Every police department runs community policing programs like neighborhood-watch groups and DARE. But departments often forget that community policing isn’t a program — it’s the way officers treat and interact with people every day.
It’s police officers living in the city they work in, understanding the blocks they patrol, and knowing the people who live there. If you want to know how it’s done, ride with Officer Melvin Woods of the Toledo Police Department.
The 30-year veteran was awarded the Meritorious Service Award from Chief Derrick Diggs last year, one of the department’s highest honors, for actions that led to the arrest of two armed-robbery suspects. But he’s also a cop who will take groceries to a hungry family and listen to a young man beef about police brutality.
Cops and journalists have one thing in common: A lot of people don’t like them. That’s especially true in neighborhoods that police target, such as Toledo’s Beat 620, a central-city sector that includes Dorr Street and Detroit Avenue and leads the city in shootings.
In the hood, police are often regarded as intruders who abuse their authority and push people around. When police focus on a high-crime area, people who are just standing around can get rousted.
It happens everywhere. TPD says it doesn’t detain or frisk people without probable cause. But in New York, a federal judge just ruled that police were illegally stopping and frisking men of color, noting that in 88 percent of the stops, officers didn’t make an arrest or issue a ticket.
Police chiefs understand that if residents don’t trust police officers, departments won’t get the information they need to prevent crime and solve cases. Officer Woods, 62, knows that respect goes a long way in working with people. It’s one reason he’s rarely had to call for backup.
“If you respect people, they respect you, even if you’re taking them to jail,” he said. “People know I’m going to do my job, but they also know that I’m not going to harass them.”
Mr. Woods grew up in Toledo and still lives in the city. He believes, as I do, that police officers should live in the city they serve, even though residency laws are no longer in effect. In Toledo, nearly half the force probably lives outside the city.
As we drove down Avondale, Indiana, and Belmont avenues, Officer Woods pointed to former drug houses that were now either boarded up, razed, or abandoned. The area was drug infested in the 1990s, he said.
“You saw people coming here for all over the region — Perrysburg, Findlay,” he said. “Back then, kids were hustling, trying to make money. Today, they’re shooting each other over territory.”
More police is only part of the answer, Mr. Woods said. At Savage Park, he noted a closed swimming pool. “You have to have more activities for young people,” he said. “And some jobs.”
Mr. Woods was born in Mississippi, but moved to Toledo with his family when he was 6 years old. He graduated from Scott High School. His father was an ironworker.
As a hobby, Mr. Woods drag-races his 1969, 875-horsepower Chevrolet Camaro. But a street cop is all he ever wanted to be.
As he patrolled, Mr. Woods frequently stopped and talked. A man on Dorr Street stared warily at Mr. Woods’ approaching squad car. When he saw the driver, he broke out in a smile and waved.
Unemployment in this neighborhood probably exceeds 50 percent. I see the same resignation and lack of hope here as I did on Detroit’s east side. People almost have to hustle just to make it.
Outside the MLK Kitchen for the Poor on Vance Street, Mr. Woods listened patiently to a young man who said he was stopped without cause while driving on Nebraska Avenue. He said an officer told him to shut the (bleep) up, took his keys, and threw them at his car. Mr. Woods gave him a phone number and told him to go to the Public Safety Building and file a complaint with the Internal Affairs division.
“Melvin has been around awhile and knows the people on the street,’’ said Harvey Savage, Jr., executive director of the MLK Kitchen. “He has a heart for them.”
Responding to a call last January, Officer Woods found Faith Dashner depressed and suicidal. She and her husband, Pete, were broke and unemployed. One of their three children, Cathy, 8, told Mr. Woods that she had not eaten in four days.
The next day, on his day off, Mr. Woods went to a Kroger store, bought $150 worth of groceries, grabbed some frozen steaks and chicken from his freezer, and took the food to the Dashners’ trailer.
“What else am I going to do after seeing that — go home, eat, and then go to the casino?” he told me. “If I can spend money on that, I can help another human being.”
On the day I rode with Officer Woods, he took me to the Dashners’ home, where Faith and Pete were getting ready to go out and collect cans for gasoline money. One of the children came over and held Mr. Woods’ hand.
“I call him my guardian angel,” Mrs. Dashner told me. “I had no food in the house. He helped us, big time.”
This family will never look at a police officer the same way again.
“Mel really cares about his community,’’ said TPD spokesman Sgt. Joe Heffernan, whom Mr. Woods broke in as a rookie in 1997. “He embodies the balance of compassion and enforcement that we want to see in an officer.”
Urban police departments don’t need more community policing programs. They need more officers like Melvin Woods, who have earned the community’s trust and respect.
Jeff Gerritt is deputy editorial page editor of The Blade.