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Flint, MI– As a former Marine and a Captain for the Flint Police Department, Collin Birnie could have been an intimidating man– but he wasn’t.
“It’s funny because he was this big guy, but he was such a teddy bear,” said Flint activist and parent Kenyetta Dotson. “He was the nicest guy you could ever want to meet. The nicest guy. And he had the best personality.”
Birnie’s face is serious in his official police portrait, but those who got to spend time with him in the community recall his infectious smile–just one of the many parts of him they’ll miss.
After 26 years with the police department, Birnie died on Feb. 4 in a car accident while on duty.
According to a press release from the city, Birnie served in the Marines during Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm before joining the police department. Then, over the course of his career at the department, Birnie served as the Patrol Bureau Commander, Bomb Squad Commander, Tactical Team Commander, and Lead Firearms Instructor.
Even with all of those titles, many Flint residents remember Birnie for going above and beyond the call of duty. He regularly attended neighborhood group meetings, got to know residents on a first-name basis, and worked to bridge the gap between the police department and the community.
Honoring Capt. Collin Birnie
“Although he was highly skilled in what he did, very knowledgeable, and had many years of experience, he truly led his work with his heart,” Dotson said. “He genuinely cared about people, and I think that made just a huge impact in how we were able to get a lot of things done in the city of Flint, particularly in areas where the need is the greatest.”
Geri Clark, the president of the North Flint Neighborhood Action Council said she loved that he was community-minded.
“He didn’t care about being Captain Birnie when it came to the community,” Clark said. “He was just, you know, a friend to the community.”
Clark said Birnie always made sure that he, or one of his officers, attended her neighborhood meetings. She said he listened to their concerns, answered their questions honestly, and strategized with them to develop solutions. When he left their meetings he told everyone in attendance to “stay safe out there.”
Birnie also helped the group identify crime hot spots in their area, and let other officers know to look out for those specific locations. If anyone in her neighborhood had a problem, they knew they could call Birnie.
“We know that they don’t have a lot of police officers, and they can’t be everywhere,” Clark said. “And we could always call him and express our concerns to him, and he would be able to get right on it.”
Birnie was also interested in developing “non-arrest strategies,” Clark said. Instead of arresting someone right away, she said they had conversations about other steps that could be taken first.
“That was one of the things that we enjoyed about him is that, you know, we could speak to a captain of the police force, and he was able to listen to us, and then take that back to his office and say, ‘Let’s can see what we can do about doing some non-arrest strategies,’” Clark said.
He understood that in order to effectively partner with the community, you needed to have “boots on the ground,” meaning, in this case, talking to residents and finding out what their needs are. Clark said her neighborhood group picked up the phrase “boots on the ground” from him.
Dotson said she had the same experience in her interactions with Birnie. He was always someone she could call and ask for help solving a problem.
“He just always made himself available to the people, and for him to be a Caucasian officer in a predominantly Black community … from my perspective, I’ve never known him to make race an issue,” Dotson said. “He was always just part of the team doing what he could to make things better for everyone.”
That included helping to organize a Unity March, being a “constant fixture” in neighborhood groups on the north side of Flint, being a liaison from the community to the police, and helping to leverage funds.
Clark said Birnie assisted the north side of Flint with a safety project funded by a $1 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Justice intended to strengthen community and police relations.
Sandra Etherly-Johnson, the former Project Manager for Hamilton Community Health Network, and the North Flint illuminating Community Change project, worked closely with Birnie on the project.
“Captain Birnie was very instrumental in allowing us to provide different innovative and creative ways where Flint PD could be engaged with community-based work, with resident-led groups and organizations,” she said.
Not only was Birnie responsive and diligent about attending meetings, Etherly-Johnson said she could trust that he would be honest, straightforward, and have the residents’ best interests in mind.
“Oftentimes, that particular neighborhood was very distressed, riddled with crime and violence, and the community felt as though they weren’t getting the support and the recognition from law enforcement,” Etherly-Johnson said. “So it was very important the role that Captain Birnie played in making sure that those connections were made, that the residents knew that they had a contact at the department that they could trust.”
Bob Brown also worked with Birnie on the Illuminating Community Change project.
“He was a large part of the success of this community effort bringing police into partnership with the community,” Brown said. “He epitomized caring and authentic policing. We need more police cut from his cloth.”
Etherly-Johnson said she hopes local law enforcement will continue to engage with resident-led groups and block clubs to keep “Birnie’s legacy alive.”
“I hope they continue to make it a priority, that there’s law enforcement presence in our block clubs and our resident organizations,” Etherly-Johnson said. “That they’re seen in community centers and corner stores and convenience stores, so that the residents can always continue to feel some major degree of safety and security within their own communities. And Captain Birnie exhibited just that in a jovial way.”
Clark said she was still processing the loss–Birnie’s support, his honesty, his smile. She hopes other officers will engage with the community the way he did.
“But you know, sometimes big shoes are kind of hard to fill,” she said.
The city of Flint lowered the flag at City Hall to half-mast in Birnie’s honor, and announced that a memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Friday, Feb. 11, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 711 S. Saginaw Street. Church seating is reserved for designated family and friends, and current and retired Flint Police personnel. The service will also be live streamed at the Capitol Theatre, 140 E Second Street, for all other attendees, including other law enforcement and civilians.