WCSO’s Derrick Jackson Rewrites the Rules of Policing with Compassion and Understanding


Derrick Jackson, Director of Community Engagement for the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office. Photo by Doug Marrin.

In recent discussions on the evolving role of law enforcement in addressing community issues, particularly mental health, Derrick Jackson emerges as a beacon of change. As the Director of Community Engagement for the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office, Jackson offers a unique perspective—blending personal experiences with professional insights to champion a new approach to community policing. He recently shared his story and his thoughts with the Sun Times News.

“If you ask people what their number one priority or issue is in communities, it’s public safety,” says Jackson. “This relates directly to community wellness. For years, we’ve told people just to call 911. But when you look at it, we’re responding to many things that aren’t criminal.”

Jackson’s foundation is in social work. Born and raised in Inkster, a place where he candidly describes violence as "normalized," Jackson grew up believing that episodes like homicides were everyday occurrences. “I thought that everyone knew someone who had been murdered,” he said. “I thought homicide was normal. It wasn't till I came to school in Washtenaw County that I realized, no, that's not normal.”

Derrick’s journey into social work was deeply personal. “I always had this burning question, like, ‘Why me? What am I supposed to do?’” he recounted. He started his career at Ozone House, seeking a way to help his community, particularly youths who might be navigating environments like the one he grew up in. There, he worked with homeless teenagers, many of whom had encounters with the juvenile justice system.

As Jackson strived to increase his efforts, he saw the way forward in policymaking. He recognized the limitations of direct social work. He could help a child every day, but another would always be waiting. The broader challenge lay in the system itself. This revelation led him to work as Deputy County Clerk, where he delved into policymaking and met Sheriff Clayton.

“Sheriff Clayton asked me to have lunch with him to talk about the social work I did in the neighborhoods and if I thought I could do it through policing,” recalls Derrick. “To be honest, I thought he was crazy. You cannot do what I do in the neighborhood with kids through a police agency.”

Their discussions about merging community building with policing took Derrick by surprise. Given his upbringing in Inkster, which held strained relations with the police, the idea seemed outlandish. However, with Clayton's guidance, he began to see the potential of implementing community-building strategies within the police force.

Discussing the overlap between social work and law enforcement, Jackson notes, "The most vulnerable of populations are entangled and intertwined in the criminal legal system.” He argues that law enforcement and social work are not polar opposites but share common goals.

According to Jackson, officers are frequently tasked with mental health calls, underscoring the urgency of addressing the intersection of policing and mental health. Shockingly, “60% of the mental health calls did not require a police response,” he states, highlighting a significant gap in available resources and training for both the community and law enforcement.

Jackson highlights one initiative to fill that gap - “Just Because” - which seeks to bridge understanding between officers and teenagers in the community.

“I get a couple of officers together with a couple of community members, in this case, a couple of teenagers, and we have a conversation over lunch ‘just because,’” explains Derrick. “We start building those relationships.”

The program facilitates conversations, fostering relationships and mutual understanding. After all, officers are often the ones families call when their teenager runs away. Officers can be better equipped to help these families by fostering these relationships.

However, the challenges don’t end there. Jackson stresses that while officers deal with situations social workers care deeply about, the two worlds often remain distinct. The overlapping of their roles can benefit both parties and, more importantly, the individuals they serve.

To address the multi-faceted challenges of community policing, Jackson emphasizes a combination of training, policies, and ensuring officers have the right tools and resources. The aim is not merely to recognize an issue but to address it effectively.

He points to programs like LEADD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion and Deflection). LEADD promotes a departure from the traditional cycle of arrest and release for individuals grappling with addiction or mental illness. Instead, officers connect them with social workers, aiming for long-term solutions rather than short-lived detentions.

Another initiative is the co-response unit, which pairs a social worker with a police officer. Given the high volume of mental health calls, this partnership ensures a comprehensive approach to such situations, providing immediate support and longer-term connections to essential services.

In discussing the broader implications, Jackson focuses on the economics and moral responsibilities of redefining community policing. By addressing the root causes of frequent incarcerations, such as homelessness, addiction, and mental health, the community can ensure more efficient use of resources and provide a more supportive environment.

For Jackson, the crux lies in aligning resources, training, and understanding to create a holistic system. By merging the worlds of social work and policing, Washtenaw County hopes to pioneer an approach that prioritizes community wellness, addresses the nuances of mental health, and ensures that every call for help receives the most appropriate response.

“If you're violent and you've been incarcerated six or seven times, you'd be in prison,” concludes Derrick. “But if you're in the Washtenaw County Jail, five, six, or seven times, it is for all kinds of things around homelessness, addiction, and mental health.”

“Doesn't it make sense for us to get them the help they need to deal with the violence that may be impacting you?” he adds. “Doesn't it make sense to get that person the right service so they're less likely to come back to the jail in the first place? Some of this is about economics, but it's also just the morally right thing to do for people.”

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