Fist-bumps, high-fives and bear hugs flow easily from Lt. Terrell Smith to the dozens of students who greet him as he waits for his lunch partner. A thousand-watt smile spreads across his face, as he gives a, “Hey there!” to one student, “How you doin’?” to another, and a “It’s good to see you! You doin’ OK?” to yet another. Like catching a favorite song on the radio, or finding a forgotten $20 bill in a winter coat, “Lt. T” as he’s known, gives a lift and radiates warmth to those he encounters.

Ball State University office Terrell Smith is shoveling snow from a Muncie resident's sidewalk

Community policing isn’t limited to events or programs held on campus. When Lt. Terrell Smith found a resident facing a driveway full of snow, Smith took action.

The interactions mostly stem from the Lunch with a Cop program that Smith leads on Ball State’s campus. Over lunch, students and officers move from sports to books, movies, classes, plans for the future, and even why cops do what they do or why students do what they do. Sometimes the conversations are a challenge, sometimes breezy. But at all times, Smith said, the lunches provide dedicated space and opportunity for the people hauling the backpacks to get to know the people behind the badges.

So hard or easy, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Best part of the day,” Smith said. “Absolutely. Any time with students is the best part of the day.

“You can’t sit and have a meal with someone and walk away from the table and not have a better understanding of who they are. Well, you can I guess, but we don’t. This is all about building relationships, building respect.”

Lunch with a Cop is one of about a dozen programs incorporated into the community policing efforts of Ball State University Police. It’s a passion that’s been at the heart of Chief James Duckham’s approach to policing since he started out nearly three decades ago.

Because Duckham doesn’t do fads.

He’s quick to note that community policing is a philosophy, not a program. It’s a manifest that informs every member of his department, a guide for how to work for and partner with the members of the community they serve and protect.

Crime goes down

Departments large and small, from San Bernardino, California, to Norwalk, Connecticut, are diving in to community policing, as experts across the nation say the programs do make a difference in a department’s ability to build positive relationships within neighborhoods and communities and in turn reduce crime. In the most recent The State of Policing in the United States report, volume one, experts with the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) division of the U.S. Department of Justice noted the group awarded nearly $12 million in grants in 2016 to departments building community policing efforts.

In 2017, the budget request for program development grants increased to $20 million. In all, according to the Department of Justice COPS office budget documents, $14.9 billion in federal funds have gone to develop community policing programs since that division of the DOJ was established in 1994.

A Ball State University officer talks with a group of parents on a campus tour

Officer Travis Stephens shares information about the department’s community policing initiative with families taking a campus tour. Introducing families and students to officers during tours is just one more way the department can connect with community members. (Photo by Domenic Centofanti)

The results? According to a 2007 study in the Journal of Public Economics, researchers found that an average hiring grant “generated a statistically significant reduction in the violent crime rate by 3.7 percent and a reduction in the property crime rate of 1 percent.”

While they won’t quibble about the results, police officers like Duckham, Smith and others will tell you there’s more to keeping the peace than lower crime stats.

“Barriers break down when you take this approach, and I think that’s tremendously important,” Duckham said. “This is labor intensive, but it’s so important to do — to branch out across, in our case, our campus and reach out to all the groups we may meet and interact with on a regular basis.

“Especially with those groups, or those students, who may have had a difficult or uncomfortable relationship with police officers in the past, this time spent is invaluable.”

Aside from a dip in on-campus burglary rates, Duckham said an even greater benefit is the comfort students have developed with the officers. That’s critical, he said, when officers must investigate sensitive situations. If a student feels comfortable talking with someone, that can sometimes help a victim of a crime find closure.

And, Duckham said, the students will take what they learn and carry it forward.

“These interactions will guide students’ perceptions of officers when they move on to wherever it is they are going to live.”

What’s more, he said, the community policing efforts — those relationships that are built — provide a blueprint to students of how they can get involved in their future neighborhoods and communities.

“We have more than 170 students, just in one semester alone, who want to take their lunch time to meet with one of my officers, because they want to gather and discuss their thoughts, and they know they’ll be heard,” Duckham said. “How does that not inform them as they become professionals, or parents, or community leaders?”

It’s a philosophy that last year gained greater momentum, when then-U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch used the occasion of National Community Policing Week to talk about how residents and police could come together to find common ground.

“Community policing uses our shared interest as the foundation for deeper understanding, mutual respect and closer partnership,” Lynch wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post. “In practice, community policing encourages officers and citizens to communicate regularly, to share concerns and collaborate on solutions, and, above all, to get to know one another as people rather than stereotypes.”

Warm reception from students

That piece, that “getting to know one another” has been the takeaway for students who have become involved in a program or event.

“All of the things the cops are doing — it’s awesome,” said Brandon Jones, a junior political science and classical cultures major who participated in a drunken driving demonstration. The event, hosted in a parking lot on campus, featured a police officer, a golf cart and special “drunk” goggles that simulated the effects of alcohol on a driver’s perception of the roadway. “Things like this make me more comfortable with the police. If something happens, I want to be able to feel like I can report it to them, and now I do. To me, that matters.”

A Ball State student is driving a golf cart in a parking lot while wearing goggles that impair her vision. A Ball State University officer is riding with her.

Cpl. Michael Lucas puts his trust in students participating in a drunk driving demonstration sponsored by Ball State Police. The goggles worn by the students simulate the effects of impaired driving, giving them a real feel for the dangers of operating under the influence, but in a safe and controlled environment. (Photo by Samantha Blankenship)

Malik Brown, a freshman from Indianapolis, agreed.

“It’s nice they try to get out and bridge the gap between the community and the police,” he said. “Having that feeling of safety, because you know they know you, gives you a sense that you can get out and try new things.”

Cpl. Michael Lucas rode along with all the goggled drivers. He said all the programs — the bike registry, Dunk-A-Cop, dorm trivia, guest lectures — begin and end with the same goal in mind.

“All of them just give us one more opportunity to talk with students and to get to know them,” Lucas said. “That makes a difference.”

It did for sophomore Sarah Walls.

“This was hard,” she said, laughing about the driving. “But I already knew Cpl. Lucas. He helped me look for my keys one night for, like, an hour in Cooper (Science Complex). He just kept saying, ‘We’ll find them.’

“It’s good that he knows us, he definitely knows me. That’s really nice.”