Flint, MI– Twanda Plair peered out through the windshield at Flint’s downtown police station and the four cruisers parked there. She’d worked for the Flint Police Department for 25 years before leaving in 2019 and opening two businesses less than four miles away.
“There shouldn’t be that many police cars in the parking lot,” she said with a tone of disapproval.
It was Sept. 10, 2020. Almost exactly one year since she’d retired.
Plair wore a black t-shirt, black track pants, and a black baseball cap. She had her phone secured in a holster on her hip—where her gun would have been last year. She doesn’t have a badge to flash anymore, but when she smiles, which she does a lot, you can see a gold heart cap on her right front tooth.
Instead of patrolling the streets, Plair was being chauffeured by a reporter new to the city and eager to get a bona fide tour. Naturally, Plair suggested the police station be the first stop.
“They should be out patrolling, driving through neighborhoods,” Plair said. “What are they doing?”
When she left the Flint Police Department, she said, it was a different place. She’d started on the job in the ’90s, when there were 400 officers in the department, and two or three cop cars patrolling in one acre, she recalled.
“You didn’t have to call the desk and get a sergeant to come from there out on the road. There were already two sergeants in every district, and eight to ten officers in every district on every shift,” she said.
By the time she’d left, the department was a quarter of the size, which meant fewer patrols on a shift and an end to community policing.
Plair spent the first two years on patrol and then was moved into the community policing unit, where she stayed for most of her career. Community policing involves going into neighborhoods, speaking with members of the community to find out what their issues are, and working with them to find resolutions. She says it was the best kind of policing she could have ever done and the best unit she’d ever worked in–very different from routine patrol.
“In patrol, you’re trained to get in, kick ass, and take names later. Temporarily fix the problem, go to the next call,” she said. “Community policing is, you get there, fix the problem, and build a bridge between the community and the police department.”
Plair embodied this work for a long time, until staffing shortages and other issues led to community policing fading out of the department. After that happened, she said the kind of policing she was doing was no longer an option. She retired from the department, but found new ways to help people using the same community policing values. Explore your neighborhood. Talk to people about their problems. Connect them to resources. Build a bridge.
In Plair’s words, she found a new way to love.
Still a community figure
Plair stared at the building a moment longer, as if waiting to see if any of the cars would suddenly light up and get out on the road. It didn’t happen. She shook her head, and motioned to continue the drive.
Plair needed a soda or a juice, something to quench her thirst after smoking her “morning coffee.” Before Plair would describe herself as a former police officer, she’d say she’s a “hippie,” a “flower baby,” and a “sunflower of the 21st century.”
The next stop was Liquor Corner, a party store with rows upon rows of colorful drinks, and walls lined with posters of women posing with Bud Lights.
As Plair walked in, an older man and his son on their way out beamed at her with recognition. They had known each other for years but hadn’t seen each other in a while. They spent a few minutes catching up before the two men left the store, and Plair headed to the back to pick out a drink from the coolers.
“Whatever you want, it’s free,” came a voice from across the aisle. It was the owner, Neil Shango, who had just come out from the back to greet Plair. The two chatted about business and Shango’s new diet– no soda for Shango.
This is what it’s like for Twanda Plair. Wherever she goes, people are happy to see her. You’d think she’d been close friends with everyone in the city, not a police officer they’d encountered. Really, she’d found a way to be both.
As she walked out of the store, a thin woman who’d just finished her waitressing shift across the street was walking in. Plair recognized her from her policing days, when the woman had been a prostitute.
The woman smiled at Twanda.
“You saved me,” she said.
As a community police officer, Plair had been responsible for a four-block span of a neighborhood she called “the worst neighborhood in Flint.” She said it was full of drug houses and prostitution.
“I had 17 drug houses, and I was able to close all of those drug houses without having to have special ops kick the door in, do a raid or do whatever,” she said, adding that she did this by “building trust and a relationship with the community.”
Instead of arresting the 37 prostitutes on the block, Plair talked to them. She made arrests only when someone came to solicit them—and she arrested the solicitor, not the woman working.
“They weren’t breaking the law to me. He was breaking the law. He was soliciting, not her,” she said. “I always turn it around because guess what? If these guys didn’t ever come out here to pick them up, this is not even an occupation.”
Besides, she said she doesn’t think it’s a crime when a woman names her own price. The problem comes in, she said, when a pimp controls and exploits the women. So Plair never took the women to jail for prostitution, but she did push them to get out of it. One day while she was out patrolling her neighborhood, she came across a woman who’d been out there for a few days and was still wearing the same clothes.
“Hey, sister,” Plair said to her. “Go get you some rest. I’m at work today. Let me be the only hoe out here today. Okay?”
Now, she says, she knows about nine of the “sisters” who have their own outreach centers now. Another became an evangelist and travels the world doing missionary work.
“Their whole lives changed,” she said.
Plair also spent time talking with the neighbors in the area. She learned all their names and got to know them, their children, and their needs. She helped develop a youth program for the neighborhood.
Since she was the primary officer responsible for that area, the residents got to know her, too. The personal relationships she formed led residents to give Officer Plair a call instead of just calling 911.
“Because you might want to call and tell me about the drug house, or give me a license plate, or you might want to tell me about your child, your husband, something might be going on in your house that you can’t call 911 for,” Plair said. “So…I don’t have to put you on Front Street and show up in front of your house. Or, you know, whatever personal issue you have, I can work on it or fix it right away.”
Plair said community policing helps close the gap between the police and the community, but also reduces crime because the solutions are more long-term than what you might find in other types of policing.
“With community policing … I can sit down and dig deep. Get to the root of the problem, find a solution, and fix it, whether it be through resources, putting a program together, getting you help, getting them help, or making an arrest,” Plair said.
In the book “Training the 21st Century Police Officer: Redefining Police Professionalism for the Los Angeles Police Department,” the authors contend that community policing “helps develop better relationships and mutual understanding between police officers and community members, which in turn help in solving community problems.”
Like those authors, Plair said this type of policing also helped her cultivate a deeper respect and appreciation for her city and the people in it.
“You know you can see the change in the little knucklehead that used to spraypaint the neighborhood, or you can see the change in the drug dealer who doesn’t deal drugs anymore. You can see the change in the children who aren’t littering like they used to or as loud as they used to be,” Plair said. “I mean it’s like a family, you just got your own little part of the city and you’re just building it up.”
Becoming a cop
Leaving Liquor Corner, Plair decided to continue down Saginaw. A few miles later, Plair was reminded of a piece of her childhood.
Approaching Stewart Avenue, Plair pointed out the window at a white-haired man selling watermelons and nuts on the side of the road. She said she’d seen him in that exact spot nearly every day since she was a child. It’s true. The man, Richie Rich, had been selling on Saginaw since 1979, when Plair was just 9 years old.
Plair grew up in Flint, and lived in subsidized housing which she calls a “pretty word,” for “the projects.” Until she was 19 years old, Plair said “the system paid the bills.” In other words, her single mother and three siblings survived on food stamps and subsidized housing.
But she said her childhood wasn’t like a lot of other families living in the neighborhood.
“We didn’t miss a meal. Our Consumers never got cut off. We were never evicted,” Plair said. “It was just like, I knew my mom couldn’t pay for us, a single parent with four kids, we couldn’t live in a single-family home and afford it.”
As a teen, Plair always had a job. She was a forklift operator at a factory for a while, and an employee at the record store, Music Planet. Back then, she said there was a program that helped teenagers on welfare, like her, find summer jobs. But while she worked her summer jobs, she knew her career was elsewhere.
At 16 years old, Plair knew she wanted to become a police officer, but not because she admired them. It was because she hated them.
Plair’s mother always taught her to respect the police and treat them with kindness. Her mother told her that the police are the ones to save you. But Plair saw something different when she was a teenager.
“I would watch the Flint police come out there, and you could see it clear as day, they’d beat up people, mainly drug dealers,” Plair said. “I hated that. I hated the police for that.”
One day, Plair was outside watching an officer rough up someone in her neighborhood. After seeing this happen so many times her anger boiled up and out of her.
“I hate the police,” she finally said out loud, with an officer in earshot.
He turned around to look at her and made a proposition she hadn’t been expecting.
“If you don’t like what we’re doing, join us,” he said.
Plair looked him in the eyes and said, “I am.”
Seven years later, she did.
On her 23rd birthday on Nov. 16, 1993, Former Police Chief Clydell Duncan showed up at Plair’s door. In his hand he held an acceptance letter for Plair to join the Flint Police Department.
She could hardly believe it. Even though she told that officer years ago that she would do it, there was a part of her that doubted it would ever happen.
“I didn’t think I could be the police. I didn’t think I was smart enough, and I thought you had to come from a certain family background, economic background, or whatever to even be a cop.
That’s what I used to think,” Plair said.
But with Duncan’s help getting into the police academy, and her own hard work, Plair became an officer. As a community police officer, she found that she was able to be the kind of police she’d wanted to see when she was a teenager. She didn’t rough up the drug dealers or arrest the prostitutes. She policed with compassion and with real solutions, not quick fixes.
That was, until she couldn’t.
After driving through the city, past the police department, up Saginaw, all the way to the border with Mount Morris Township, Plair directed the tour back to the place she started her day: The Snack Shack in the plaza at 3473 Beecher Rd.
She opened the pizza place about three months after she left the police department, and says she couldn’t be happier. The department had changed a lot–too much–since she’d started.
First of all, it shrunk. Currently, the department only has around 100 officers. The city has been working to fill vacant positions for years as part of a plan to address violence in the city, but retirements are happening just as often as new hires.
While Mayor Sheldon Neeley and Police Chief Terence Green both have goals of implementing community policing again once they have enough officers, Plair watched it fade out of the department. After falling in love with community policing, Plair found herself working in the traffic bureau, the detective bureau, and in schools as a liaison.
She said she’d started to see more and more of the kinds of things she hated about the police when she was a teenager. She said it seemed the new hires were trained to fear their community rather than work with them.
“Things changed, you know, times change, generations change, thought processes change. And it was just very, very different by the time I got ready to leave,” Plair said. “I could have stayed there another 25 years … but I knew it was my time to go.”
She had been thinking about retiring for a year but never made any moves until Sept.19, 2019. She came into work at 7 a.m. but said it felt just “too eerie.” She was retired by noon, with no real plan for what to do next.
Without the police department, Plair began filling her time with her two kids, her two dogs, and her music. She’s played the drums since she was about seven years old, and eventually picked up piano, trumpet, saxophone, and bass guitar, but percussion is still her favorite. Now she’s in two bands: her gospel band Faith, and a nameless band that plays all genres of music.
She started playing music every weekend after she retired, doing shows, playing at church, and recording with other musicians. She loved playing music, but she needed more–she wanted to build something for herself. She wanted to open a business.
Plair bought a unit in the plaza on Beecher Road before even knowing what she was going to do with it.
She thought about opening a hair supply store, a regular convenience store, and a cell phone store, but ultimately landed on pizza after driving around the neighborhood, one mile in each direction, and realizing there weren’t any pizza places nearby. Everyone likes pizza, so she thought, why not?
“I never had an idea or thought of doing a pizzeria. I didn’t grow up, you know, like, like, oh, I’m going to do pizza when I grow up,” Plair said. “I got this building first, and in two weeks, I changed my mind maybe seven different times about what business I was going to open.”
On Jan. 3, 2020, the Snack Shack was born.
“I bought me some dough, I bought some sauce, I bought the equipment that was needed, and I played with my dry rub secret seasoning that I put in my marinara until it had a nice taste,” she said.
As the name implies, the Snack Shack has more than just pizza. They have salads, tacos, rice bowls, and snacks of all kinds–candy, ice cream, chips, chocolate.
Plair was the only business in the plaza when she first opened her restaurant. With the other empty units around her, she spent her days thinking about what else she could fill the place with.
“I would go in every one of these units every single day to try to see what else I could open,” Plair said.
The unit in the corner caught her attention. It was big–much bigger than the Snack Shack. She thought about turning it into a museum for music, police, or both, but ultimately decided on something else entirely. Just more than a year after opening the Snack Shack, Plair opened Flint Wall Street.
Flint Wall Street is an indoor market that is home to several booths where local entrepreneurs have set up shop to sell their goods and services. There’s Hair by Muva, 4Ever Jewels, Rep Your City, Crystal Clear Clothing, Lovely Lady Smoke Shop, and Pressed by Simone, among others.
The vendors sell baked goods, accessories, press-on nails, clothing, home goods, CBD products. All kinds of stuff. Some of the vendors have turned their booths into salons for hair and nails.
Donna Farley runs her business, L.Y.F.E. Fashions, out of a booth she’s decorated with gold and white glitter. It’s the one with the “bling, bling, bling,” she said.
Before finding a home in Flint Wall Street, Farley sold clothes at pop-up events here and there. She said her business has grown now that people know who she is and where she is consistently.
“Ms. Twanda was able to help the community grow and grow our businesses, and that’s awesome,” Farley said. “And she even goes above and beyond and helps us by bringing events, bringing customers in, marketing for us, advertising for us. … I mean, she could just be like anybody else, collect her money and go home and not care if we make a sale or not any given day. But she looks out for everybody.”
Plair has hosted a Halloween trunk-or-treat, a campaign party for a city council candidate, and multiple concerts at Flint Wall Street.
“And if we want to do anything in there to help ourselves, she’s always willing, and she helps us with whatever events we want to put on in there,” Farley said. “She’s always a part of it.”
That makes sense, given Plair says her goal with Flint Wall Street is to foster networking relationships for her community, and help people get their start in doing what they love.
“I know the struggles of opening up a business, so … I just had the vision to be able to help other people become entrepreneurs and get beyond the four walls of their home selling products,” Plair said.
Now, dozens of small businesses have nestled into the cubicles Plair created in the space. Farley said Plair helped many of the vendors move in and out, paint their walls, put up decorations, and worked with those who were making late payments.
One day Farley came into work, and when she arrived at her booth, she saw a pile of clothes sitting on her counter. Farley assumed Plair was asking her to sell those items for her.
“Did you need me to sell that?” Farley asked her.
“No, that’s yours,” Plair said. It was just a gift.
Farley recalled the Christmas dinner Plair hosted for all of the vendors and their families. She called it a “beautiful night,” but said Plair works to lift people’s spirits all the time. On any given day, you can find Plair roaming the building singing her “church songs,” and putting the vendors in a good mood, she said.
“And Sister Twanda, she can tear it up,” Farley said about her singing voice.
Between taking orders at the Snack Shack, and helping her vendors out at Flint Wall Street next door, Plair keeps busy.
“I’m more busy now than I was as an officer, but I’m really, really, really enjoying life, and I’m still working in the community,” Plair said. “Still, you know, building the bridge of partnership in the community. Not partnering with the police, but just partnering with each other. Businesses, neighbors, families coming together. … I just want to love.”
During the campaign party for Flint City Council candidate Claudia Perkins-Milton on Oct. 15, 2021, Plair might have sat still for all of two minutes. She greeted people walking in, ushered them into the different shops, pointed them in the direction of food, pulled tables and chairs together for people, hopped up to the stage to test the microphone and speaker system, and then ran back over to the Snack Shack to take someone’s order.
When she finished taking the order, she walked out of the pizza shop and sat on a bench outside between her two units. She pulled out a lighter and a Newport cigarette and lit up.
“So, what did you want to ask me about?” she asked, exhaling smoke.
Before the question could be answered, a woman inside of Flint Wallstreet opened the door and called out for her.
“Twanda! Can you come here? We need your help,” the woman yelled.
Plair’s phone began to ring, too. It was probably somebody calling to ask her for help on something else entirely. That happens a lot. In fact, Plair can never seem to speak—or smoke—for very long before someone calls to ask her for help of some kind. For 25 years it was her job to take calls like that and help solve people’s problems. She might have retired, but those calls haven’t stopped.
Without asking the woman what was wrong, Plair snuffed out her half-smoked Newport, said she’d be back, and headed into the party.