How a community care program provides both help and hope

A community care fund equips officers to meet the immediate, emergent needs of the citizens they serve


The motto “Protect and Serve” is alive and well in American policing. Every day LEOs suit up to respond to emergencies in their communities. Officers stand ready to serve strangers and friends alike, regardless of skin color, language spoken, religion practiced, or political leaning. We investigate crime, comfort victims and hold criminals accountable through professional and competent law enforcement practices.

As officers engage the community, they find people who have fallen upon tough times. They meet community members who have lost their jobs, their homes, or their families. We see people who are hungry, thirsty and cold. I have seen with my own eyes officers reach into their wallets to help people make ends meet.

I remember one officer coming across a disabled vehicle. The officer teamed up with other community members to assist a single mother to push her vehicle out of the roadway into a gas station parking lot. She had run out of gas. As everyone walked away, the officer noticed the woman was not fueling her car. He approached her and asked if she had money to fill up her tank. She said no. The officer took out his credit card and paid for the tank of gas.

Kennewick Police Officer Mike Bowe's act of generosity of buying this young boy a new pair of shoes was a catalyst for the agency's Community Care Program.
Kennewick Police Officer Mike Bowe's act of generosity of buying this young boy a new pair of shoes was a catalyst for the agency's Community Care Program. (Kennewick Police Department)

This is one story of many where officers use their personal finances to serve their community. It is a noble act of compassion and speaks to the character of the women and men who serve our communities; however, is there a way for officers to help people in need without tapping into their own finances? How can chiefs and sheriffs empower their officers and deputies to make this a reality?

Kennewick Police Chief Ken Hohenberg asked himself these questions when he heard of one of his officers, Traffic Officer Mike Bowe, using his personal finances to purchase a kid a pair of shoes. I recently spoke with now-retired Officer Bowe about this story.

It all started with Bowe being dispatched to an injury accident involving a pedestrian. A father was standing at a bus stop with his 8-year-old son with his hand on his son’s shoulder. Seconds later a DUI driver left the roadway and clipped the boy, sending the boy flying 50 yards away, literally out of his shoes. The initial prognosis was not good as the boy suffered significant injuries.

Officer Bowe and other collision experts investigated the accident. Officer Bowe remembers collecting the boy’s old, tattered shoes as evidence. Fast forward a few months, Officer Bowe received a phone call from the boy’s father. His son had made a full recovery and was preparing to go back to school. There was one problem though; the family was so poor that they could not afford to purchase another pair of shoes. The father was asking for that holey pair of shoes so his son did not have to go back to school barefoot. Officer Bowe asked the father to meet him at a local sporting goods store and to bring his son. He told the boy to pick out any pair of shoes that he wanted. After the boy selected his new shoes, Officer Bowe and the boy posed for a photo together on Mike’s police motorcycle.

Chief Hohenberg saw Officer Bowe’s act of kindness as living out his expectations of his officers serving the community with dignity, respect and fairness. However, what if the next officer did not have the financial resources to help?

Chief Hohenberg had previously worked with community members to organize the KPD Foundation, a 501C-3 non-profit that works to support the Kennewick Police Department with unfunded needs and projects. Inspired by stories like that of Officer Bowe, Chief Hohenberg and two friends – Dave Retter, the owner/broker of Retter & Company Sotheby’s International Realty, and Jim Spracklen, who once worked for the Kennewick police and now works for Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s national security directorate – brainstormed how to partner with the Foundation to empower officers to meet the needs of the community.

From this conversation, the KPD Foundation’s Community Care Program was born. I recently sat down with Chief Hohenberg to find out what has made this program such a success. Here are his five keys to running a successful community care program.

1. Chiefs need skin in the game

Chief Hohenberg knew that this program was going to need more than his verbal support; it was going to need him having some skin in the game.

The Chief, Dave Retter and Jim Spracklen all wrote checks to get the Community Care Program started. This seed money enabled officers to immediately meet peoples’ needs.

If someone needed food, officers purchased groceries. A high schooler living in the teen homeless shelter needed some clothes, done. An elderly couple was behind on their electric bill, bill paid. Over and over, officers were confronted with tangible ways to show compassion to people who were desperate for immediate help and hope.

2. Empower officers

Chief Hohenberg delegated the purchasing decisions to officers and their supervisors.

The aim of the program is to bridge the gap between a person’s immediate needs and already existing community resources. If the community care program required board member or command staff approval, needs would not be met in a timely manner.

Officers come across tragedy 24/7. They are best positioned to assess needs, triage them with available resources and solve problems. Additionally, Chief Hohenberg knew this was a way to reinforce the trust that he felt with his officers. The only direction he gave his officers was, “If it is the right thing to do, make it happen.” Officers were empowered to say no if the citizen’s want did not meet the intent of the fund. If officers believed it was a good fit, they would consult their immediate supervisor and then complete a tracking form.

KPD Foundation board members later reviewed these forms to ensure the program was continuing to meet its designed purpose.

3. Tell your story

As officers used the program, they communicated the stories on the police department’s Facebook page. They protected people’s privacy by omitting names and details that would reveal the identity of the recipients. As officers told the stories of how the community care fund was providing hope to the hopeless, a remarkable thing happened. More people started to give. Local businesses, churches and community members started to write $500, $1,000 and $10,000 checks. People wanted to be part of something bigger than themselves.

This Christmas, I had a number of friends reach out to me asking how they could donate to the fund. They had read stories of the fund’s success and wanted to be part of something special.

 

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4. Engage the community

Chief Hohenberg continued to communicate the fund’s successes as he engaged the community. He is an active Rotarian, attends fundraising dinners for local charities and is regularly seen at school functions. He participates in charity golf tournaments and Special Olympic events. The KPD Foundation also organized a Breakfast with the Chief event that highlighted the successes of the community care fund.

All of these events created a space to build trusting relationships and an opportunity to speak of the community care fund’s successes. These conversations and relationships led to more donations. These donations further empowered officers to meet more community needs.

 

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5. Follow through

As previously mentioned, the Community Care Program was not meant to provide long-term housing or food to those in need. The Foundation designed the fund to bridge the gap between an immediate need and already existing community resources.

Many times the recipients of the fund were already in the process of starting a new job or applying for state assistance. Some had housing lined up, but their place was not available for five days. In these instances, the fund filled the void.

However, from time to time, people were not familiar with the community resources that were available. This gave officers the opportunity to follow up with them and make sure they got connected with other resources.

Officers linked people with the Department of Social and Health Services, with Domestic Violence Services and with Crime Victims Advocate Groups. This follow-through created an opportunity for officers to demonstrate the level of care that they have for their community. It also gave the program recipients first-hand stories to tell their friends and family of the exceptional character and compassion of their local police officers.

Into the future

The community care fund continues to be a resource to officers and the community. Since 2015, Kennewick Police officers have used $248,076.36 from the care fund to assist over 500 individuals and families.

The Foundation and Chief Hohenberg have expanded the opportunities of giving by collaborating with local businesses and charities. During three events in 2020, the Foundation partnered with Second Harvest to hold food drives, providing food and gift cards to about 650 families. I connected with one local family and learned that the husband had been laid off, the family savings had been exhausted and they were now living paycheck to paycheck. This small act of kindness, made possible by the generous donations of the Tri-City community, gave the wife hope.

The greatest impact of the community care fund is that it gives hope to the hopeless to continue moving forward. The fund is contagious, spreading generosity during an unprecedented period in our modern world’s history. It also creates an opportunity for the community to see the compassion and care that officers have inside them. It might just be one of the great changes in 21st-century policing.

To learn more about the KPD Foundation or the Community Care Program, visit https://kpdfoundation.org/ or contact the police department’s liaison, Commander Trevor White at trevor.white@ci.kennewick.wa.us.

NEXT: 50 states, 50 police heroes: How cops made an impact in 2020

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