LISC AmeriCorps meets LISC Safety

AmeriCorps Member Haley Sullivan with two officers from the Providence Police Department visit children at the Smith Hill Early Childhood Learning Center (Capital City-Smith Hill ECLC)

#MadeInAmeriCorps Week March 10–16, 2019

Providence, RI, March 14, 2019 — As a Criminal Justice major at Roger Williams University, Haley Sullivan was thrilled with her AmeriCorps placement in the Community Relations Bureau of the Providence Police Department. The opportunity gave the college senior the chance to see if policing was all that she imagined it to be and to see if she could stick with her chosen field for the long haul.

“It was eye opening for me as a student,” said Sullivan. “I grew up in a fairly rural environment, and the experiences I’ve had here have taken me into some urban hot spots. It’s one thing to see it on the news, but when you see it from the officer’s perspective, it has a big impact.”

Sullivan, who acts as a Community Relations Support Specialist, is one of six AmeriCorps members in a new program piloted by LISC Safety & Justice this year. While LISC has operated the AmeriCorps program for the past 24 years through its network of local offices and throughout its rural footprint, this is the first time one of LISC’s national programs has worked with the national service organization.

“Having Haley here has helped us do the work we try to do,” said Tina Shepard, Community Engagement Specialist, at the Providence Police Department. “She has the right personality for the position. She’s got tenacity, spunk and she’s not intimidated. She fit right in from the start and I’ve sent her directly into the community with the officers.”

Tina Shepard has worked in community engagement for many years and recognizes what it takes to be successful.

“I’ve targeted ride-alongs for Haley that will have high volume and a wide variety of calls,” said Shepard. “She had been on the fence about being a police officer, but because of this program, she has been able to see that there’s so much more to it than what you see on the surface. Providence has a strong philosophy and track record of Community Policing and she has been able to witness just how integral the community development aspect of policing is to safety.”

Developing relationships with the community is a critical component of public safety. Sullivan has gone to local schools with officers, answered questions and interacted with the students in an effort to establish ties with children. At the Smith Hill Center, an early learning facility off of Smith Street, Sullivan and the officers read to the kids, passed out coloring books, crayons and bike safety information, as well as child-sized police badges.

“The ride-alongs and school visits help to personalize the officers,” said Sullivan. “They joke with the community and talk with everyone. It’s easy to see the difference that makes. The young kids at the child care center started out scared, but very quickly warmed up to us after just a few minutes.”

Community policing has a strong history in Providence. As far back as 2000, a community policing model was adopted where officers worked closely with nontraditional police partners such as social service agencies, community agencies, non-profits and local residents. They work together to address key issues and come up with solutions that work for everyone.

“We let the community tell us what their issues are and how we can best help to solve their problems,” said Captain Dean Isabella. “We do that with many of the social service organizations that help with issues like the lack of education, lack of housing, and others. It’s been a very fruitful partnership.”

Isabella worked closely with LISC Rhode Island and other local partners to create lasting change for Olneyville’s Aleppo Street, one of the worst areas of Providence. For Isabella and his team, creating opportunities for dialogue is an important part of the process.

Major Perez at a LISC Safety Conference last September.

“If an issue does come up that is potentially controversial, we have relationships where we can speak openly and transparently and discuss it before it becomes a bigger problem. We’ve got an open dialogue with the community and have the processes in place that make that possible,” he said.

Major Oscar Perez agrees that a personal touch can overcome many other factors. When Perez moved to Providence at age 15, he wanted to be a police officer. When two Providence Police Officers spoke at his high school on career day, he knew that he would eventually fulfill his ultimate career goal. He believes that in his 24 years of service that the community has changed for the better because of community policing.

“In my opinion, it takes a certain kind of person to work in — and understand — the policing profession, as well as the communities we police in the city of Providence,” said Major Perez. “Haley, has been an exceptional addition and brings a lot of energy to the bureau. She has the outgoing and engaging personality that you need and has been an asset to the various programs offered by the Community Relations Division.”

In addition to the community work, Sullivan also is working with Shepard to roll out some larger projects, including a city-wide survey on resident perceptions about crime, call responsiveness and the relationship with officers and the department. She is overseeing the development of the survey instrument, will supervise the volunteer survey takers and help analyze the results. The data will provide an important baseline assessment of these perceptions and provide a path for improvement.

“We will do it again in two years to gauge our progress. It’s our job to bridge the gap,” said Shepard. “I’ve seen the kinds of improvements that can happen in a neighborhood. I know what’s possible in a community. We’re lucky to have a department with commanders that support the philosophy – they are definitely on the community policing model.”

Having the benefit of an AmeriCorps member has worked for everyone. Not only has it meant the department has the additional manpower, but key skills are developed in future members of law enforcement. Each AmeriCorps member that is placed through LISC Safety and Justice will convene on a regular basis to share experiences and work assignments.

“Our team is very excited to be piloting an AmeriCorps program because we see this as an opportunity to help advance the local safety efforts already underway in five key sites,” said Brittany Sicora, Program Assistant, Safety and AmeriCorps Program Administrator. “Haley’s help is critical in identifying and bringing together new partners to support the Department in its commitment to strengthening community relationships. We hope too that through this experience, Haley will be able to apply her background in criminal justice and learn the importance of how social factors impact safety outcomes outside of the traditional role we expect law enforcement to typically play in reducing crime.”

Sullivan has taken her AmeriCorps placement to heart. “This opportunity has been a big eye opener for me,” she said. “I’ve always felt compassion for people – and have wanted to do something that has an impact – but I have a new appreciation for all that it involves. I have absolute praise for anyone who does this. It’s absolutely important to understand that crime is the result of a lot of things, and it’s up to us to make a difference.”