This is part one of a two-part series detailing the efforts between community members and law enforcement officers who come together, work together and push forward together to make our cities better places to live. This week’s blog highlights Southaven’s Volunteer in Policing program; next week’s blog will focus on the recently launched Sheriffs and Police Activities League of Memphis and Shelby County (Memphis PAL).
This past Tuesday evening inside the courtroom of a city just established in 1980, more than thirty residents were honored for their work and volunteerism with the city’s police department. This relatively young city of Southaven, Mississippi has bridged the gap between its law enforcement team members and the residents they serve by having established a successful volunteer program whose numbers, I believe, rival that of most major cities. Shortly after the awards ceremony began, Lt. Jerald Wheeler shared with all of us in attendance that last year alone the Southaven Police Department was gifted with 9,250 volunteer hours by members of the city’s Volunteer in Policing (VIP) program.
Launched in 2002 under the direction of Lt. Wheeler, the VIP program has allowed citizens to be an intricate part of the police department’s community outreach endeavors, making way for far more growth and exposure than would be possible without their help. They are present at school and church fundraisers, handing out safety materials; they are a vital part of Shop with a Cop, an event during which they help police officers purchase and wrap gifts which are then given to children living in the Southaven community. VIP members give forty hours per week of service to the city’s records department and are also responsible for fingerprinting those whose jobs and positions (such as working with children at an after-school program) require it. In fact one of those being recognized for her years of dedication to and through VIP, Stricki Wilkinson, has missed only one Thursday in all ten years of fingerprinting candidates. One day in ten years.
With each award given that night its recipient was met with great applause, and deservedly so: five, ten and fifteen years of service during which Veterans Luncheons were hosted and carnivals for those with special needs were staffed. These are ordinary citizens who believe that through their giving extraordinary progress can be made- and it has been. Southaven’s Chief of Police Steve Pirtle acknowledged to them “you are part of the face of the Southaven Police Department. I hope you realize how vital you are. What you do we couldn’t do.” Captain Richard Chandler echoed that sentiment and stated, “One of the things most amazing to me [is] how many people volunteer for SPD. We can’t thank you enough.” It has long been a source of frustration for many police departments: knowing all that needs to be done to make their communities safer, better, but not having enough manpower to fully implement all that is necessary to do so. They understand how important it is for residents, particularly children, to see their faces in non-emergency situations, to shake their hands and converse while catching glimpses of smiles; to know that they, too, are human. Because of the work done by VIP, more are now able to do this, and do it more frequently, allowing for that gap to grow smaller while the number of positive interactions within the community grows larger.
As the ceremony drew to a close I looked around and watched police officers shake hands in a gesture of gratitude with the city’s residents. It was an image I welcomed, admired and wished was one we saw more often, and heard about more often. I reflected to a time several years ago when my then-four year old saw a police car drive past us with its lights flashing. He said to me, “Mommy, that policeman is helping the boy who is hurt. He is giving him a band-aid.” I was so struck by his comment that I wrote it down in my journal and posted it on social media, hence my ability to now share here. He made this statement during a time in which our nation was experiencing great pain because of the actions of some law enforcement officials who, though not representative of the majority, caused a great, major divide between those designated the protectors and those they had vowed to protect. He made this statement at a time in which I was unsure how I would explain things to him, a four year old, if he asked me about that small group of protectors who had broken their oaths, my knowing that there was a majority who had not broken theirs. But he never asked because even in the midst of it all, he still recognized the police officer as someone who would give him a band-aid when he got hurt.
Perhaps it was because the wooden benches on which we sat had crosses etched in them but at one point during that evening my mind drifted to a bible verse about faith:
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
And I realized then that the dozens of people who were standing at the front of the room, the faithful volunteers who last year gave over 9,000 hours to Southaven’s police department, are helping bring to fruition in this community the substance of things hoped for. And as for the evidence of things not seen, Lt. Wheeler, who has been part of Southaven’s police department for over thirty years, has quietly, yet powerfully, through his efforts forged positive relationships between many within the city of Southaven. But he deflects any attention given to his work, explaining “I like being on the sidelines,” and remains focused on the VIP members who give day after day, in faith and with hope, being the change they wish to see in the world.
Photos by Lt. Jerald Wheeler and Jamey Pirtle