There's no need for an armed police response to nonviolent incidents like noise complaints, fireworks, or young people out after curfew. Instead, those quality-of-life issues can be addressed through neighbor-to-neighbor education. That's the idea behind the new Y-Town Quality of Life initiative piloted by the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office in Ypsilanti Township.
The pilot program's details are still being worked out, but Sheriff Jerry Clayton says there should be two main tracks. One track would provide a continuum of responses to behavioral and mental health issues.
That response might range from sending a non-police crisis team to deal with a situation to sending a social worker out with an officer in a coordinated response. Someone having a mental health crisis can be directed to Washtenaw County Community Mental Health or given other resources instead of encountering the local criminal justice system.
The second track would involve training "community responders" to address quality-of-life issues. That piece is still being worked out, but Derrick Jackson, director of community engagement for the sheriff's office, has a vision for what that might look like.
"Imagine if we had a group of residents, neighbors who could be dispatched by 911 and respond to loud music calls," he says. "Some might want to support that but might not want to be the responder. This would be non-criminal, nonviolent, non-emergency issues that community members could respond to."
Clayton says there's been an "uptick in activity" now that weather is nicer, leading to some quality-of-life complaints to the sheriff's office. Clayton uses a noise complaint mentioned by New West Willow Neighborhood Association
(NWWNA) President JoAnn McCollum as an example.
Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton.
"There was some loud music right down the block, and our folks responded and addressed it," Clayton says. "It was just miscommunication and a misalignment of expectations."
He says he has directed sheriff's office staff to begin changing the way they respond to loud music, curfew issues, speeding, and other low-level nonviolent offenses.
"I told staff we'll engage and attempt to educate, and if we have to return, we may issue tickets," Clayton says. "But we don't want to get into a situation that's allowed to escalate and where we need to use force."
While members of the West Willow neighborhood have been active in shaping the pilot program, Clayton says the sheriff's office considers all of Ypsilanti Township to be the pilot area.McCollum says she thinks the program is likely to be so successful it will "spread throughout the county."
"Quality-of-life issues are something people talk about all the time. It's the number-one thing we talk about [at neighborhood association meetings]," McCollum says. "It's a matter of us knowing and being educated as residents and community members about how we can work together and have a better quality of life. Let's get connected."
New West Willow Neighborhood Association President JoAnn McCollum.
Clayton says the current narrative around police reform suggests that police officers might be "mad" or "worried" about not being called upon to address low-level offenses, but that's not the case.
"Our deputies don't have a problem with not responding to low-level incidents so they can do other things," Clayton says. "What we do want is to be careful."
Currently, County Prosecutor Eli Savit, county commissioners including Ricky Jefferson and Justin Hodge, township officials, Habitat for Humanity of Huron Valley
, and NWWNA are among those participating and supporting the initiative.
Sarah Teare, community development director for Habitat for Humanity of Huron Valley, says connecting neighbors with neighbors will also be an important component of the pilot program.
"Building relationships, in the sense of community and knowing your neighbors better, is key to long-term quality of life in neighborhoods," Teare says.
Ypsilanti Township Supervisor Brenda Stumbo also points to neighbors not knowing those who live nearby as a root of many quality-of-life issues like noise, speeding, and stray dogs.
Habitat for Humanity of Huron Valley community development director Sarah Teare.
"Sometimes the person who called [the sheriff] doesn't want to get involved, and doesn't know the neighbors. It's a vicious circle," Stumbo says. "People in the community work different hours or have children, and booming music every night or speeding is both a safety issue and a mental health issue. We need to get people to understand their neighbors, and plant a seed about turning it down and slowing it down."
One way the pilot program addresses these issues is by ordering signs residents can put in their yards reminding their neighbors to slow down and turn their music down. Signs are currently being designed and will be ordered in the next week or two.
Township Clerk Heather Jarrell-Roe says she sees the goal of the initiative as "increasing community engagement, building and strengthening relationships, and shared community problem-solving."
She and other trustees are soliciting resident feedback, seeking volunteers to implement the plans, and looking at possible grant funding for the signs and other components of the pilot program.
Another tactic included in the pilot program will involve a printed newsletter. Teare and several West Willow neighborhood residents have formed a small team that has been meeting by Zoom every two weeks. The team's goal is to publish a quarterly print newsletter to be distributed by hand to every home in the neighborhood.
"It will be about fostering relationships, sharing information, and getting people to know each other better," she says. "We don't want it all to be information and enforcement of rules. That will be a piece, but we also want to include what's going on in West Willow, how to get involved with groups already doing things, and events coming up you can participate in. We also want a youth voice, for youth to be engaged and to share their perspective."
Ypsilanti Township Supervisor Brenda Stumbo.
Kathy Wyatt, executive assistant to the sheriff, is another member of the team developing a newsletter. She says she'd like to see the newsletter highlight neighbors, particularly those who are active in the West Willow community, and provide a list of resources.
Savit calls the pilot program's strategy "fantastic."
"It can and should be a model for the rest of the county," he says.
He notes that quality-of-life issues are unlikely to come before the county prosecutor, whose top priority is prosecuting and reducing violent gun crimes. The best-case scenario, Savit says, is that quality-of-life issues don't happen in the first place.
"[This pilot program] is about how the community comes together to address our community challenges," Clayton says. "No one person has the answer to any issue. It requires all of us as a community to come together. It's especially impactful when leadership starts with people in the community. Rather than pointing fingers, let's talk about how we do this together."
Any West Willow residents interested in helping with the newsletter may reach out to Teare at (734) 882-2013 or email@example.com
. Anyone who would like general information about the pilot program may reach out to Jackson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at email@example.com.
All photos by Doug Coombe.