Editor's note: Five we're thankful for is a series of five articles profiling people who are doing good for our community. This is the first in the series. 

Dan Mertz maneuvers his SUV north through Memorial Park and stops alongside a man and woman walking hand-in-hand atop a bridge crossing Rapid Creek. The Rapid City police officer pops out of the driver’s seat and approaches them.

Mertz, casually dressed in blue jeans and a grey sweatshirt, isn’t looking, however, to question, detain, ticket or arrest anyone. He’s looking to help.

He is a member of the Rapid City Police Department’s Quality of Life Unit that was created in January with a $750,000 grant from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, a Virginia-based nonprofit organization. The department plans to expand the unit as more funds become available, but for now Mertz represents half of a two-man unit that keeps busy patrolling the downtown area and city parks.

He recognizes a familiar face, Sheri Good Voice Elk, when he sees the couple. Last he heard, she was taking business classes at Western Dakota Tech. As they talk, it becomes clear things have changed. Sheri was evicted from the Cornerstone Rescue Mission recently, and she's back on the streets. During the conversation with Mertz, her desire to get things sorted out so she can re-enroll next semester is palpable.

Mertz listens to her story intently, then makes a suggestion. He mentions he has some “pull” with the Department of Labor. Next week, maybe she could go with him to the department’s offices and see about getting a part-time job. Then, they could go to the Mission and see about getting her a bed. 

"Let's totally get you back into school," Martz said.

Sheri appears receptive. Mertz gives her his card and prods her to call him in a day or two. He’ll be looking for her next week when he’s patrolling if not, he says. He gives Sheri a hug, shakes the hand of the man accompanying her, and walks back to the SUV.

“She’ll be a success story, for sure,” said Mertz, settling back into the driver’s seat.

The street life, however, has a unique pull, he explained, even for those wishing to get out. For many, the homeless community represents their only family, drugs their only release, the transient lifestyle their only freedom.

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“We really don’t operate in the black and white,” he said of his unit. “It’s in the grey.”

Entering his ninth year with the Rapid City Police Department, Mertz is familiar with the city’s street life and its inhabitants. He encounters the same people — the chronically homeless and chronically intoxicated — almost every day. But rather than enter them into the criminal justice system for another circuitous turn, his job is to get them out for good.

“We recognized the revolving door that we were going thorough with people and we thought, ‘there’s got to be a better way,’” Mertz said last week from his office at Pennington County’s Care Campus in Rapid City. “When you’re doing the same thing over and over again and you’re not getting results that’s insanity. We need to take a step back and creatively look at the processes that we’re taking. We’re dealing with human beings here. Are we providing the best possible service that we can? We want to say 'yes.'"

The biggest difference between Mertz and a normal patrol officer isn’t just his plainclothes appearance or aversion to arrests. It’s time.

“A patrol officer does not have the time to sit down with somebody for 30 minutes or an hour and really peel back the layers of the onion to figure out what is really at the heart of their issues, which is what’s needed,” he said. “We really take a non-linear, humanistic approach to every individual that we’re working with because everybody is different. It goes back to that personal relationship and having deep, meaningful conversations with people to figure out where they’re at, where they see themselves going and kind of coming up with a plan as to what those next steps are for that individual.”

In Sheri's case, the next step is getting a job and a bed. The ultimate goal is getting her back into school. For another woman Mertz encounters, it’s getting her and her son a bus ticket to Pine Ridge Reservation so they can stay with family.

“I’m not handing them a business card and saying ‘good luck,’” he said. “I’m taking them up there and walking them through that process. We’re a direct link to a multitude of really awesome community resources that are doing tremendous things.”

Mertz said the big picture isn’t just stopping the “revolving door” or changing one life. It’s fundamentally changing the outlook of an entire family, including future generations. One at a time, it can begin to change a community’s entire trajectory.

“When somebody changes their life like that the ripple effect goes out forever,” he said. “It affects everybody they’re around. It affects themselves, their family, their kids. It affects how their kids grow up and then how they raise their own kids. That success really transcends.”

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Contact Samuel Blackstone at samuel.blackstone@rapidcityjournal.com and follow him on Twitter or Facebook @SDBlackstone.

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