By Tad Simons
Tigers are everywhere in Belle Plaine, Minnesota. Peering from store windows, roaming school halls, riding around in cars, they are watching and waiting. These creatures don’t pose any danger to citizens, however. In fact, their presence is intended to reassure Belle Plaine residents that they are safe, help is available—and, if necessary, emergency assistance is on its way.
These “tigers” are part of Belle Plaine’s Tiger Watch Safe Zone, a public-safety program started by Belle Plaine Police Chief Tom Stolee in 2014. Intended as a low-cost, high-engagement way to broaden the public safety net, Tiger Watch encourages businesses, schools, and selected members of the community to declare themselves “safe zones”—places where anyone, especially children, can go for help.
Any business or vehicle displaying the distinctive Tiger Watch decal is certified to assist people in need. If someone comes to them for help, the Tiger’s job is to assess the situation, provide whatever assistance they can, and—if necessary—call the appropriate authorities. Nothing more, nothing less. The program received a 2016 City of Excellence Award from the League of Minnesota Cities.
A simple, but effective concept
“We wanted to come up with a program that was simple, cost-effective, would help us engage with citizens, and could be easily replicated in other places,” says Stolee. “It’s about working with people to make the community safer, by having more eyes and ears out there, and training people to report back to us. Realistically, we can’t be everywhere. But if we know about a situation, we can be there in less than two-and-a-half minutes, on average.”
The Tiger Watch program’s motto is: “We are here if you need us.” The “we” in this case is a network of business owners, their employees, places of worship, school administrators, and other public employees who are trained by the police force to help deal with common situations. Private citizens and residences are not included (Neighborhood Watch programs are separate and ongoing), and the training covers what Tiger Watch members are—and aren’t— expected to do.
Trained to call for help
“We’re not asking people to do our job for us,” Stolee says. “We train people to know what to do in an emergency situation, and to take a proactive approach rather than be a bystander. For the most part, that involves listening to people, reassuring them that they are safe, and knowing who to call for help.”
Tiger Watch participants are specifically trained not to administer first aid, except in extreme emergencies, explains Stolee. They also are trained not to administer medications of any kind, place a child in a vehicle, give anyone a ride, act as a hero or peacekeeper, or approach anyone first unless they are clearly in trouble.
“It’s simple, really,” he says. “We just want people to know that help is available if they need it.”
And it is. At the Genesis Town and Country Hardware Hank in Belle Plaine, Store Manager Lynzi Kleist and her staff aren’t just there to help people choose paint. They know about Tiger Watch, and are ready if anyone needs them. “[Tiger Watch] is another program the police department has created to give the community a sense of safety,” says Kleist. To her knowledge, no one has ever come into her store asking for that kind of help—but, she says, “If someone needs a safe place, we’re here.”
Background checks are essential
Stolee says his total cash outlay for the program is only about $400 so far (mostly for decals and T-shirts), but he and his fellow officers do spend a significant amount of time doing background checks on businesses and people who want to participate in the program; training people about what is and isn’t expected of them; and delivering presentations to the public about the program and public safety in general.
The background checks aren’t extensive, but they are important to establish credibility in the community, says Stolee. “The program is designed to involve businesses that already do background checks as part of the due diligence on their employees, especially businesses that have extended hours and multiple employees,” he explains.
It also involves public employees that have already been vetted—firefighters, school administrators, ambulance drivers, etc.—and anyone who drives a publicly owned vehicle. Homeowners and residents are specifically not part of the program, says Stolee, in large part because conducting background checks on individual citizens would be prohibitively expensive.
Several hours of training
Once potential participants are vetted, they receive several hours of training. Carrying a cellphone or radio at all times is a must, because much of a Tiger Watch member’s responsibility is knowing who to call for help. But the training also “helps them understand what happens when people are under stress,” says Stolee, and gives them guidelines to follow in order to stabilize the situation until help arrives.
The basic guidelines are very simple. If a child or adult approaches, and they look like they need help, Tiger Watch members are instructed to ask, “Do you need help?”
If the answer is “yes,” they are instructed to find out what the problem is, with special instructions to listen very carefully. If it’s a child, and the child is frightened, they are supposed to offer reassurance.
The same goes for frightened adults, though an adult is usually scared of something more serious than being lost, so it’s even more important to listen to why they are scared. Is it a domestic violence situation? An order-for-protection issue? Have they been physically assaulted? Was there an accident? Is it a medical emergency?
Whatever the circumstance, the Tiger Watch member’s job is to assess the situation and determine who to call for help.
In most cases, the call goes to the Belle Plaine Police Department or 911. At that point, the Tiger Watch member’s job is to describe the situation, location, and condition of the person in need of help; describe any vehicles involved; and identify the type of help needed (police, ambulance, fire department, etc.).
After providing this information, a Tiger’s job is simply to stay with the person until help arrives. They should not give the person a ride to the hospital, administer medicine or medical help, or attempt to police the situation themselves.
Public awareness is key
Though the training is important, an equally essential part of the program is the public awareness piece. Brian Vycital is the Belle Plaine Police Department’s School Resource Officer, and is the Tiger Watch liaison to seven participating schools in Belle Plaine. He trains school administrators in public-safety procedures, and also gives presentations to parents and children to make them aware of the Tiger Watch logo, what it means, and how and where to go for help if they need it.
“One of the great things about the Tiger Watch program is that it opens up another line of communication with the public,” says Vycital. “It reassures kids that there are responsible adults looking out for their safety, it gives parents some tools for talking about safety issues with their kids, and it encourages everyone to be a stakeholder in the community.”
“What we’re really trying to do is let people know that we’re all in this together, and that we’re watching out for each other,” says Police Chief Stolee. “It’s about creating a spider web of support that involves police, parents, schools, businesses, and residents all working together to ensure each other’s safety.”
Reducing opportunity for crime
Strategically speaking, it’s also about eliminating the conditions under which crime can take place.
“In law enforcement, we live in a world of triangles,” Stolee explains. “The crime triangle is availability, opportunity, and desire. We can’t do much about the desire part, but we can reduce availability and opportunity.”
Stolee himself does much of the Tiger Watch training and public speaking, but he doesn’t do it just to get the word out. He sees those presentations as an opportunity to meet the people of Belle Plaine, understand their concerns, listen to their gripes, and let them know that, as the Tiger Watch motto suggests, he’s there for them.
“This program only costs $400, but the payoff in the community has been tremendous. In terms of risk and reward, it’s been reward, reward, reward,” Stolee says.
For communities in need of a low-cost, easy-to-manage way to enhance public safety and engage citizens, both Stolee and Vycital agree: “It’s a no-brainer.”
Tad Simons is a St. Paul-based freelance writer.
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