Guess which neighborhood is the safest in Kalamazoo?

A bustling downtown attracts more visitors and residents. That means more eyes on the street, but also more opportunities for law-breaking. Yet Kalamazoo has seen a 30 percent drop in downtown crime, and safety advocates say “Come on down!”
Talk to people who focus on keeping downtown Kalamazoo safe, and you’ll hear this repeatedly: Central City is one of the – if not the – safest neighborhoods in the city.

That assertion might have raised eyebrows in the past. Perceptions of downtown as a risky destination once prompted Downtown Kalamazoo, Inc. to publish a promotional spread in the Kalamazoo Gazette to help allay concerns. But today the facts speak for themselves: Crime is on the way down, downtown. Community Policing Officer Chris Hancox reports that Part 1 crimes (those which get reported to the state, including larceny, burglary and aggravated assault) have dropped 30 percent, from 359 incidents in 2013 to 250 in 2014. "That’s the biggest one-year reduction we’ve seen in a long time," he says.

News like that gratifies the representatives of businesses, stores, non-profits and others who serve on DKI’s downtown Safety Committee. With a mission to create a safe, inviting environment for downtown residents, businesses and visitors, the Safety Committee has led the way since 2007 on projects like upgrading lighting, installing security cameras in city parking ramps, and keeping the Kalamazoo County Sheriff Mounted Division on site at big events.

"If you look at the thousands of people who come downtown for the festivals, the Art Hops, the events, the many wonderful restaurants we have, I think people feel safe," says committee chair Mary Oudsema, a retired Kalamazoo Gazette marketing director. "I think the perception has changed over the years and people are enjoying the vibrant downtown that we’re so lucky to have. … I’ve been involved downtown as a volunteer and worked downtown for years, and I think we’ve made great strides. What we’re really hoping to do now is keep that safe atmosphere in place, and maintain it and grow it going forward."

Having a Community Policing Officer downtown aids that effort tremendously, so the committee is grateful that Kalamazoo’s Department of Public Safety stepped in when funding for the position nearly ran out late last year. Now CPO Hancox can remain on duty, 22 hours a week, through 2015. And he’s not alone. Hancox is quick to give credit for safety improvements to the many other officers who work in tandem with him to create a web of protection downtown. "We have 24-hour coverage on foot patrol in the downtown business district," he explains. "Twelve hours a day we also have an officer assigned to the Kalamazoo Transportation Center who also polices that general area. The high visibility of the officers has helped a lot in reducing crime. And myself also: Getting out there, seeing the people and knowing my different business owners. If they see something they can call us ahead of time. Instead of being reactive, we’re proactive."

It’s a winning formula, in Oudsema’s view. "I can’t speak more highly" of KDPS, she asserts. The department works closely with the Safety Committee, providing crime reports and updates each month. "I’ve been so pleased with their expertise and response, and our working relationship with them."

Another factor in better safety numbers is residential growth, Hancox notes. "It used to be downtown was 9-to-5; everybody went home at 5, or maybe stayed until 9 or 10 because of the restaurants. But now we have a growing night life and a lot of new residential opportunities, so we have people down here 24 hours a day." That means more people out and about and more eyes on the street. "If (residents) do see something, they call us and get involved. That helps us out a lot."

The most frequent type of crime downtown, by far, is larceny: nonviolent property theft, including crimes of opportunity – snatching an unattended purse, for example. In December 2014, 19 of the 21 Part 1 crimes committed fell into that category. A valuable service of the downtown CPO is the training he provides businesses and employees to reduce those opportunities, Oudsema says.

Can you spare…?

Although it’s not a crime in all circumstances, panhandling has been another concern downtown. "Every urban center has this issue. It’s where service agencies are," DKI President Steve Deisler points out. "And it’s indicative of a thriving downtown," adds Meg Gernaat, DKI’s new planning and development coordinator. "People will panhandle where they know people are going to congregate and spend money and time."

Seeking to expand on the city’s recently revised panhandling ordinances, DKI and the Safety Committee have met with leaders of downtown service agencies Ministry with Community and Kalamazoo Gospel Mission as well as Kalamazoo Community Mental Health and Substance Abuse. "We want to try to help address the individuals (who panhandle) while at same time educating property owners and residents downtown on how they can proactively help out," Deisler says. "We want to be more of a helpful entity than just reporting issues to Public Safety or the city."

As downtown continues to attract a varied population, "we want to be sure we have things in place to keep everyone feeling comfortable," Oudsema notes. The committee is updating a pocket-size educational pamphlet offering tips for directing people in need to social services and definitions of what’s legal (simply asking someone for money is protected free speech) and what’s not (like soliciting after sunset, within 10 feet of a building or approaching someone seated in a public space). It also advises visitors to say no to panhandlers. "We’d like very much to have people not give money to them, because we feel there are more productive ways to help," Oudsema says.

Try it, you’ll like it

Today, with downtown thriving, the grapevine may serve to counter any residual safety concerns among would-be visitors. "Word of mouth is the best," Deisler says, plus people bringing friends down. "Come experience it, and you’ll understand that it’s safe." Oudsema agrees: "It’s when you attend something downtown — you come to an Art Hop, you go out for dinner afterwards, and you’ve had this wonderful time — and all of a sudden you think, ‘Wow, I didn’t feel unsafe. I’m going back!’ … One of our main priorities on the Safety Committee is to maintain that positive experience."

Oudsema says the group is exploring possibilities to "supplement the CPO on a positive basis," in partnership with other organizations. One approach might be something like the Grand Rapids Safety Ambassadors program (also being considered in Ann Arbor), which offers downtown visitors hospitality, information and assistance. (Oudsema emphasizes it’s only a discussion topic now; no plans are underway.)

Meanwhile, committee members like Kevin King, head of branch and IT services for the Kalamazoo Public Library, will help spread the word. "I’m proud to report back to KPL staff that crime stats drop almost every month," he says. If he encountered someone hesitant to visit, King says he’d advise them that it’s one of the safest areas in the city — and "if they choose to miss out on all of the great events and activities downtown, they’re missing out on the opportunity to participate in an amazing community."

Cathie Schau is a freelance writer and owner of the communications firm GoodPoint. She lives with her family in Portage and steals away to Saugatuck whenever she can.

Photos by Susan Andress

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