KALAMAZOO, MI — The old, traditional model of policing wasn’t working, Kalamazoo Public Safety Assistant Chief David Boysen said.

It was all about numbers.

As a result, too many people were being arrested, leaving a wake of devastation and allowing a cycle of crime and violence that rolled through the streets at breakneck speed.

“Twenty-five years ago, it’s what we did,” Boysen said. “The more arrests you made, the more guns we took off the street, the more drugs you seized off the street, the better, the safer the community will be. That’s what it was about. It was about numbers.

“We know now, those numbers, there’s people behind those. And it causes a lot of damage. We might arrest you, but now who’s raising your kids? The streets are raising your kids.”

That understanding has led to sweeping changes in how Kalamazoo Public Safety has policed the city’s streets over the last four or five years. It led to a more targeted approach in how officers combat violent crime, as opposed to the numbers-driven approach of yesteryear.

It has also led to partnerships that may have seemed unlikely, if not incomprehensible, a decade ago. One of those partnerships began to form about seven or eight years ago, as the department’s adoption of the national Group Violence Intervention initiative was in its beginning stages.

The initiative address all group-involved violence, not just cases tied to formally organized gangs.

When the program was launched in Kalamazoo in 2016, it was with the help of a seven-time felon, former drug dealer and ex-gang member Michael Wilder, now the program’s coordinator. Wilder works alongside a one-time “sworn mortal enemy,” Yafinceio Harris.

The GVI program allows for community members, such as Wilder and Harris, to work directly with those involved in gangs or group-related violence. Law enforcement puts those group members on notice, and then support and outreach providers such as Mothers of Hope, ISAAC and Urban Alliance work with those individuals to educate them on alternative paths and programs available to help them break from that lifestyle.

Wilder and Harris, who met up again at Kalamazoo Valley Community College after respective prison stints, had joined forces already and were working together on a project called “Peace During War.” The project led to a documentary, the duo being featured on NPR and multiple presentations, in which the pair would share their story about getting out, making peace and finding a path that does not lead back to prison.

Related: WMU professor’s documentary about Kalamazoo gang members turned mentors premieres at Waterfront Film Festival

It was at one of those presentations that Kalamazoo Public Safety Capt. Matt Elzinga heard Wilder and Harris speak. Elzinga, who had once arrested Wilder on drug charges, approached him after the presentation was over. Two days later, he called him to follow up.

Wilder, who had a pair of misdemeanor warrants for unpaid child support, panicked. He had been on the bus, heading to KVCC for class. Now, he thought he was headed to jail instead.

But what happened next was the beginning of a new chapter for Wilder, as well as for a number of officers with Kalamazoo Public Safety.

“If he would have arrested me, I would have spent 35 days in jail and it would have ruined my semester,” Wilder said. “I would have flunked all my classes and never gone back.”

Instead, Elzinga drove Wilder to a coffee shop where he introduced him to a half dozen other officers. All the officers, Wilder recalled, said they were “Christians first and cops second,” and wanted to take a different approach to serving their community.

“I said, ‘Listen whatever y’all want from me, I’m not going to help put nobody in jail,’” Wilder remembers telling the officers. “I went to prison three times. I’m not gonna cooperate. If you want me to help keep people out of jail, then I’ll talk. And they said that’s exactly what we want to do.”

Taking risks

It was a risk both sides took — putting their reputations on the line.

Boysen, who was among those officers and was studying the possibility of implementing the Group Violence Intervention initiative in Kalamazoo, knew if Wilder slipped up, many of his co-workers would have said, “I told you so.”

For Wilder, it cut even deeper. People he associated with, many with violent backgrounds, did not trust or even like police. And now he was being asked to help the police get guns off the streets.

“If I’m not careful, in a split second the neighborhood will turn on me because they see me with them (the police),” Wilder said.

But it was because of who Wilder is and where he had been that gave him credibility with some in the community. The same goes for Harris, as well as Esteven Juarez, a former gang member who serves as outreach director for the nonprofit Urban Alliance and helps with the Group Violence Intervention initiative.

“We have a team that can identify with what the streets look like,” Juarez said. “Ex-drug dealers, Ex-gang members … our team is compiled of people who’ve lived that life, who’ve been to prison, who’ve seen the ups and downs of it and how it doesn’t benefit our lives.”

That perspective, Juarez said, gives the three of them and others on the GVI team, the ability to understand not just the situation, but the trauma that lies beneath and systemic issues at the root of much of the violence.

Most of the time, youngsters reach for a gun because they are afraid, Juarez said. They do not want to be caught on the streets without one if someone is looking for them.

The GVI program aims to intervene proactively by getting in front of situations and making sure those individuals are not caught with those guns and, more importantly, that they are not using them.

“We measure success by how many people don’t pick up a gun and shoot,” Boysen said.

Group violence accounts for between 70-80% of all shootings in Kalamazoo, Boysen said.

When a person has been identified as a shooter, or someone who might be at risk of becoming involved in a group-involved shooting, the GVI team pays them a visit.

“If we think you are group-involved, we are going to go to your house with our team — with street outreach, with social services — and we’re going to talk to you, do what’s called custom notification,” Boysen said.

Over the course of that conversation, the team will present the individual with a letter putting them on notice they are being watched, and letting them know what to expect if they get caught with a gun or are involved in a shooting.

That is a much different approach than just watching an individual and arresting him, or by blanketing an area and arresting multiple people, like was done traditionally, Boysen said.

“We’d rather have you turn your life around and take advantage of some of these services through Urban Alliance or some of our other partners than go to prison,” he said. “We know when something happens to your friend, you’re expected to retaliate, and if you don’t, you show weakness and you can’t show weakness on the street. If we give you a custom letter, you can say, ‘The chief was just here and if I get caught with a gun I’m going to prison, I gotta’ lay low.’”

Many people wind up showing those letters to friends or posting photos on social media because it gives them an out — something a lot of them are already looking for, Boysen said.

“We give them that out,” he said. “If they don’t take it, it’s on nobody but them.”

Having Been There Helps

While most involved in group violence locally may not respect or support the badge worn on a police uniform, they do respect the badge of honor earned on the streets, the team members say.

Harris, a well-known ex-gang member who has served prison time in two states, has earned that badge. And while he wants to overturn the perception that it is an honor to celebrate, he is still going to use it to his advantage to evoke change.

“We’re here to tell them you don’t have to do what the street wants you to do,” Harris said. “We tell ‘em, ‘The street that you on probably has a mile radius, but there’s a whole world out here operating. Where do you see yourself fitting in? What’s your vision for that?’”

The Group Violence Initiative, Harris said, gives people like himself the opportunity to reach those who need to be reached and, ultimately, to change what gets passed down from generation to generation — to show them different resources are available to them.

“If you don’t evolve, you become extinct,” he said. “We spend so much time surviving through the struggle. We need to learn how to live a little bit so we can pass that on instead of passing on how to survive in prison or how to kill (someone) right quick.

“I’m getting my education, so that’s what I want to pass down. I don’t want to pass the gang down to these youngsters. I don’t want to teach them who to buy the best gun from or get the best drugs from. I want to show them how to live a little bit instead of survive the streets and the game because If you wake up chasing the pen you gonna find what you’re looking for.”

One of the things that has made the program successful since its inception is that people like Wilder, Harris and Juarez are good at identifying those who need a way out, as opposed to those who need to simply be off the streets, Boysen said. That does not mean he asks them for information that would help lead to an arrest, he said.

“They are not going to help me if that’s their role,” Boysen said. “We’re just trying to keep people alive and keep them out of prison.”

Gaining Understanding

By better understanding the wake of devastation an arrest can have on a family or community, relationships are slowly being built around the community too, Boysen said.

Much of that can be attributed to the GVI initiative, as well as public safety taking a more targeted approach in general.

“Those people that are truly a danger to the community, the citizens know who those people are,” Boysen said. “And when they see us arresting the people that need to be arrested, and not arresting those people that maybe need a break, that builds that legitimacy and trust and that’s where traditional law enforcement really damaged relationships before.”

Boysen said, at any time there, are probably 12-13 groups in Kalamazoo. Some of them are gangs; others are not. Maybe four or five of those are active, he said. As far as violent groups go, Boysen said there are currently two police consider violent, which they focus on.

Of about 200-300 people who are involved in those groups, Boysen said, only around 20 are believed to be shooters.

“When you hear 12 homicides and 70 non-fatal shootings this year, you think, ‘Holy smokes, there’s nothing we can do,’ but when we have a small number of people that are driving that violence and we know who they are, it makes it seem like we can do something about it, and that’s the key,” Boysen said.

The number of shootings reached an all-time high this summer, sending shockwaves throughout the community. Much of that violence, Boysen said, can be attributed to GVI and other community partners being shut down when COVID hit in March.

Related: ‘Gun violence pandemic needs to stop,’ Kalamazoo police chief says

“We shut down GVI until about August, at which point we said, ‘We’ve got to get people back out there. We have a problem,’” Boysen said. “I never thought we’d have the number of shootings that we had this summer.”

Since the program has been up and running again, Boysen said numerous key arrests have been and dozens of guns have been taken off the streets. There have also been success stories stemming from custom notifications and community collaboration, Wilder said.

One example he gave involved a young man who allegedly shot up an apartment complex. After the individual’s family and the GVI team got involved, the suspect was given an opportunity to turn himself in. That prevented him from being involved in any more shootings or seeing additional charges result from having guns with him when getting arrested, Wilder said.

“GVI works when everything else is working — the churches are working, community agencies are working, the courts are working,” Juarez said. “And during COVID we had some certain systems that weren’t operating, like the court systems. There’s a reason that things spiked.”

With COVID numbers on the rise again, and at an unprecedented level throughout the region, Boysen said there are no plans to take the GVI team off the streets.

“We just can’t afford to do that,” he said.

While all involved are aware there are risks involved working the streets during a pandemic, they are risks Boysen and the GVI team are all willing to take.

“I’m willing to risk my life to save a life,” Harris said.

“Me too,” Juarez said.

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