Building Benton Harbor: Public Safety fosters better relations with community
BENTON HARBOR, Mich. -- In a city where gun violence is all too common, reports of shots fired can happen hundreds of times in one year, and getting illegal guns off the streets is a daily problem — residents turn to the Benton Harbor Department of Public Safety for a solution.
But being a department with high turnover and lack of funding over the years, Public Safety Director Dan McGinnis recognized the first step in fighting crime in Benton Harbor was transforming his department.
“We wanted to rebrand the department, there have been some things that happened in the past that soiled Benton Harbor’s reputation,” said McGinnis.
And looking to a classic TV show for inspiration.
“What would I want my community to look like, and it’s an exaggeration, but Mayberry from the Andy Griffith Show,” said McGinnis. “They had two officers, one jail, all the neighbors knew each other by name, they communicated, the looked out for each other, that’s what I want to build here.”
Yet it was going to take a lot more than simply answering calls to achieve Mayberry in Benton Harbor.
The department started by committing to dozens of outreach programs – some annual, like it’s National Night Out or Peace Walk – while others took a continuous effort of building trust with residents of all demographics.
“Our philosophy was let’s make sure we have some type of outreach that tries to connect with different parts of the population,” said McGinnis. “Officer Friendly is kids Kindergarten through 5th grade, PAL is the high school-middle school age, Senior Neighbors are the seniors in the community.”
But just as the department was seeing progress and crime was decreasing, the pandemic hit and the domino effect of closed businesses, layoffs and stimulus checks being felt in Benton Harbor.
Crime was back up, with both an increase in illegal firearms and stolen vehicles wreaking havoc in Benton Harbor.
Chief McGinnis enlisted the help of some community leaders to connect with residents and tell them enough is enough.
“He said ‘I’ve observed that you are somebody who cares about the community, I’ve seen your work and I’d love for you to partner with us,’” said Taurus Montgomery, Lead Pastor at Harbor of Hope Seventh-Day Adventist Church.
Chief McGinnis and Pastor Montgomery joined forces for an initiative called “Respect our City” — a plea to residents to take pride in keeping Benton Harbor safe so it can prosper once again.
“I felt a strong connection with the community because it reminded me of the neighborhood I grew up in, it wasn’t the most fortunate circumstances but I knew the people had great potential,” said Montgomery.
And instead of watching residents rally in crowds downtown with cars and guns, the cause of the spike in crime this summer, they instead rallied the community together for a march.
“We walked through the city with the message of respect our city, this is our community, we have to care for it, if nobody else cares for it we have to,” said Montgomery.
Both men sharing the philosophy that more opportunities for learning, volunteering and work lead to less opportunities for crime.
“You have to leave outside the four walls of your church, office and be where the people are and you have to demonstrate a real interest in their well-being and you begin to build that trust with them,” said Montgomery.
And echoing the department’s motto of trust, loyalty and commitment to Benton Harbor.
“While I was in the academy, the director said to me, ‘I don’t see you in Benton harbor long, you’re too smart,’” said McGinnis. “When he said that to me I was immediately offended and at that moment I said to myself, ‘I will never leave that place, I will spend my entire career in Benton Harbor because you said they weren’t good enough for me.’”
For ABC57’s previous story as part of the Building Benton Harbor series, click here.