Beyond the Badge: Berrien County Sheriff's Deputy impacting local kids
BERRIEN COUNTY, Mich. --- ABC57’s 'Beyond the Badge' series continues, going behind the scenes with local law enforcement to show the everyday challenges they face in our communities.
The ‘Beyond the Badge’ team is introducing Michiana to the Berrien County Sheriff’s Department and giving an inside look at one officer who dedicates her time to making a difference with local kids.
“I've always wanted to be a police officer since I was five years old,” Berrien County Undersheriff Chuck Heit said. “It's been a very rewarding career and I have had a lot of great opportunities along the way.”
Chuck Heit has been the Undersheriff in Berrien County for 18 years, getting his start in law enforcement back in 1993.
“I do look at law enforcement as a calling. So it's something to do for the right reasons and those things that may be challenges, the benefits definitely outweigh it.”
When it comes to community support, Heit said they feel the encouragement from residents.
“I have not been thanked more in uniform being out.”
Nationally, Heit said it’s been a challenging time for those officers and agencies working in difficult situations.
“So we’ve been very fortunate in our county with the public support that we do have.”
Berrien County covers 525 sq. miles with a population of about 154,000 people.
“We’ll cover any area that doesn’t have a dedicated police department, you know some of our areas, cities in some larger townships have their own police department, we assist them and then we cover areas that don’t, along with State Police.”
Berrien County faces a lot of the same issues other communities do, such as drugs and alcohol and they have a lot of officers on the ground to keep the county safe.
Beyond that, they’re broken down into three divisions. Emergency management, enforcement, and the jail.
“We’ve got a couple officers that are under special contracts, so we’ve got Deputy Williams that’s assigned to the Boys and Girls Club,” Heit explained.
“I've been in law enforcement for 14 years and currently been with the Sheriff’s Department for the past 10 years,” Deputy Vanessa Williams said. “I had been on the road and I wanted to do something a little different.”
Five years ago, Williams made the switch to a contracted position, playing a role much like a school resource officer, at the Boys & Girls Club of Benton Harbor.
“I knew it was working with the inner-city kids and that's something I wanted to do. I seem to have a knack for juveniles so that was one of the reasons I put in for the position.”
“And so throughout the day, I’m just interacting with them, you know, how are you, how was school, talking to them, just kind of acting in different conversations.”
Williams divides her time between three locations: the teen center, youth center and Berrien Heights campus.
“Deputy Williams is an unbelievable human being,” Boys & Girls Club of Benton Harbor Chief Executive Officer Mackenzie Kastl said. “And she really, truly is. I mean it when I say she’s an X factor for our organization. Her presence here alone is, it’s just, it’s creating that meaningful adult relationship with someone in law enforcement.”
Part of being a trusted adult is being someone the kids and teens can turn to.
“You’re not just looking at me as a police officer with a gun. I can come to her and give her this information because I trusted her with it,” Williams said. “It could be anything and don’t have to be anything in reference to a crime, it can be, they just want to tell me that they didn’t have a good day today and they feel safe to come and tell me that.”
She is also a mentor.
“I say some teachers are not always in the classroom,” Kastl said. “She’s certainly one of those.”
Trying to help kids learn from their past mistakes.
“We want to educate you on that, you know, yes you did this. Why did you do this? We want to understand the why within the picture because there is a why,” Williams explained. “And now we try to give you the educational piece of why not to do it, so we just try to make it a complete circle. That is so heartbreaking for us because no matter what we're trying to instill in them, we can see that they're still choosing, even though there's opportunities here at the Boys and Girls Club for them to engage in positive activity, we can still see that they're choosing this negative path.”
Mackenzie Kastl is the CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Benton Harbor and she see’s first-hand the real connections Deputy Williams makes with teenagers.
“A lot of times what it comes down to is, our young people find a person in the club that they connect to, and that person is what keeps them coming back, that supportive adult that is there to talk to that's there to be a resource for them,” Kastl said. “In a lot of cases, it's definitely Williams, you know, especially here in the teen center.”
“I think there's a lot to our department that people may not realize,” Undersheriff Heit said. “Unfortunately, some people's only experiences may be a traffic stop or what they may see as a negative exposure. There's a lot of things happening day to day in our office that the men and women do an exceptional job at.”
“I am somebody's mother. I am somebody's sister,” Williams said. “We know that we live our life in the public view. And that's understandable. But we are human. We want to make sure that that we're doing our job in a respectful manner, to have that trust. But we're human just like everybody else that does their job.”