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G-Sync: Hail to the Chief (of Police)

Does it really matter who becomes our next Grand Rapids Police Chief? Lifestyle Editor Tommy Allen goes undercover (and even into the GRPD's locker room) to speak with community leaders as he provides an in-depth report on why you should be concerned about who follows in retiring Chief Belk's shoes.
There are a few decisions that each of us will make in our lifetime that will impact us for better or worse. The obvious one is determining who you will be in this life and what will it take to get you there. Another is who will accompany or surround you on this journey of life. And another is who will be police chief in your community.

And yes, I am being serious because, while we elect our Mayors and City Commissioners every four years, the selection of a city's police chief is serious business because they stick around for a very long time.

As the city moves forward in its search process for a new police chief, it's asking for input in the form of a survey. My goal this week is to present the four questions (bolded below) from the survey, answer them, and then hopefully create a spark to encourage you to lend your voice.  

While I am the author of this editorial, my answers are based on my conversations with community leaders, friends, a couple of lawyers, a civil rights leader, and even a Grand Rapids police member, who not only shared a fascinating look into the culture of the force, but also agreed to speak with me only if I could grant him or her anonymity. I have thus granted anonymity to all to be fair.

What are the most important qualities that we need in a Police Chief?

The near universal response of those I spoke with felt that the next police chief must be up-to-date and current, possessing an understanding of contemporary culture and the times in which we live. We are an evolving city and so our police department head should understand the broad range of challenges we, as community members, are facing in our neighborhoods.

The next police chief arrives at a time in history where the added diversity of "the outsider" or "the other" brings more than just tales of adventures from around the world to our living rooms, work, pubs or parklands. Both lifelong residents and those of us who have relocated here or boomeranged back to the city bring a wealth of observations worthy of discussion, so we will need a chief willing to listen as well as share.

He or she should be armed with a proven record of advanced study and in-the-field policies that reflect a marriage between theory and execution.

The new police chief should have the quality of imagination that produces impactful and smart modern policing policies and a track record that goes beyond just how many "perps" he or she incarcerated or how crime rates declined. He or she should show an awareness that sometimes an overly aggressive policy can also potentially violate a resident or groups' civil rights and a sensitivity to times when that has happened in our history.

We are a keenly aware, sleeves-rolled-up-and-at-the-ready, caring group of citizens overall who have shown a willingness to contribute and collaborate, as illustrated with the most recent 58 percent win for the Decriminalize Grand Rapids campaign.  
This modern example of community dialogue around a contemporary issue within the civic arena is why the next chief is arriving at a great time to implement new policies in policing.  We have proven that we are ready for a leader who will collaborate with us. Does he possess this same willingness and track record?

What vision do you have for the Grand Rapids Police Department?  How should the new Police Chief lead the City in the direction of this vision?

Based on several conversations with multiple people, my vision for the new police chief is a person who values diversity, displays wisdom when balancing the needs of the majority with the rights of the minority, takes a proactive approach in addressing the root causes of violence, shows a willingness to embrace progressive, research-based programs, and empowers the entire force to foster civility and connections between different communities. No small task, but I think the right person for the job should aspire to lead in this direction.

Since we are a diverse group of people with a diverse set of experiences and opinions. one vital quality our next chief will need to have is to move us past the "if they don't apply, we cannot make them apply," answer when asked about diversity on the force, and to envision more at the table and more in the uniform who reflect the changing face of a Grand Rapidian.

The next chief will need to be committed to respecting the vote, but also posses the wisdom of King Solomon to clearly see when the rights of the minority might be trampled by the majority. We need this person to be wise because the modern police officer beat is truly in the land of the grey--and trust me: as I get older, the more I know, the less I am sure of what is absolute.

We have to have a leader who is able to move us beyond the logic that the police are here to react to crime, as he and his department encourage us to drill down as a community around those topics that need our collective insight and thoughts to address these root causes of some of our problems.  

Under a new leadership, the next generation of community members who are willing to participate can be engaged as a new task force to produce citizen-led policies, rooted in solutions and hopefully sourced from sound education and science to support our efforts.

We need a force who looks proactively with us for solutions that are more than just tossing people into prison, expanding a police state environment with more muscled steel trucks, or simply placing even greater numbers of cameras aimed at our citizens and visitors, whose privacy is eroding at a staggering pace each day.

Rather we should have a police force led by a chief who understands the power of new ideas that empower and change our community members like Cure Violence of Chicago. Addressing root causes moves us from reaction to proactive living, where we diffuse the spark before it ignites the violence.

Leading means listening to each other and modeling civility and respect-- traits often lost today. In fact, in our own city, a month-long gang fight involving guns recently broke out after a rival gang member's girl friend was mistakenly hit with a snowball by another gang member. A snowball!

Now, to most this is laughable until you realize the resources that were used to settle this matter. This incident, which wreaked havoc on a neighborhood, points to a lack of civility between members within our community -- a place in the mind where respect for another was tossed out the window, as was the obvious ability within that group of individuals to problem solve without a gun.

As our local society becomes more disengaged from one another and we lose our abilities to cope or feel connected to one another, we will see the pattern that has emerged over time again and again. For example, the growing income inequities combined with the loss of opportunities for our youth can begin to usher in a new culture where civility is replaced with a fight or flight mentality. Community needs go out the window when the mantra of "me, me, me" prevails.

The next police chief is going to have to be willing to encourage connection and civility in a whole new manner, and that should mean getting officers out of their "blue cocoons" and into community-based projects. You cannot connect to your community from inside the comfort of your cars; you must put feet to the sidewalk to know your beat best.

What should be the Police Chief's focus in the next five years?

When the next police chief arrives, Grand Rapids will be a place of true rapid growth (thus our name), and with such acceleration will come growing pains. So how can we lessen these flare-ups?

We need to start by encouraging and making available the programs that bring officers back to neighborhoods in our city via financial incentives from local programs  and organizations like HUD. It's going to be important that more GRPS officers begin to understand the role they play in a community and consider living within one fo the many city's many neighborhoods .

When I asked an officer about this, I got the standard reply I always seem to get: after working all day in the city, the GRPD officer sometimes wants to just get away from it all.

"That's bullshit," I said.

All of us are at some point a person of the city who must often work in it and react to it, but as we also know, we have become, for better or worse, a 24/7 world of work monitoring. We are all having stressful lives. I offered a few calming tips at this point to break the obvious tension, including the low cost of smoking a joint in the city limits. It did produce a nervous laughter on both of our parts.  

Sure, an officer in the neighborhood is just another neighbor who happens to be a cop--one of the many professions we have living at any place in the city--but by bringing the community closer to a police officer, we encourage more dialogue between all parties, forever altering all of us in the process. We need to remove this line of thinking that cops are somehow different than the rest of the population and reinsert them back via incentives to urban life. After all, the City Manager Greg Sundstrom lives within walking distance of me, but I never saunter over his way to bend his ear about a problem I have at City Hall. There are proper channels for this behavior and the people of the city get that point for the most part.

We also need to be a city committed not just to community policing – an item lacking here for some time – but we need a new approach to this much-talked-about strategy within neighborhoods all over the city. What we need is cooperative policing married to "it-takes-a-village" nurturing for a solution in our neighborhoods. Only then can we begin to streamline solutions around more than just "put your hands behind your backs."

In addition, we are one of the only police departments in the area that does not require a position be rotated, thus creating a stagnation for officers looking to move around within the force. Currently, an officer who lands in vice may be able to stay in this position for as long as s/he likes. Other similar-sized police departments around the county for the most part do not allow this lack of rotation. To allow a person to move about more freely gives people greater opportunities to excel in their field.  

This lack of movement has created stagnation at GRPD and has resulted in a very low morale from the younger officers who hope to advance but have little hope of ever doing so. We run the risk of losing talent that could make a positive impact on our region to another place as a result.

We also need to envision a GRPD that never loses sight of the human in the process and begin to provide more than the present "three hots and a cot," with the victim and the victimizer never having a chance to heal or move on. Of course there are those non-negotiables like murder and rape, but apart from these crimes, we have an opportunity to really make Grand Rapids shine in the area of restorative justice--a very hot policy taking hold in other communities.

Additional Comments?

At the end of the survey, they ask for additional comments, and here I offer a few interesting points to consider.

The first is a three-point response from the GRPD officer as to what are the three most-discussed items around the new police chief in the locker room --a place accessible to and used by nearly everyone from the entry level officer to the captains. "We need a police chief who will increase the force's morale by cultivating an environment where a sense of worth and new ideas can take hold. Secondly, we need to address the legacy position piece that is creating unnecessary roadblocks for members of the force. And finally, remember that we need to keep engaging both within our culture and out within the public (and out of our cars) when at all possible. Here in this space we can create greater dialogue with the public."

In keeping with my mission to look within and out of our area, I reached out to Radley Balko, author of Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces, who added that while advocating for greater connections to our community is vital in a police chief, also said, "I'd beware of war rhetoric (crime, drugs, etc.), or someone who talks frequently about officer safety and how dangerous policing is. I'd also ask his or her philosophy on transparency, accountability, and appropriate use of force."

(Hint to interviewers at City Hall: According to Balko, a good answer on the latter would stress that cops should always use the least amount of force possible to resolve the problem.)

And the last point is solely my own.

We as a community owe a huge debt of our modern evolution to the power of design. Not just in how we fashion a chair or draft exciting opportunities within the entrepreneurial sector that lead to change, not in how we create art or the events they often inspire, not in the food we grow and serve, and not even in the beer we have managed to brew to the world's delight.

Now we need to make sure that the same design thinking so prevalent in West Michigan is able to flow into other areas of our society, including our police department. As many of us know from our diverse life, even as the law is often black and white, there surely is plenty of grey too. It is by designing solutions within the grey that Grand Rapids' new police chief will chart the way for us to evolve as a community.

I encourage you to take the survey before March 7. We are designed to be great and by adding your voice to the process, you will have made a vital contribution to making our city a place truly Grand.

The Future Needs All of Us

Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor

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