Community policing creates community connections

The word police doesn’t stir images of found cell phones or free cars for people in need or connections to mental health resources, but that’s the sort of work Holland’s community policing unit does.

“It’s definitely a different side of policing,” community policing officer Joy Nelson says.

How Holland’s community policing unit helps solve community problems is ever evolving. What is non-negotiable is always showing respect for the people they interact with, team members say.

The team is getting ready to give away its third vehicle after one of the department’s retired sergeants had the idea to find a community member who could be helped with the donation of his unwanted car.

The community policing team connected with Elhart Automotive and other community partners to find cars to donate and make sure they have the repairs they need to run well.

“That’s a big part of our focus — finding people and organizations that can help,” says Sgt John Weatherwax who runs the Holland Department of Public Safety community policing unit.

Connections

He points to Heights of Hope. The neighborhood nonprofit allowed the city’s community policing unit to come alongside them, working together to improve the Holland Heights neighborhood on the city’s northeast side.

Holland Heights now has beautification days and classes in the community center, because of Heights of Hope, Weatherwax says. The community policing unit was able to be a part of their continued success.

“Community policing is a whole new level of being able to make that connection,” says Officer Nicole Hamberg.

The unit has been around since the early 1990s and now has four community policing officers, two school resource officers, and one crisis intervention officer — a position created in the past year in response to the influx of mental health calls coming into the Ottawa County Dispatch.

Schools

School resource officers have the ability to use alternatives means to enforcement, Officer Joe Soto says. They are there to correct action without punishment and to create positive interactions with teens before there’s a problem. The Teen Court diversionary program allows youthful offenders to be judged by a panel of their peers instead of the court system. Punishments include community service, restitution, and essays and allow teens to correct behavior without the sometimes lifelong consequences of court intervention.

On Officer Anna Heintzleman’s first day at East Middle School, a student told her she was frightened by the police presence in her school. Heintzleman tried to reassure the student and be there for her. Before a month was out, the girl was coming to Heintzleman with problems and schoolwork she could have easily gone to school staff with. 

“It’s cool to see my presence there has changed her idea of what a police officer is,” Heintzleman says.

They are also the team behind Polar Patrol, coffee and gas giveaways at holiday time, and Shop with a Hero — all events designed to offer a positive interaction between police and community members.

Community resource officers can intervene in the better times before a problem becomes a crisis. They are also freed from patrol duties, so they can spend more time with each individual call, taking the time necessary to see problems through to the end.

Heart

“The majority of our officers have that same heart for the community,” Weatherwax says. “We have more time to invest in these individuals than patrol might have.”

Police suspected the repeated nightly calls for “welfare checks” at a particular address were, in fact, coming from the woman who lived there, herself. Community policing officer Brian Spykerman had a free morning, so he spent it sitting down with the woman, talking through her issues. He connected her to community mental health and a local pastor.

“Maybe it’s a small piece I had, but just being able to take the time without time constraints helped,” Spykerman says.

When called to a hotel, because a homeless man was being asked to leave, Officer Derek Barrett was able to spend two and a half hours helping track down resources, a place to stay the night, and to help the man move his possessions.

“We treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve,” Barrett says.

Read more articles by Andrea Goodell.