Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
Jim Blocker earned a Bachelor’s degree in Business and had every intention of pursuing that as his chosen profession before a casual ride-along with a police officer put him on a career path in law enforcement.
That career has spanned 26 years with the Battle Creek Police Department. During that time Blocker served in many different roles within the department as a patrol officer, community police officer, SWAT team member, detective, and executive officer, culminating with his appointment in 2014 as the city’s 18th Police Chief.
On Dec. 1, he announced plans to retire. Deputy Police Chief Shannon Bagley will assume the role of interim chief on Jan. 15 and Blocker will retire at the end of January. Bagley will serve as interim chief for six months, at which point City Manager Rebecca Fleury will determine if Bagley is ready to assume the role on a permanent basis, according to a press release.
“Chief Blocker was very welcoming, and we shared the priority of relationship building,” says City Manager Rebecca Fleury in a press release. “Even in the most difficult situations, he never wavered from his commitment to integrity, transparency, and open and honest dialogue. I can say with 100% certainty that he made a tremendous, positive impact on the Battle Creek Police Department, and is leaving it a better place than when he started.”
Blocker’s decision to stand down brings an end to a career that has had its share of ups and downs. Through it all, he says he has been guided by a deep faith that he doesn’t wear on his sleeve.
“I believe faith is very personal and I hold it very deeply. I’m always working on it,” Blocker says. “I would tell you in terms of my outlook, I’m apolitical in this role. I have a faith-based perspective in this role as chief, but have to stay in the middle. Faith helps me understand that we in the law enforcement industry are here more to give out a helping hand rather than a hindering one.”
That helping hand, he says, extends to individuals who are suffering from issues including mental illness, substance abuse, and a lack of financial resources to lift themselves out of poverty. It’s what prompted him the same year he was named the city’s top law enforcement official to create the Fusion Center
. The Fusion Center is a collaboration among community organizations and the BCPD that has streamlined the way officers respond to calls and provided the resources that better address the needs of those making those calls for assistance.
Battle Creek's Chief of Police Jim Blocker is seen at a Martin Luther King Day event earlier in 2022.
Organizations involved include Summit Pointe
, Safe Place
, the Share Center
, and Homeland Security
The work already going on with BCPD and Summit Pointe led to the creation in 2017 of a local Crisis Intervention Team program, designed to improve officers’ ability to safely intervene, link individuals to mental health services, and divert them from the criminal justice system when appropriate.
Blocker says the Crisis Intervention Team approach was the direct result of the recognition throughout the United States that a better job had to be done to deal with a growing mental health crisis. Since its establishment, the department’s Crisis Intervention Team work has assisted more than 1,000 individuals with identifying the resources they need to keep them from going to jail.
He has given presentations throughout the country on the importance of Crisis Intervention Team programs and was named in 2019 as Police Chief of the Year by Crisis Intervention Team International
These efforts to address the root causes that pit individuals against police officers lead Blocker to say, “We clearly are here to be that guardian and shield at the same time that we’re protecting the innocent and that doesn’t always have to involve a sharp edge or use of force. We’ve been able to evolve with the tactics that are needed and that includes the tactics of grace and wisdom. That’s the way of the future and how it used to be.”
Bucking the trend
Within the next few weeks, the BCPD will swear in 16 new officers, bucking a national trend that has seen a downturn in applicants and an increase in resignations and early retirements.
Jim Blocker is retiring as Battle Creek's Chief of Police at the end of January.
“I think that it’s not just policing. Any profession attached to human services is being impacted negatively,” Blocker says. “You could have the same conversations with superintendents of schools or leaders of our healthcare industry. We had the strongest group of candidates, most of them local, that I’ve seen in years. I think there are people who are committed and want to do it we just have to be better at communicating and talking with them.”
Blocker says the number and quality of these recruits is in large part due to the department’s commitment to finding new ways to address criminal activity in the community. He says the advent of new technologies like in-car computers, body and car cameras, greater emphasis on getting people the resources they need as opposed to putting them in jail; and more sensitivity to crimes involving domestic assault are among the biggest positive changes he’s experienced during his tenure.
For all of the innovations and an increased focus that has been placed on keeping people out of jail, Blocker has had his share of critics through the years. He and his fellow officers have been called out publicly for incidences including racial profiling and issues surrounding ineffectiveness when it comes to solving crimes involving murder
Blocker says this criticism has helped him develop a thicker skin and a better understanding of what drives the critical comments. “What I realized over time is it’s the same thing repeated by people who have their own personal axe to grind. Sometimes it’s not necessarily against you but against everything you represent. It’s hard because it’s not levied just against me. The City Manager and commissioners hear it too.”
He says social media leads to mass harassment regardless of the accuracy of what’s put out there and it affects the morale of the officers he leads. He acknowledges that mistakes happen and says it’s impossible for a Police Academy to teach recruits everything that they need to know in the limited amount of time before they are sworn in as officers.
“The social media trial begins immediately and has a huge impact on the well-being of many officers who do this work,” Blocker says.
Overall, he says, he thinks the community comes together when it is most needed and cites the peaceful protests in battle Creek following the murder of George Floyd as an example. Protests in many cities did not happen as peacefully resulting in the vandalism of buildings and multiple arrests.
Finding his calling and a purpose
Blocker was born and raised in Florida and came to Michigan in the late 1980s to work on a dairy farm near Kalamazoo owned by the daughter of retired pastors who had been family friends. He was planning to stay for a few weeks and ended up working there for “many months.”
The pastors went on to encourage him to spend time volunteering with Rehoboth Christian School in New Mexico. Taking time out from college -- he would ultimately graduate with a degree from Cornerstone University
-- he went to Rehoboth for four years, worked in the Development Office, and met his future wife, Linda, who was from Michigan. During this time he also found himself apprehending a man, who while driving drunk, had almost hit a child with his car on the school’s campus.
“I was righteously angry about it and chased the fellow down,” Blocker says. He apprehended him and held him until local law enforcement officials took him into custody.
One of the officers asked him if he’d be interested in doing a ride-along. “I think we changed a few tires and helped folks at a truck stop and I asked the officer how he got into policing,” Blocker says.
He calls that ride-along an “incredible experience” and after he and his wife returned to Michigan it led to his enrollment at Kalamazoo Valley Community College’s Police Academy.
Fellow classmates at the Police Academy, who were both working for the BCPD, suggested that he apply for a job there. In addition to Battle Creek, he applied for positions with the Grand Rapids Police Department and the Michigan State Police.
In January, he was one of the finalists for the Grand Rapids Police Chief’s job, which eventually was filled by Chicago Police Commander Eric Winstrom.
Blocker says he has no regrets about not getting that job and says he and his wife, who have three grown children, will continue to make their home in the Battle Creek area when he steps down. Blocker also is a lieutenant colonel in the Michigan National Guard and will continue that service.
“I’ve always had the benefit of working with two incredible organizations. Now the Army will get more of my time,” he says. “Everyone wants to walk out the door when things are going very well and when I look to the left and right of me, I have a good team in place, and everything we set out to do when I was interim and then as chief has been accomplished. This is a really good time and a good point to start this transition.”