions about what the city was doing about their concerns, and later that night he would send follow-up emails to the appropriate city departments about the residents’ concerns.

As he prepared to leave the residents, he thanked them and gave them his card, reminding them to call him if something came up. As he moved from house to house, he waved at kids riding bikes on the street and gave them KDPS sticker badges he always carries.

“I’ve learned a lot about other departments in the city that I didn’t know about as a result of canvassing residents, like the Public Services Department,” Morgan says.

Knowing the beat

The Canvassing Program also informs officers of possible crime going on in a neighborhood. At one house, Morgan picked up information about a possible methamphetamine lab in the neighborhood, so KDPS will watch that house and make any necessary arrests, he says.

“People always know what’s going on way before we do,” he says. “That’s the big advantage of this program.”

The Canvassing Program also helps officers gain a broader perspective of their beats (KDPS has seven zones, or beats, that the officers patrol) as they attempt to create an environment of trust and responsiveness with citizens. For example, one officer spent 40 minutes in an elderly homeowner’s living room listening to a historical account of the neighborhood over the past 57 years.

Residents on West Maple Street alerted KDPS about speeding cars on their street, so more frequent patrols were posted. In another neighborhood, some residents said they felt unsafe at certain bus stops in the early morning, so KDPS has provided a greater presence near those stops.

While Sgt. Danielle Guilds was canvassing in the Vine neighborhood, she met former city commissioner Lance Ferraro, who invited her into his house and introduced her to his family. He was delighted to see her and find out that KDPS was canvassing city neighborhoods. Such visits also helped her learn that the Vine neighborhood is not populated just by students.

Without building these relationships with residents, Mallery says, he doubts people would take the initiative to call KDPS to help them take care of their concerns. At the same time, the program has helped public safety officers to see people as citizens rather than as individuals having one of the worst days of their lives.

“This job can breed a cynicism in the profession,” Mallery says. “You begin to think that everyone is like the person you arrested last night.”

A ‘believer’ now

On his first Canvassing Program visit, Sgt. Scott Sanderson surprised one couple in the Northside neighborhood when he stopped by to follow up on their 3-year-old son, who had suffered a seizure requiring an EMS rescue a few days before. When he knocked on the couple’s door, the first thing they said was, “What did we do now?” Sanderson replied that he was just checking to see that their son was doing all right. They invited him in and talked awhile, watching the toddler play on the floor with a fire truck.

“To me it was like night and day and a complete turnaround from what I knew about policing,” Sanderson says about the Canvassing Program. “Ten years ago I would not have bought into the Canvassing Program. That first experience made a believer out of me.”

Sanderson says he has also learned more about the Northside, including that there are many residents who have lived there for 40 to 50 years.

“I had no clue there were retired school workers there or ambulance people,” he says. “And, once inside their homes, they are actually happy to see me.”

For citizens, having a police presence in the neighborhood is a big deal. When officers get out of their patrol cars and interact with citizens, the Department of Public Safety becomes much more personal to them, Sanderson says.

Chief Hadley regularly visits an elderly African American woman on the Northside who says she likes to see “the blue pants.” In other words, she feels safer when KDPS officers are around.

“These new programs have helped to facilitate changes in the department and the ways we go about our daily business,” says Lt. Jeff VanderWiere, who works in the KDPS Command Center, at Burdick Street and Crosstown Parkway. “The programs have created a partnership with citizens where they see our interest and care for them. Citizens also get to see the human side of the officers and realize that we are part of the community, too.”

Building trust

One of the biggest changes in KDPS resulting from the Canvassing Program is a gradual changing of the department’s culture, Mallery says. Historically, officers were rewarded for the number of arrests they made, the amount of narcotics and number of guns they recovered and the number of tickets they wrote (although KDPS does not have a quota system on tickets), he says. Today the department has changed this approach to one that encourages quality contact with citizens in non-enforcement situations. It’s called WOW Service, and it’s all about building trust with the public in order to reduce crime and increase relationships with citizens, Mallery says.

WOW Service was derived from two sources: a book about customer service titled The How of Wow! and Mallery’s mother, Pat. After Mallery told her about what he was trying to accomplish with the new communications program, his mother advised him to follow her Golden Rule — treat others the way you would want your mother treated — and create “wow!” moments where people would say “wow!” after officers approached them. He called the department’s new in-house newsletter the “WOW Bulletin,” and the approach caught on.

One way WOW Service occurs is that the department “never shuts the door,” Mallery says. KDPS has a presence at all community forums, has established more foot patrols and has enhanced its media relations program in an effort to engage the community. It has also investigated the possibility of using body cameras but has found that this tactic is complicated by a number of issues such as data storage, redaction and privacy, he says.

Communication among the officers and leadership has also changed, VanderWiere says. For example, every day at 8 a.m. VanderWiere meets with his sergeants to give directions for the day shift. He relays feedback from the evening shift and notes special events going on that day that may need closer attention. These meetings occurred before but more informally. Now they are part of standard operating procedure, VanderWiere says.

“Communication always needs improvement,” he says. “Any time we do it, everyone benefits. Besides, we can’t do it with the community without doing it with ourselves first.”.

WOW Service also gives officers more latitude to solve problems, he says. For example, a 93-year-old man from Colon drove to Kalamazoo to see his wife at Borgess Medical Center. However, because the man had a memory loss problem, he couldn’t find his way back to Colon. Officer Ben Ulman drove him home, about 40 miles away.

Another innovation in KDPS is its Customer Service Follow-Up Program. Command officers select two people each month who were arrested and then interview them about their treatment. The program aims to gauge the performance of officers. Last year 82 people were contacted to respond to a follow-up survey. All but four or five said the officers who arrested them treated them fairly and with dignity and respect.

WOW Service also comes into play whenever there is a crime call in a neighborhood. Officers treat such calls with a more “laser-type focus” on the individuals causing the problem, Hadley says.

“We go after the offender, not the whole neighborhood,” he says. “We don’t stop all people around and pat them down. We don’t want to hold the rest of the neighborhood hostage because of a very small group of people who commit crimes.”

Creating legitimacy

Mallery, who teaches criminal justice at Ferris State University, says that KDPS’ new communications approach is based on Sir Robert Peel’s Principles of Policing, which were formulated in 1829 while the former British prime minister served as home secretary. The assumption behind Peele’s principles is that the police are citizens and citizens are the police. In other words, both groups determine how they want law enforcement to operate in their neighborhoods and cities.

“These programs help us to create legitimacy in the work we do,” Mallery says. “Legitimacy is not about a badge or a gun. Instead, it’s about repetitive contact with the community about how it wants to be policed.”

Mallery cites research by Tom Tyler of Yale University that explores the role of justice in shaping people’s relationships with groups, organizations, communities and societies. In particular, Tyler examines the role of judgments about the justice or injustice of group procedures in shaping legitimacy, compliance and cooperation.

This summer KDPS officers will receive training in police legitimacy, which addresses citizens’ views of police and their deference to police authority.

“This training will help us know where we need to go as a profession,” Hadley says. “It’s good for the officers, and it will help them determine the right thing to do. It will also keep them safer where they learn to communicate with people and be aware of their implicit and unconscious biases. In this way officers have a better chance of winning people’s compliance without a fight.”

Mixed impact on officers

Hadley says most police departments in America do not have a communications program like KDPS’. In fact, KDPS’ program is so unusual that cable news channel Al Jazeera America recently featured the department and its work as a contrast to the handling of recent racially charged police situations like those in Baltimore; Ferguson, Mo.; Cleveland; New York; and South Carolina. However, the motivation behind the KDPS communications program didn’t come easily nor did officers receive it favorably at first.

“About half of the officers are proud of the communications program that grew out of the (Lamberth Consulting) study, but the other half still have some raw emotions about the study,” Morgan says.

Officer Craig Stouffer says one objection to the study was that the people pulled over for traffic stops are more generally poor than African American. They are pulled over because of such problems as an expired license plate, failure to pay warrants or defective equipment on their cars. (KDPS cars are equipped with computers that can check license plates for violations.)

“The study didn’t fully explain why people were stopped,” Stouffer says. “Then it tossed a label on us that was hard to shake. We weren’t going to win either way.”

Many officers felt the results of the study put the officers’ lives, reputations and legitimacy on the line, Stouffer says. At the same time, several of the officers interviewed for this article expressed surprise at the lack of public outcry about the study, which was released in September 2013.

Ahead of the curve

Although the news was not all good, the study and the follow-up efforts of KDPS have been well received by the Kalamazoo community, Hadley says. “It appreciated our honesty to look at ourselves,” he says.

The results show that since the Canvassing Program’s inception, crime in the city is down 6.25 percent in every category, including aggravated assault and car theft. Traffic stops are down 41 percent while directed patrols (targeting “hot spots” of crime) are up 37 percent.

When the fallout of the shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer hit last summer, KDPS was ready — and glad that it was ahead of the curve, Sgt. Morgan says.

“Then it all made sense because we could see on TV what happens when mistrust erupts between the public and the police. We, at least, were on the front end of changing that.”

Hadley says that there is much more work to do but that most officers have truly come around to understanding the goals and purpose of the study.

“I can’t be more proud of them,” he says.

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Additional information about the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety's efforts to improve communication with the Kalamazoo community can be found on the Al Jazeera America website

Listen to Capt. James Mallery talk about the creative ways KDPS go above and beyond to enhance the relationship between the police and the community.