She’s kicked off the day as a substitute crossing guard at a local elementary school. By early- to mid-morning she’s fielding referrals and calls. As the day moves along, she’s immersed in initiating communication, problem-solving, and building consensus on sticking points that affect everyday life in East Lansing.
Tonya Williams is a neighborhood resource specialist (NRS), and one of three individuals assigned to a newly-created beat within the East Lansing Police Department since December 2020. Charged with addressing civil disputes and quality of life issues, Williams, Yutaka Benson, and Sudesna Paul constitute an unarmed division of ELPD that also includes two full-time social workers.
Dubbed by ELPD as the Community Engagement Team, the group works independently or alongside sworn officers to provide social services and pro-active community outreach to city residents.
As a bridge between the community and police department, the specialists handle three main areas: low priority calls, long-term problem-solving, and community engagement. It’s a structure that ELPD hopes will help the department strategize policing by enabling sworn officers to focus on law enforcement while specially trained personnel attend to civil and community concerns.
“We’re a little bit of glue,” said Williams to ELi of the NRS team. “We’re bringing a lot of different groups and people together to work on community issues. You’ll see us most everywhere in the city, or at a neighborhood or community association meeting, too.”
Close to 200 East Lansing residents saw the value of the new NRS team in mid-May. ELPD tasked Williams and her part-time counterpart Benson to call-in volunteers to search for a missing person. Their goal was to locate an elderly woman who appeared to have gone missing from her apartment the day before. The two helped ELPD lead volunteers in combing the city’s northern tier, resulting in finding the 76-year-old resident in under two hours.
Other city residents, too, may have encountered an NRS on their beat, at a meeting, or on a call addressing myriad issues. Downed power lines or water main breaks? They’re there. Bike larceny? On the case. Found property? They’ll come get it. Flood lights from a neighbor’s house shining through your window? They’ll redirect. Dogs pooping where they shouldn’t or walking off-tether? They’ll handle the handler. Parking or traffic flow problems? They’ll get the wheels moving.
The team of three is frequently deployed to find long-term solutions to persistent problems where no specific violators or secondary parties are identifiable. Consistent noise complaints bubble to the top of the list, as do overflowing trash dumpsters at congregate living facilities or rental properties. Issues such as icy sidewalks presenting safety hazards and etiquette at the City’s dog park have also relied on the NRS team’s expert interpersonal skills.
“Our team is coming up with ways to make improvements, knowing that ultimately, the situation may never be completely solvable,” said Williams. “It’s a challenge to work on things that don’t have a 100 percent solution, but we’re working on remedies and helping everyone maintain a positive outlook.”
Because of the nature of dispute resolution, the specialist collaborates with a police supervisor before going out, determining whether a joint response is needed depending on the call.
“You’ll see us carrying a police radio for dispatch, and we’re clearly identifiable by our uniform and the NRS branding on our vehicles,” said Williams. “We cover all parts of the city, and when we see something, we may refer to an officer or a social worker—and vice versa.”
ELPD began formulating the new Community Engagement Team back in July 2020 as part of an ongoing process to re-envision the delivery of law enforcement. The unit is intended to reinforce ELPD’s movement toward a robust community policing focus and toward a system more oriented toward problem-solving rather than punitive measures and fine-and-prosecution.
Deputy Chief Steve Gonzalez said ELPD began examining how to better leverage public safety services in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and social justice movements. He said the department drew some inspiration from agencies like the Lansing Police Department, which hired a full-time social worker in 2019.
Eugene Oregon’s CAHOOTS program provided an example of a long-standing program that includes social workers and mental health workers in police responses. A similar team, too, was put in place to work alongside officers within the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police.
“We are a very unique community with the university being here,” said Gonzalez. “We have to tailor this program and how it is developed to fit the needs of our city.”
Gonzalez said ELPD plans for the development of the NRS and social worker teams will continue to evolve, particularly as people re-emerge from the pandemic and summer turns to fall. He pointed out that Covid-19 temporarily reduced the number of students able to live in the community, and significantly impacted annual activities like sports, graduation, and festivals.
“This is a new program and we are certainly developing it as time goes by and learning from what works and what doesn’t,” he said. “We want to see how we can do things better, and are always seeking feedback. At the end of the day, the program exists to provide services to the community. Feedback is important to ensure we are going down the right path.”
In the meantime, Williams and the NRS team continue addressing summertime and ongoing issues. She’s also working with her counterparts to plan, host, or participate in several events and festivities as part of the team’s community engagement focus.
It’s a job she loves, she said, and one that draws on her skills as a certified life and leadership coach. Being a NRS also brings her back to her long-time passion for public safety and community work, having resigned from ELPD as a sworn officer to pursue civilian life in 2016.
“While we’re here to help resolve long-term problems and attend to civil or low priority calls, we’re also here as a resource for information and for building community,” she said. “I’m loving the challenge, and I really enjoy bringing people together. I think that’s why one of my coaching mentors once called me ‘the glue.’”
Learn more about ELPD Community Engagement Team here. Unsure where to call to report an issue? Call 517-319-6897 for neighbor-to-neighbor civil issues, or contact ELPD Dispatch at 517-351-4220 to have your call directed.