"The officers pointed guns at the kids while one cried hysterically and another begged, “Don’t shoot me.” After five unarmed African American boys were stopped at gunpoint by police, Well House Executive Director and community leader Tami VandenBerg takes a look at what the community can do, and what other cities have done, to address police procedure and community engagement with the local police force.
This op-ed is part of Rapid Growth's Rapid Blog series, which highlights the voices of leaders making positive change in Grand Rapids. This week's post comes from Tami VandenBerg, who owns The Meanwhile Bar on Wealthy Street and The Pyramid Scheme Bar in Heartside with her brother, Jeff VandenBerg. She is also Director of Well House, a nonprofit organization that uses the Housing First Model to move people out of homelessness and into permanent housing. Tami served on Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell's Gun Policy Task Force from 2013 to 2014. She lives in the city's Eastown neighborhood with her family.
I recently watched the video of Grand Rapids police officers detaining five young boys at gunpoint on March 23. A community member had contacted the Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD) stating he saw a gun in the possession of some young boys. The five boys detained at gunpoint did not have a gun. The video has now been seen and shared around the country.
My daughter is 11 years old, almost the same age of the kids in the video, who are 12 to 14 years old. The officers pointed guns at the kids while one cried hysterically and another begged, “Don’t shoot me.” Watching those terrified kids was excruciating. Listening to the parents when they arrived on the scene was brutal. One of the boys explains to his mother that he didn’t do anything wrong. His mother tries to explain to him that it didn’t matter if he did anything wrong: he could still get hurt; that this is why she rarely lets him leave the house.
Grand Rapids Police Chief David Rahinsky stated that protocol was followed. The officers in the video explain these kids were “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Citizens flooded the next City Commission meeting demanding an apology and telling their own stories about police interactions.
“Aggressive Policing and the Mental Health of Young Urban Men,” a research study published in 2014 in the “American Journal of Public Health” found that urban men ages 18 to 26 in New York City “who reported more police contact also reported more trauma and anxiety symptoms, associations tied to how many stops they reported, the intrusiveness of the encounters, and their perceptions of fairness.”
We often hear about how Black and Latinx communities are reluctant to contact the police, communicate with the police, or testify in court. How will the kids in the video interact with law enforcement as they grow up? It seems completely reasonable that they will now be reluctant to engage with the police. Will they once again be seen accidentally as suspects? Will they be in the “wrong place at the wrong time” again?
On April 18, Lamberth Consulting released the findings of their Grand Rapids Traffic Stop Study. The study found that in 2013 to 2014, black motorists were 1.85 times more likely to be stopped than expected – a ratio that climbed to twice as likely in 2015. Black drivers were no more likely to be carrying contraband when searched than non-black motorists. Hispanic motorists experienced a disparity in certain areas of the city as well.
An American Civil Liberties Union’s report, “The War on Marijuana in Black and White: Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests," found that black individuals in Kent County were 7.5 times more likely than white individuals to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite nationwide figures that show use rates to be roughly the same.
The findings, which examined marijuana arrests by counties and states, show that the disparity has worsened over the last decade. For example, in 2001, black individuals in Kent County were 1.4 times more likely than white individuals to be arrested for marijuana possession. By 2010, the disparity had grown to 7.5 times, a 426-percent increase, the ACLU report said.
Our Black and Latinx neighbors have been telling us this for many years – that they feel they are disproportionately targeted by police. Now we have research and data to support their claims. It is critical the city continues to collect this data and take action to eliminate all racialized outcomes.
Is this the city we want? Is this how we have decided to live as a community? Do our protocols make us safer?
If one of the kids in the video was my child, I would want answers. I would want an explanation. I would want an apology, and I would want to do everything I could to prevent another child from experiencing that trauma.
Where do we go from here? Trauma is occurring. Racism is real. There are many good police officers who are performing a very tough job. We have protocols and policies that are causing harm to community and police relationships. A policy of de-escalation is needed. Trust needs to be built.
The Los Angeles Police Commission just voted to formally incorporate a policy of de-escalation. The policy tells officers that they must try to de-escalate a situation by taking more time to let it unfold and calling in other resources. The Seattle Police Department requires officers to try and de-escalate by verbally calming people down or calling in a mental health unit. Santa Monica has rules telling officers to slow down and reduce the intensity or stabilize the situation.
Policies and protocols can and must be changed. In 2012, community members, including myself, fought for a ballot proposal to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. The proposal passed by 58 percent of the vote.
In October 2013, MLive reported that, “according to the Grand Rapids Police Department, between May 2012 and May 2013, the year before the charter amendment took effect, the department forwarded 1,191 misdemeanor cases of marijuana use and possession to the Kent County prosecutor.
In the year since the amendment took effect, between May 2013 and May 2014, the department has handed out 1,086 municipal infraction tickets for possession or use, and forwarded another 109 cases to the prosecutor because the possession was found during the investigation of another crime.”
We must have goals and metrics to judge ourselves by. We need to address the trauma on all sides. We need police data to be public, and we need to regularly gauge community satisfaction with police along with all city services. Accountability is essential.
In 2015, Well House partnered with several community organizations, including the Grand Rapids Red Project, to bring in Major Neill Franklin, a 34-year veteran law-enforcement officer from Baltimore and Executive Director of Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a nonprofit. I spoke with Major Franklin about what we measure. He felt communities should focus on measuring/solving/preventing violent crimes, and on community satisfaction with the police. He advocates the “Peelian principles” of policing. The fifth principle is interesting to consider:
“[Police Officers should] seek and preserve public favour, not by pandering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws, by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing, by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humour, and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.”Grand Rapids is filled with smart, engaged, committed people who care about each other. We must make changes so we can all be safer.