Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
Having a cop in the neighborhood has been a successful deterrent to crime in the Historic Northside Neighborhoods, says Debra Fryar, who lives in a historic house on Orchard Place.
Speaking anecdotally, Fryar says she thinks Patrol Officer Brice Kerschen’s cruises through the area in his patrol car have made would-be thieves think twice before breaking into cars or homes and reduced other illicit activity.
“We live close to Capital where there used to be a fairly large presence of ladies of the afternoon,” Fryar says. “A lot of that type of traffic has been greatly reduced.”
Kerschen’s focus on the neighborhood, part of Neighborhood Planning Council 4, is paid for through the federally-funded Byrne Grant which was awarded to the city of Battle Creek in 2015. Valued at just under $1 million, the grant is named for deceased New York City Police Officer Edward Byrne who was gunned down by two men in 1988 while on a witness protection detail. Byrne was 22-years-old when he died.
In addition to NPC4, NPC’s 1, 2, and 3 each have a police officer assigned through the grant for the initiative called “Be Safe Battle Creek”. The areas of the city represented by the NPC’s are formally known as: NPC1, Post Franklin; NPC2, North Central; NPC3, Central; and NPC4 Northeast.
The areas of focus were identified through a crime analyst with the BCPD. The information gathered showed that 40 percent of total calls received and responded to by officers originated in NPC’s 1, 2, 3, and 4, says Kelly Dillman, Community Outreach Liaison with the BCPD.
“The crime analysis looked at where crimes were taking place and then highlighted and pinned down what was driving crime in that particular area,” Dillman says. “Once they had those areas identified the BCPD applied for the Byrne Grant.”
A stipulation of the grant required the BCPD to work with a research partner. They worked with researchers from the University of Michigan who conducted a pre-survey of residents in the four NPC’s by going door-to-door to ask questions such as how residents view the police and if there were blight issues.
Dillman says the grant created collaborations between the BCPD and the city’s Code Compliance, Planning, and Zoning departments, among other local organizations and agencies.
“Through those partnerships, we engage the residents and listen to what their needs are,” Dillman says. “The grant deals primarily with crime and quality of life issues. We found that one of the root causes of crime was a lack of police presence, in addition to the relationship from resident to resident and the community to the police department. This gives us an opportunity to deal with quality of life issues like blight and connect with each other to solve these issues.”
Kerschen readily admits that he already had a reason to be a bit more vigilant about incidences of crime and code violations in NPC 4. Long before the Byrne Grant became available, he had already purchased a home in the neighborhood as part of a city-sponsored initiative to increase home ownership.
“Battle Creek got this funding to incentivize area residents to come back into the city to live. They were trying to increase the number of owner-occupied housing units instead of rentals,” Kerschen says while sitting at the breakfast bar in his kitchen. “The city took houses that were repossessed, rehabbed them from the ground up, and set a fair price.
“They set income caps as a qualification for who could live in these homes. I wasn’t married at the time and I fit right into the qualifications, so here I sit.”
Kerschen, who also serves in the Air National Guard, has since married and is the father of a baby girl.
When he heard about his neighborhood’s inclusion in the Byrne Grant funding, he applied to be the designated police officer. Dillman says his appointment made sense because he was already living there.
“Living right in the area, it gives me more of a natural vested interest,” Kerschen says. “I live here and I walk, run and drive these streets, so when people say, “Yeah, there always this black Camaro that goes really fast down McKinley with the music turned up’, I’m in that same boat.
“I’ve been in this district for three years and people know me and know where I live. They’ll stop me when I’m at the Y Center working out. It’s definitely a bigger role and it gets me noticed.”
But, it also gets him results as was the case with a neighbor he could see from his house who told Kerschen that his 35-foot fiberglass ladder had been stolen.
“I happened to get a text from a confidential informant who said he saw a ladder in his garage and didn’t know how it got there. I showed the guy a picture of the ladder and in the space of a couple of hours, my neighbor got his ladder back,” Kerschen says.
Kerschen and his fellow patrol officers in the Be Safe Battle Creek effort don’t receive any additional compensation for their work which is done as a regular part of their job responsibilities, which include attending monthly meetings in their NPC’s to hear from residents about what they’re seeing from their front porches.
“You can’t complain if you’re not willing to solve it,” Kerschen says.
He says he likes his neighborhood and thinks that the work he’s been doing has fostered deeper collaborations with city departments as well as residents. His Byrne Grant geographic assignment includes Van Buren, north to Roosevelt Avenue, and west to North Avenue which is the dividing line
Abandoned vehicles in roadways, cars parked on front lawns, old mattresses on curbs, and vandalism are among the most often-received complaints from NPC 4 residents.
“I can ticket for a car parked on a front lawn, but I also bring in our zoning and code compliance to work with me on it,” Kerschen says. “With mattresses dumped on the front lawns, I worked with City Hall and as a result, we got an endless supply of plastic bags to put the mattresses in because they won’t be picked up for disposal without being in those bags.”
Kerschen says he also pays close attention to resident complaints about houses that appear to be in disrepair.
“As far as my police work goes, the main focus is on combatting narcotics. A lot of my patrol work focuses on that. In my experience crime comes down to the same people or the same little groups.”
A report compiled by Dillman to highlight the positive impact Kerschen’s presence is having in the neighborhood highlights that the majority of drug-related traffic spots are occurring during the patrol officer’s shifts. The report also highlights a successful NPC-initiated cleanup effort that took place on Cherry Street which involved neighbors and members of the BCPD and its Explorer Post which involves youth, ages 14 to 21, who are interested in pursuing careers in law enforcement.
Bringing young people into the conversation and offering positive alternatives is another major focus of the Byrne Grant which includes smaller grant opportunities such as “Youth Learn By Doing” that had a $15,000 pool of funds available. Dillman says $5,000 of those funds was recently awarded to the Battle Creek Community Foundation’s Youth Advisory Council which applied for funding to host a free bowling night for youth in the community.
Part of the bowling event will include police officers who will attend to interact with the youth as a way to further the development of better relations between the BCPD and area youth.
Dillman says the remaining $10,000 in Youth Learn By Doing is available to fund other youth-driven initiatives. She says money also remains in the “We Are Pride projects grant, included in the overall Byrne Grant.
We Are Pride, which has a pool of $25,000, allows groups of neighbors to apply for small grants up to $2,500 for activities such as block parties or other social activities, beautification projects, safety activities or other projects to build the connections between neighbors focused on improving their neighborhoods.
Dillman says residents of NPC 4 are working on a We Are Pride grant proposal to secure funding for a beautification project at Benjamin Park on Orchard Avenue. She says she is aware of other proposals being worked on to access this pool of funds.
The largest segmented grant fund, within the Byrne Grant, is “Learn By Doing” with a total of $140,000.
Learn By Doing projects are relatively short-term efforts that help mobilize neighborhood interest and provide a kick start to resident engagement. Each project, whether coming from the Neighborhood Ownership Actions Plan or other groups, must address one issue identified by the residents for their neighborhood while working within defined parameters of the Byrne Grant and data from the U of M study.
Dillman says people were able to apply for grants of up to $20,000 from the Learn By Doing pool of funds which have been exhausted. Projects funded through Learn By Doing included safer lighting and cleanup in NPC 3 and an Emerging Leaders program at the Southwest Michigan Urban League.
While the grant funds were and will continue to be a driver for improvements in the NPC’s involved, there were collaborations that happened because of relationships officers formed simply because of where they were assigned. Kerschen’s outreach to the Salvation Army produced a food drive that pitted the city’s police officers and firefighters against each other in a friendly competition to see who could collect the most food.
Researchers with the U of M are expected to do a follow-up study this summer to measure the effectiveness of the grant, which ends in September. Fryar, like many of her neighbors, says she feels safer knowing that Kerschen is close by.
“I think the biggest thing is that we have a definite police presence,” she says. “Because we have a dedicated officer, we have more of a physical law enforcement presence to keep an eye on things.”