Detroit residents say neighborhood cops are making a difference

Detroit's neighborhood police officer program is now eight years old and is growing, officials said


By Jasmin Barmore
Detroit Free Press

DETROIT — On a recent warm sunny Thursday morning in March, Officer Barren Coleman was at one of his usual stops, a Citgo gas station on West McNichols and the Southfield service drive.

As he made his way to the door, it was held open for him by a young Black man. The two slapped hands after entering and exchanged a “what up.” It was like they knew each other forever, but, they were total strangers.

(Clockwise left to right) Detroit Police Department Neighborhood Police Officers Marcia Williams, Dan Robinson and Eric Hill gather with Sergeant Charles Spruce before handing out gun safety information and gun locks while going door-to-door along Fenelon Street on Detroit's east side on Thursday, March 25, 2021.
(Clockwise left to right) Detroit Police Department Neighborhood Police Officers Marcia Williams, Dan Robinson and Eric Hill gather with Sergeant Charles Spruce before handing out gun safety information and gun locks while going door-to-door along Fenelon Street on Detroit's east side on Thursday, March 25, 2021. (Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press)

“No, I don’t know him," said Dre Thomas, 26, when asked about his relationship with Coleman. “But the way you feel about police, depends on your comfort level. As long as the police aren’t bothering you, there is no need to look at the police in any ill way.”

This interaction is pretty typical for Coleman who has been a neighborhood police officer for seven years and a part of the Detroit Police Department for 25 years. He stops by this gas station along with many other businesses and homes located in the Evergreen to Greenfield neighborhood of West McNichols to West Eight Mile Road, that he services.

The Free Press followed five neighborhood police officers — who are all Black — throughout the city in March, talking to residents and business owners along the way. Residents in these areas said they believe police being visible in the neighborhoods is a positive for decreasing violence and preventing the onset of crime. Residents said they feel safer in their neighborhoods with police presence and that the job of the Detroit Police Departments neighborhood police officers, whose role is to handle quality of life issues within neighborhoods, makes for a safe haven for the city.

“If you didn’t have them around it would be real terrible,” said Helen Woods, a 45-year resident of the city’s east side. “It is already terrible now, so what do you think would be happening if we didn’t have them?”

[READ: Violence reduction: Improving police-community relations is key]

DPD’s neighborhood police officers were formed by Detroit Police Chief James Craig in 2013. The position is considered an appointed position by the chief, that comes with a 3.5% raise for the officers selected, but also with more responsibility since their main focus is being responsive to the community needs and getting to know the people in the neighborhoods that they service, according to DPD media relations spokeswoman Sgt. Nicole Kirkwood.

"Neighborhood police officers work to build trust and positive relationships between the police and the community that we serve," said Kirkwood.

Across the nation, both historical and recent research shows that community policing helps to improve citizens behavior toward police and also helps to provide safer neighborhoods. And better relations between police and citizens, particularly in communities of color like Detroit, are paramount as the nation has faced a reckoning of sorts in the wake of several police killings of people of color — especially Black men.

DPD's program is now eight years old and has increased from 44 officers to 59 officers assigned to the role. In the past, DPD always had community relations police, but according to DPD assistant chief Todd Bettison, Craig's program is much different.

"The current NPO program is more robust," said Bettison, who oversees the Office of Neighborhood Policing. "Before, community relations police did not have an assigned geographic location, cellphones for community members to call them direct, or laptops and now they do."

[READ: How moving from ‘us’ and ‘them’ to ‘we’ results in more effective policing]

" Chief Craig's goal was to ensure that the people in the neighborhoods know their NPOs and that their NPOs have a meaningful relationship with the community. So the chief assigned each NPO to a specific geographic area of their respective precincts for the NPOs to be responsible for and to also create accessibility and accountability for the NPOs."

Each day these officers come to work, they achieve this goal by sitting outside of gas stations and liquor stores — which are a part of Project Green Light Detroit — to ensure comers and goers feel safe with police presence, passing out informative literature on gun safety at residents' houses and stopping by the homes of community members just to chat. While the officers go to businesses that are part of Project Green Light as part of their daily monitoring, they service other businesses in the neighborhoods they patrol if they are needed.

A Detroit resident, Peggy Noble, who lives on the west side of Detroit, said of all the NPOs in her neighborhood, there is one who she is always excited to see and that is: Officer Coleman.

“I always look forward to seeing Officer Coleman” she said. “He is fantastic and cares a lot about the people in the community.”

“Community policing and police in the community are two different things,” Coleman said. “I tell people all the time that there are two different kinds of police. There’s the ones that police the community and there are the ones who want to become a part of the community. … I want to be the one who is a part of the community.”

Back on the east side of the city in the 11th Precinct district, resident Rob Barron, who is a white man, said if there were more NPOs out in the neighborhoods, it would be a huge benefit to the residents. He said, additionally, if the officers walked the neighborhoods in plain clothing it would probably make the streets even safer.

“People who are going to do something wrong, see a police officer and they don’t do it,” Barron, 50, said. “If they don’t know someone is watching them they will go ahead and do it and then we can actually get a criminal off the street.”

On this day, NPOs Dan Robinson, Eric Hill, Marcia Williams, and Sgt. Charles Spruce all walked from one end of Fenelon and East Seven Mile to the other end of Fenelon and East Outer Drive and back in police uniforms, knocking on resident’s doors to hand deliver information on gun safety to help prevent gun violence in the neighborhood.

Recently, two separate gun incidents where children were able to get hold of guns and shot another child took place in the neighborhood patrolled by the 11th Precinct.

Williams, who is affectionately known as Mama Smurf in the community, said she goes into the schools and talks to the students about police issues and other things that trouble the younger generation because she can relate, by growing up in the city and graduating from King High School. However, she said that since the recent gun incident involving children she frequently visits one student in particular because he is afraid and she wants him to know she cares.

“I just go and check on him because he is scared,” Williams said. “I just give him a hug and let him know mistakes happen.”

Robinson said the department already started a citywide gun safety campaign along with giving away free gun locks after the incident, but walking around the neighborhood and handing out literature was just another way to get the word out.

“We (NPOs) kind of come up with our own creative ways to connect with the community,” Robinson said. “Whatever we can do to connect we do it because we care.”

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