The Rapidian

Diverse neighborhood voices share report about communities and policing

Voices are powerful tools for hope and transformation. Dwelling Place, a local affordable housing non-profit, asked residents and the GRPD why they participated in National Night Out.
Sharon Benson, Heartside Neighborhood, Grand Rapids

Sharon Benson, Heartside Neighborhood, Grand Rapids

Sargent Atha, Grand Rapids Police Department

Sargent Atha, Grand Rapids Police Department

Joyce Starr, Bethlehem Neighborhood, Muskegon Heights

Joyce Starr, Bethlehem Neighborhood, Muskegon Heights

In 2017, the Heartside Neighborhood held their first National Night Out. According to the National Night Out website, the event is “an annual community-building campaign that promotes police-community partnerships and neighborhood camaraderie to make our neighborhoods safer, more caring places to live.” Dwelling Place, which owns about half of the properties in Heartside, saw the success of the first National Night Out and had a vision to use it as a catalyst to improve resident-police force relationships, and engage their residents in the community.

One year later, this vision has transformed into an inspiring project, spanning to over 30 properties, partnering with 14 different neighborhoods, and engaging over 1,000 residents. Coming from all walks of life, Dwelling Place residents embody diversity, creativity and personality. By diving into property-wide engagement, Dwelling Place interviewed three community members including residents in Grand Rapids, Muskegon Heights and a local police officer about their hopes for area neighborhoods.

Sharon Benson, Heartside resident since 2001 is an active participant in Heartside Neighborhood Association meetings and an attendee at community events. Benson is an outspoken advocate for wheelchair using pedestrians and homeless neighbors.

Q. Do you think there’s a more positive or negative image of the police in Heartside?

  1. “The police, it depends on how they react in a situation. I have seen some who react very professionally, and I’ve seen some of them who react like, ‘you don’t count.’"

Q. How would you define a good community officer or liaison?

  1. “Someone who really cares, who is professional, who has not lost their humanity, who is compassionate, she [speaking of an officer who left the area] actually got a lot of respect because she demanded it, and she got it, because she also gave it. There’s some police that need to go back through and get sensitivity training, definitely need that, quite a few in fact, it’s not just a 1st shift/2nd shift/3rd shift, it’s across the board.”

Q. Do you think that just interacting with the residents of Heartside at the event like the NNO could help these relationships?

  1. “It could help, it can’t hurt. Because, the downward spiral of the GRPD didn’t start overnight. It’s been happening for years now.”

Sergeant Atha of the GRPD shares the same table with Sharon at the Neighborhood Association Meetings and Heartside Quality of Life meetings. As the Sergeant who oversees the Grand Rapids Police Community Officers in the Heartside Neighborhood, Atha has a unique perspective about the GRPD.  

Q. How do you see the relationships between the GRPD and Heartside Neighborhood presently?

  1. “Presently I see them on a positive uptick due to the officers actually getting out there, and doing it on what we like to call a ‘non enforcement contact.’ That is more of a warning. Not an automatic, ‘well here’s your ticket, you’re goin’ to jail.’ It’s more of an automatic, ‘hey, you work with me I’ll work with you. I understand where you’re coming from, you obviously from this brief interaction understand where I’m coming from.’ We just built that rapport there.

Q. What do you think of events of the National Night Out, and how do you see them strengthening neighborhoods?

  1. “I think they’re a strong positive for any neighborhood. Any time you can get that police force together with the public and you mix ‘em both, they get to see ‘hey this guy is giving us a sno-cone or a sticker, he’s just walking up and saying hi.’ There’s fun, there’s food, there’s no weight on it whatsoever, everybody’s human and everything works out.”

Q. How do you see the interactions at National Night Out making a positive difference?

  1. “It starts with the little things, like anything else. ‘How’s your kids? Where are you from?’ It’s putting the human side on both things. ‘We wear the uniform, you live downtown. We’re not that different….We want to get to know you. We want to help you. If you need something, just come up and ask us.’”

Q. What would you say to encourage someone to ‘just come talk to you'?

  1. “Take the chance, that’s pretty much it right there. Just because you had a bad interaction at one time, doesn’t mean it’s going to be a bad interaction every time.”

  2. Community Leader, Joyce Staff recently became the president of the Bethlehem Neighborhood Association in Muskegon Heights. Starr and other Muskegon Heights residents know that Muskegon Heights doesn’t have the best reputation and community leaders utilize events like National Night Out to change that image.

Q. What do people say about the Heights?

  1. “One of the things I was concerned about is the reputation of the Heights, everyone is aware of it, and when they hear it they’re offended by it. [They say] no one really cares about the Heights, no one has any pride in the Heights, nothing runs right in the Heights, no faith in the Heights. There’s some truth in it that I wanna see changed because we can do better. People need to get engaged to make a change, and it starts with an individual, and next thing your know there’s a fire, and a transformation. One person can’t do it all, it has to be a village.”

Q. Why do you think it’s important to focus on community improvement in the Heights?

A. “Well, for one thing, it’s kinda my grass roots, and the Heights has a lot of identified needs, and I want to give back to it because it’s gone down a lot from when I was there as a kid. It’s really not the same, as far as our houses look and our community, our parks and our schools, and I would like to see it be better.”

Q. What kind of problems do you see right now?

  1. “We have a lot of crime, and a lot of the neighborhoods are really worn down and not kempt looking. Because there’s a lot of rental properties, there’s not a lot of concern to take care of it. Our children don’t seem to have a lot to do, they need more guidance.”

Q. You’re hoping for change and transformation in the Heights. What do you see that could bring that?

  1. “What I see that would bring hope to a community is getting community involvement, getting the people aware of what they see and what we want to have in our community and how to improve it. The networking I see coming together with different organizations and communities and the heightening awareness is making things happen. I see a new drive for improvement in the community as a whole.”

Q. Why do you think National Night Out is an important event for the Heights?

  1. “Because it brings awareness… it’s bringing people from different parts of our community together. There’s food, fun, fellowship, presentations from our fire department and different key people.”

Q. Do you think events like National Night Out can improve relationships between police departments and communities?

  1. “I think so. You’ve got to have exposure and interaction, and this is an avenue for which that occurs. The people of the community have questions and concerns and they are looking to make the change occur and it can be addressed in a non-threatening way by coming together for understanding.”

  2. Residents, police officers and community members all play a part in our community, whether it is as the person who sits silently in the back or the one who works tirelessly for positive change. Engaging a community in a single event, such as National Night Out, does more than bring people together, it allows voices to be heard by others.  Whatever part you choose to play, engage in your community, because whether you know it or not, every voice helps to paint the big picture.

With a mission to improve the lives of people by creating quality affordable housing, providing essential support services and serving as a catalyst for neighborhood revitalization, Dwelling Place serves families and people in 4 counties across West Michigan. Dwelling Place is powered by volunteers and numerous staff persons, guest writers create our Rapidian content. Special thanks to Amy Henderson, (Musician, writer and sumer Dwelling Place Americorps staff) for her coverage of National Night Out.

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