On Thursday, March 21, Rev. Dale Dalman and his culinary team welcomed Grand Rapids-area pastors and Kent County Sheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young to Esperanza Covenant Church (and introduced a few pastors to the deliciousness of horchata, the sweet cinnamon rice milk drink).
LaJoye-Young was appointed sheriff in 2018 to replace retiring Sheriff Larry Stelma, making her the first female Kent County sheriff. Before that she was the county's first female undersheriff, chief deputy, captain, and lieutenant. She joined the department 30 years ago, fresh from Michigan State University, working there while she got first her Master's in Public Administration from Western Michigan University, and then her Associate's Degree in Law Enforcement from Grand Rapids Community College. Her appointed term will be up in 2020 and she plans to run for an elected term that fall.
Before she educated the pastors about the job of sheriff and told us about her priorities, she wanted to say thank you: "I am very, very grateful for the opportunity to talk about the sheriff department's work with people who are doing good work, who are doing things in the community. What's often lost is that we are representatives of the people. If we're not working in unity, on the same track, then neither of us can do a good job."
She also said that she's aware that she deals with people at what might be the worst time of their lives, either when they need emergency services or when they enter a corrections facility. That awareness, coupled with the acknowledgment that "people's actions are one thing and their heart is another," affects her decisionmaking when it comes to staffing and programming.
The Kent County Sheriff is a constitutional office, so LaJoye-Young's job is governed by the Michigan State Constitution. She is mandated by the constitution
For example, for the last point, a city like Lowell has a very small police department, so she said that, "if something significant happens, they call us." In places like Wyoming, Walker, and Kentwood, the sheriff's department has supplied forensic and supplemental investigative services.
Grand Rapids is a large enough department that they help train each other and work together on task forces. The largest use of sheriff department resources in Grand Rapids is the correctional facility: "sixty percent of people in our facility were arrested in Grand Rapids."
Kent County covers 850 square miles, with 750 of those patrolled solely by the her department. LaJoye-Young said,
"It takes a lot of analysis about where to have people staged to where they can get to calls. For priority one and two calls--where there is a threat to life and safety now, or threat of substantial property loss now--we try to get there within eleven to thirteen minutes. We try to distribute cars in that timing because people deserve that help on the worst day of their lives. That's my priority."
She noted that, unfortunately, there are a couple of places in the corners of the county that currently take them 30 minutes to get to, and she's working on getting the resources to lower that time.
There are nine levels of priority that they give to calls that come in from citizens, depending on the severity of threat, damage, and the immediacy of the problem. For lower-priority calls, to reduce the time officers spend on the road (for example, when someone needs a police report for insurance purposes when their car's been broken into), there are a number of ways citizens can make a statement: over the phone, online, or by coming into an office. This frees up officers for those priority one and two calls.
Her "worst day" awareness filters through to her 911 operators as well. She worked to simplify the dispatch when there were problems with the 911 system, and she said, "customer service is our number one priority. The person calling 911 is having the worst day of their life--we have to treat them that way and give them the right information."
Community Services Unit
Another way the sheriff's department tries to cover that 750 square miles from a law enforcement perspective is to work with businesses, churches, and community groups to reduce opportunities for crime. The Community Services Unit works with churches and businesses to make sure that they're following best practices. Examples LaJoye-Young used were, "Church, don't keep your weekly collection in the unlocked desk drawer in the pastor's office. Also, a lot of churches are worried about hate crimes, so we ask, 'How can we help keep you safe?' We ask businesses, 'Is this the most safe way to store your firearms?'" They also run things like child safety seat checks to reduce the chance of injury in an accident.
There is a school safety officer assigned to every school district except for Kentwood. This officer acts as a liaison, to educate staff and students. LaJoye-Young emphasized that one of the roles of this officer is to foster a relationship of trust with the students, and they've found that, where those relationships are built, students do come to the safety officer to tell them about things that are happening at home, and to tell them about break-ins at school.
Kent County Jail
The sheriff is constitutionally mandated to operate and maintain a jail, and the Kent County Jail takes 60% of LaJoye-Young's budget and staffing. Life in the jail has changed a lot since she started 30 years ago:
In 1989, I first heard those bars clang behind me and I thought, "what did I do?" I saw the people in cages and thought, "we can do better." I was part of a concept project in 1991-2 for direct supervision; in 2012-13 we finished it and are now set up in pods, in day rooms instead of in cages all day. We are the best jail in the state of Michigan because we have the best programs. We have a captive audience in the jail and that's an opportunity to pour into them--they won't all listen, but it's an opportunity and I feel called to pursue it.
She noted that 70% of people in the jail are there pre-trial, accused but not convicted, so they are eligible for programs if their behavior allows it. The remainder are convicted of multiple misdemeanors or a low-level felony so, as she said, "we know exactly how long we have to pour into them." The department encourages people to take advantage of their many programs "to learn to make better decisions, to have a better life" when they get out. She mentioned the God Pod, a life principles pod, a work release program, and medically assisted treatment program for opioid recovery. The people who take part in the God Pod are 50% less likely to recidivate.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
Since LaJoye-Young and ICE have been much in the news lately, I want to let her explain the situation in her words:
2010 was my first orientation with ICE, and things haven't changed significantly since then. I want to point out that the Obama administration had the largest number of detainers filed, larger than the Trump administration's, so this isn't a Democratic or a Republican question, but a people question.
She noted that there are three immigration laws that are criminal offenses that ICE could get a judicial warrant for:
She wants law enforcement to be able to pursue people "who come back over our borders and preys on people," but she would like to see ICE's procedures brought into line with constitutional due process: "Our system is set up so that it can't be just one person's opinion, just one set of eyes, that there has to be review. That's for the protection of our citizens."
LaJoye-Young acknowledged that the problems stemming from immigration go deeper than she can address with any change in policy at her level. She said her priorities are getting to people who need help and trying to prevent crime; she knows that there are people in Kent County who are afraid to call 911 because of their immigration status, but for that problem to be truly fixed, there need to be immigration solutions at the federal level.
Towards the end of our time together, one pastor asked her about how the sheriff's department worked with communities of color. Her answer was part cultural and part practical:
Start with listening and everyone's better served. I want my officers to walk into every situation thinking they have to learn. We've contracted with a cultural intelligence group, and we learn about implicit bias on many different levels. I mean, I'm the only acting female sheriff in Michigan, one of 2% in the country! If you have a problem with law enforcement, become an officer and change the culture. We want to recruit people who want to help people.
Rev. Dalman closed out our question time by asking LaJoye-Young what she, as the first woman to hold so many different jobs at the sheriff's department, would say to a bunch of male clergy. She said:
Help every young lady believe in herself. Self-love keeps her less likely to be a victim of a crime. Take every opportunity to encourage her to love herself. A lot of women don't see themselves as leaders. I say, "I'm a team of one and I'm a leader." Encourage women to say that to themselves and they'll behave differently and they'll try to fix things in a way leaders do.
We closed our meeting with Kent County Sheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young as we do all our meetings with elected officials, by praying for her and for the community we all serve.