Riding along Broadway with Wichita police officers
The Wichita Police Department will spend an $875,000 federal grant on community policing in the commercial stretches of North and South Broadway.
Here are some of the issues police are facing along the distinctive street that runs through the center of the city.
Officer Steve Jerrell, 46, has been working in community policing on North Broadway for more than eight years, long enough to recognize what a certain yellow bag signifies.
The Lord’s Diner, a ministry of the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, is a hub of activity on North Broadway. People who lack money can go there for dinner every night. Entire families sometimes eat there.
Jerrell knows the Lord’s Diner because he works there as an off-duty security officer. Sometimes, his 15-year-old daughter volunteers there, handing out silverware and unloading food trucks. Her presence humanizes him. The patrons see him not just as a cop in a uniform but also as a father. “I’m just like anybody else.”
The diner serves “some very, very great folks” whose choices or circumstances led them there, he said. Some of them choose to be homeless.
Jerrell tells the story of a homeless man who excitedly announced to him this past May: “My last night on the street! The HOT team’s getting me in housing.” Officers with the Homeless Outreach Team are specifically assigned to aid the homeless.
Later, Jerrell saw the same man, who had returned to the streets because living in housing wasn’t for him – not yet anyway. Someone else could use his housing spot, he told Jerrell, who was impressed with the man’s unselfishness.
Across the street from the Lord’s Diner is a soaring stone and stained-glass church, and at one time, there were benches in front of the church, lining Broadway.
The benches became a magnet for crime, Jerrell said, so they have been removed.
For one thing, people would sit and drink alcohol before going to the diner. Businesses complained.
The church has posted signs on a tall metal fence saying “No Alcohol Allowed” and “For Your Protection This Area Is Under Video.”
Last winter, some people laid out bedrolls on the grassy easement outside the church. Police told them they couldn’t do that because it’s loitering or prohibited camping.
Keeps to himself
Jerrell recognizes the homeless people who frequent North Broadway. There’s a man from South Asia who keeps to himself. He will wait 45 minutes by himself across the street from the Lord’s Diner, after everyone else has gone in for dinner.
As Jerrell drove north on Broadway, he spotted along a sidewalk a yellow bag and recognized it as belonging to that man.
Where the bag is, the man is. “He’s tucked back in there right now,” Jerrell said. The homeless man has been in the area since 2010. “He has a right to spend his life that way” – by himself out in the elements. The man rarely wears socks, except when it turns unbearably cold.
“Trust me, he is a tough cookie to build rapport,” Jerrell said.
Jerrell stopped his patrol car and exchanged a fist bump with the man behind the yellow bag. They spoke briefly, and the man waved as Jerrell drove away.
They were small gestures. But to Jerrell, it meant they had reached a basic level of rapport. “I’ve won,” he said.
Some of the homeless who roam North Broadway meander blocks to the east and west. In Riverside Park, Jerrell noticed one of them – a man lying on his back on the grass on a sunny fall day, stretching his arms straight up and reaching toward the blue sky.
Jerrell told a story about a couple with two young children. It was late November or early December last year, the holidays approaching.
The couple told police they had become homeless and needed help. Officers got them a motel room around Christmas. Their thinking, Jerrell said, was “Let’s do what we can to try to keep these kids in the family.”
He keeps McDonald’s gift cards, each worth $5, in the trunk of his patrol car. A donor provided them, he said.
Jerrell drove back to the homeless man who keeps to himself and offered him five of the gift cards. But the man told the officer: “I can’t take that many. Somebody needs these.” The man said he would take one, but Jerrell persuaded him to take two.
To Jerrell, it was another example of unselfishness. “Again, there’s a lot of good folks down here.”
Many people who frequent North Broadway have little money, Jerrell said. Sometimes, they steal. Recently, someone stole a bicycle from a man who had locked it into a rack, but the thief undid part of the rack to take the bike.
It was a minor theft. But to the bicycle owner, who is around age 60, it was a major loss. The bike was his transportation to his job. Officers took the man to the Bicycle X-Change on West Douglas, where he was given a replacement.
“We got him wheels,” Jerrell said. “If he’s not able to get to work, he’s going to be homeless.”
Food trucks have popped up in the parking lots along North Broadway, and Jerrell calls them a “great addition.” They draw people to visit a part of town they might not otherwise venture to.
A little south of 17th Street, Jerrell stopped to tell a food truck operator that a nearby truck had been robbed recently by two men wearing ski masks who had pointed guns at a 42-year-old man and a 17-year-old girl.
Jerrell told the new food truck operator, 29-year-old Jesus Romero, “I’m glad you’re here.” The business is called Chino’s Mexican Grill. Romero has been selling tacos and other Mexican food from the bright-green-and-yellow-trimmed trailer for about two months.
Romero and Jerrell agreed that it is a safe spot because the parking lot has plenty of lighting and the trailer is out in the open, where a robber can’t easily hide and where Romero can see anyone approaching. Jerrell suggested Romero could enhance security by putting up video cameras.
Despite its challenges, North Broadway “is a very, very neat neighborhood, because you can get so much,” Jerrell said. There are diverse eateries and grocery stores offering Mexican and Asian foods.
The goal now, he said, is this: “Let’s make it where people feel comfortable” coming there and living there.
Driving along South Broadway, motels dot the corridor and much of the population is transient and low-income.
It’s not uncommon for a family of five to squeeze into a studio apartment at one of the smaller motels, which date to the 1950s or 1960s.
“There’s good people in them, too,” said Sgt. Kelly O’Brien. “If that’s all they can afford, that’s all they can afford.”
For the children who live there, the pavement is their playground. “They’re playing in the parking lot because that’s all they know. A lot of these people, that’s their permanent residence for years.”
The low-income way of life is reflected at Hamilton Middle School, one of the more prominent structures on South Broadway. Many of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, O’Brien said.
As he drove past it, he said, “This is a great school. I went to school here. They have different challenges. Lot of it has to do with poverty.”
O’Brien, 44, grew up in the South Broadway corridor. His education at Hamilton helped lay the foundation for a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Wichita State University and a master’s degree in adult education from Kansas State University.
As a kid, he rode a skateboard past prostitutes on the sidewalks. Prostitutes are still on Broadway. “The difference is it’s not as prevalent as it was then,” he said. “It’s there, but you have to look for it.”
Many of the houses have deteriorated or turned into rentals. But nice homes remain, some with historical status. And there’s a sense of community: Churches in the neighborhood give to the community around them, including Hamilton School. The churches, he said, “are a huge presence.”
As a police officer, he asked to be assigned to his old neighborhood.
Busy places, busy cops
On a recent afternoon, the South Patrol substation on South Broadway, which is responsible for the southern sector of the city, had 25 officers available to respond to calls. Only one officer was not actively responding to a call, O’Brien said. Officers have to go from one dispatch call to another, with emergencies demanding immediate attention.
O’Brien pulled into the sprawling Quik Trip south of Kellogg, one of the newer businesses on South Broadway. On a sidewalk on the south side of the convenience store, three men huddled and exchanged something. O’Brien counted 18 pedestrians around the QT and “two more coming out of the alley.”
“They’re not walking for exercise,” he said. “They’re walking because that’s their only mode of transportation.”
The area around the QT has become a hub for disturbances, “panhandlers” and loitering.
The department intends to bring in officers specifically assigned to community policing along Broadway, with officers on foot and on bicycles, to have a visible presence.
It will allow for proactive policing, O’Brien said. He’s hoping it will reduce crime and build trust between police and the people.
“The police department can’t do it on their own,” he said.
He pulled up to a motel where officers had just arrested someone after responding to a tip from the manager. To O’Brien, it was a positive sign: a manager doing his part to improve life on South Broadway. Just the day before, a wanted felon climbed out a window of the motel and escaped from officers.
Driving down South Broadway, O’Brien summarized the neighborhood.
“South Broadway is not covered in crime. It’s saturated in poverty. There’s good people that live in that area. Having extra officers is going to protect those citizens.”