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Building relationships between the community and the police in Kalamazoo

Jul 22, 2015

Downtown Kalamazoo.
Credit Michigan Municipal League / Flickr - http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

What would it be like if the people of a community saw their police officers not just in crisis or in response to a crime, but in relaxed, friendly settings around town each and every day?

And what if, instead of seeing people at their worst moments, officers got to enjoy pleasant, laid-back interactions with the community?

It’s happening in Kalamazoo with the Department of Public Safety Community Policing Special Unit.

Kalamazoo DPS’s Sergeant Matt Elzinga tells us that the main goal behind this program is to build stronger bridges of trust between community and law enforcement.

Elzinga says it’s important work, not just for civilians but for officers as well.

When members of the community interact with police officers, Elzinga tells us it’s usually not a positive experience. Typically when they call for an officer, they’ve either seen or been a victim of a crime, so, “they’re having a bad day.”

“We have to go out and engage with the public in a relaxed setting, so they can see the person behind the uniform, behind the badge,” he says. “If members in the community do not trust law enforcement, they’re not going to be forthcoming in letting us know what is going on in the neighborhoods.”

Elzinga says that reaching out to the community in this way both shows the public that they can trust law enforcement and helps officers more effectively do their jobs.

He tells us that officers filling these roles have volunteered to do so, and that it can be a commitment of anywhere from one to five years.

“You have to want to do this. You have to have a good healthy balance between being a crimefighter and being a person that can go out there and engage the community in a different light,” Elzinga tells us. “And it does make you a better rounded officer.”

In addition to assigning community officers to different neighborhoods around Kalamazoo, the CPSU also holds events like picnics or block parties to give community members and officers a chance to get to know each other.

Elzinga tells us that the program, at its core, is about demonstrating to the public that their police officers genuinely care about the community.

Learn more about Kalamazoo’s Community Policing Special Unit in our conversation with Sergeant Matt Elzinga above.