Ferguson, Mo.; Waller County, Tex.; Baltimore; Cleveland — all of these cities and several more have made the news for violence between police and citizens. Mistrust pervades, and tensions are high.
Meanwhile, at a city council meeting in Covington, citizens of various ethnic and economic backgrounds don T-shirts that read, “We Support Covington Police.” They came to encourage city officials to provide more funds to the officers, allowing them to have an even deeper positive impact on the community.
This didn’t happen overnight. The collaboration between police, citizens and community groups was built brick by brick over the last decade and continues to grow. As a result, the number of police calls in Covington’s Westside neighborhood has been cut in half since 2004 and individual arrests are down by 43 percent.
No one single person or organization made this possible. Rather, it’s the result of many individuals who were heroic enough to put their egos aside, learn from each other and work together toward the common goal of a better community.
This is the fifth story in the Soapbox series “Neighborhood Heroes,” which celebrates everyday folks who do what they can do to make their corners of the world better and as a result become the heartbeat of their communities. Previous stories focused on Pleasant Ridge
, Walnut Hills
In this installment, we visit a nonprofit employee, a police officer and a grandmother who have become Westside’s Super Friends — a collection of extraordinary crime fighters who used the power of teamwork to create a safe and vibrant community that’s now a model for the entire country.
Kenton County Police
Chief Michael “Spike” Jones was born and raised in Covington and started his career as a Covington Police Department
(CPD) narcotics officer in 1988.
“Narcotics is a dark and dirty business, and after a while I began to feel like what I saw on the job was a reflection of society as a whole,” he recalls.
Then in 1993 CPD received a COPPS (Community Oriented Policing and Problem-Solving) grant, enabling the department to assign five police officers as community liaisons, including Jones. Within two or three months, his perception changed.
“I realized there are a lot of good folks out here who really depend on us,” he says. “This is their neighborhood, this is their life, and they want to develop partnerships as much as we do.”
Jones contacted the Westside’s community development corporation, Center for Great Neighborhoods (CGN), and began networking with resident groups like the Westside Action Coalition.
“I learned that half the wheel had already been invented by these groups,” he says. “By partnering, we could utilize each other’s resources to reach a common goal of a better, safer neighborhood.”
Jones set up an office in CGN, hoping that by creating a physical presence within an organization residents trusted he could earn that trust too.
He opened his door to anyone who wanted to confidentially discuss a situation. Residents who didn’t feel comfortable talking to Jones directly could fill out an anonymous “hotspot card” about their concern. He then informed patrol units of the issues.
Over time, Jones and the residents realized they had each other’s backs. When Jones went on patrols, neighbors were his eyes and ears. Both he and the residents felt safer working together, but it couldn’t be just about one officer.
“It sometimes took an extrovert like me to pull officers out of the car and say, ‘Come meet Mrs. So-and-So, she’s a really nice lady,’ and get them talking,” Jones says. “Then the next time they see her they might wave or ask how she’s doing. Then when something happens, she’s more likely to tell us what she witnessed instead of staying in her house scared.”
As Jones moved up the ranks and eventually became Chief, he continued to instill the importance of community collaboration in CPD’s culture. (He retired from CPD earlier this year to become Kenton County Chief.)
“Law enforcement’s the easy part,” he says. “It’s looking at what’s a violation, citing for it, making arrests. The tough part is policing — it’s community development, building trust, developing collaborative efforts, bringing people to the place where they have faith in the police department and government and know they’re living in a good place where they get the services they deserve. That’s policing.”
Director of Neighborhood and Housing Initiatives for the Center for Great Neighborhoods
(CGN), Rachel Hastings has devoted nearly 20 years to Covington’s Westside by involving residents in improving the neighborhood’s physical, economic and social environment. One way is by identifying properties that can be given new life through restoration.
Many buildings in the area were erected between 1850 and 1880, and disinvestment in the urban core left them in disrepair. But Hastings saw their potential.
“There’s a magic in the history,” she says. “I love when people are coming together to restore the buildings or work on an issue in the neighborhood and friendships and a sense of community are built as well.”
A particular focus area for Hastings and CGN is known as Shotgun Row
, a collection of row houses that had become a center for illegal activity. CGN’s vision was to transform the properties into dwellings where artists could live and work.
Hastings had already formed a positive working relationship with CPD by the time this project started but found herself getting to know the department even better during the Shotgun Row renovation through frequent calls she had to make to report broken basement windows and stolen copper pipes. The police advised her to install glass block windows, but historic building ordinances wouldn’t allow it.
They were at an impasse and decided to bring all parties together to find a solution. When city officials heard the police’s concerns, they waived the historic ordinance, new windows were installed and the break-ins stopped.
“It was like lightbulbs going off,” Hastings says. “We had seen CPD’s role as arresting bad guys instead of helping create safe communities in the first place.”
Within a week of that first meeting, she took police to visit every rehab site CGN had. She wanted them to see the positives going on in the neighborhood and be involved before and during the rehab process instead of just after something went wrong. Since doing this collaboration, none of CGN’s projects has been vandalized.
Hastings then helped bring together city officials, police and resident groups so each could provide suggestions about future economic development projects. It’s a breakthrough model for cooperation that’s garnered national attention
“My vision is that our work be even more pervasive so every project is collaborative,” she says. “I’d love to see residents help educate their neighbors on how to work with police to improve the community.”
She’s lived in Covington since age 5, and now at 75 Faye Massey has seen lots of highs and lows in her working-class neighborhood. She says she’s never felt more optimistic about Covington’s present and future than she does right now.
Like Jones and Hastings, she credits the town’s new birth not to one big event but to many incremental efforts over time by people working together.
Massey first got involved in the community in 1994 when a meeting was held to declare the Westside neighborhood historic.
“People (like me) came out to say, how can you do that when we don’t even feel safe walking the streets? We decided to do something about it,” she says, and the Westside Action Coalition
(WAC) was formed.
Massey and WAC worked with Jones and Hastings to develop with joint goals for improving the neighborhood. They sought to change traffic patterns and upgrade street lighting, but Massey’s main priority was improving housing options. Now she is seeing the positive results of these efforts.
“The (renovated) housing has brought younger people with a lot of energy to the neighborhood,” Massey says. “Community events are well-attended by a diverse group of people. It’s great to see that.”
She adds that it isn’t just the housing that has changed the look and feel of the neighborhood, but also the public spaces.
“Farney Park was created from a vacant lot,” she says proudly. “Orchard Park Sculpture Garden has beautiful art from local artists even though it was once an area people avoided.”
This was all made possible through collaboration. Massey and WAC advocated for the dilapidated buildings on that site to be razed, Jones and CPD reported the criminal activity there to the city, the city placed liens on the property, Hastings and CGN purchased the property, the buildings were torn down and the park was created.
It’s this sort of teamwork that led to the unprecedented transformation of Covington’s Westside and to national recognition for the community partners. In 2014, they were chosen from a pool of 560 communities to receive a $20,000 award from the MetLife Foundation and Local Initiatives Support Corporation
(LISC) for their successful efforts to increase community safety.
“It all comes down to looking out for each other,” Massey says. “Don’t isolate yourself. Be part of the community. If we can use these successes as a template to grow from I think it could be really successful in building a better country.”
Is there someone in your community who is a neighborhood hero? Tell us about them at [email protected].