Safe space: Grand Rapids Police Department, community work to reform law enforcement

What is needed to make residents of color feel safe in Grand Rapids? The answer is complicated, but the conversation surrounding it is one that community leaders and residents across the city agree must persist until, finally, every single person can say they feel secure in our community.
One by one, they – the young and the old, the Grand Rapidians who have lived here for decades, the spiritual and the community leaders – step up to the microphone to speak of race and police and violence and guns and history. To shed tears. To call for change and speak of that big, daunting, amorphous thing called the future. There, at Grand Rapids' LifeQuest Ministries, they speak of fears and anger and an unrelenting sadness. Days after police shot and killed Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and one day after a man shot and killed five police officers in Dallas, Texas, they together paint a portrait of what many in our city, and country, are feeling: hopeless, afraid, overwhelmed, frayed, wondering if change will come – and if it does, how, and when, that will happen.

“I feel angry; I feel frustrated; I feel tired,” Hope Reformed Church Pastor Deborah McCreary says at the July 8 “Shalom for the City Shalom for the Nation” community discussion and prayer vigil, which was hosted by the Grand Rapids Association of Pastors at LifeQuest.

As photos of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown – all black men killed by police – flash on a screen above the audience, those at the vigil have a conversation that is being held across the city, state and country: How do we stop this violence from happening again?

It’s a question deeply complicated by history, race relations and socio-economic systems that have consistently, and aggressively, failed people of color – and the answer is, by no means, a uniform one. But, no matter how fraught with tension, frustration and anger, it is a discussion that, as many of those at the community dialogue, and at recent events throughout Grand Rapids, stress, must persist until, finally, every single person in this country can say they feel safe in any space, from their home to their car to the sidewalk.

Joe Jones“Until we begin to operate from a point of seeing each other as fully human, these things will continue,” Grand Rapids Urban League President and City Commissioner Joe Jones says at the LifeQuest Ministries vigil.

“For nearly 400 years, there are people with a different hue who have not been seen as fully human in this country,” Jones continues. “...We have to act with a sense of urgency.”

Former Kent County Commissioner Paul Mayhue, a long-time Grand Rapids resident, too stresses this, saying there must be discussion not only of the country’s historical failings when it comes to communities of color, but of Grand Rapids’ and West Michigan’s as well, including addressing past incidents of police violence and tackling crime through the lenses of economic and social injustices in the city, such as gentrification.

“If we don’t look back at how our history brought us here today, we’ll miss pieces of how to fix it,” Mayhue says at the vigil. “... But we can do that. We have a history in this community of working together.”

But, what, exactly, does fixing our city look like? And how do we get there? From the Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD) and the Grand Rapids Association of Pastors to the local Black Lives Matter chapter, Partners for a Racism-Free Society and Black Women Connect GR, among many others, Grand Rapidians and West Michiganders are confronting and addressing how racism, bias and injustice impact the safety of people, and communities, of color. These are messy dialogues in which it is inevitable that people won’t always see eye to eye, but, importantly, they are being had on every level in our area, from police and government meetings to community forums in churches, libraries and such public spaces as Rosa Parks Circle.

Race and police: a brief historical perspective

To understand what is happening nationally today with police and communities of color, it’s imperative to discuss the history of race and law enforcement.

At a forum on race and policing, which was sponsored by Black Women Connect GR at the Yankee Clipper Branch of the Grand Rapids Public Library last Wednesday, July 13, Dr. Louis Moore, an associate professor of African American History at Grand Valley State University, notes that “the black body in America has always been policed,” from the enslavement of the first Africans to reside in the United States (in addition to the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of Africans who were forced to come to the U.S., Southern slave patrols were formed to ensure that black individuals would not escape, and many of these patrols went on to become police departments in southern states) to the arrests of black Americans in order to fill a need for cheap labor, which black Americans provided, and continue to provide, in U.S. prisons to former laws mandating that a certain number of black individuals couldn’t occupy the same space or own firearms, among extensive other racist legislation.

Throughout the history of the U.S., Moore explains, there has been repeated violence committed against black Americans, which police either turned a blind eye to, or perpetrated themselves. For example, while anti-lynching legislation was passed by the U.S. Congress in the 1870s, there were few enforcement efforts and thousands of black Americans were lynched in the following decades. Additionally, after black men receive the right to vote following the ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868, violent acts committed against former slaves skyrocketed, and black Americans who, after attempting to leave ghettos into which they were forced following the Great Migrations during World War I and World War II (when, prompted by dismal economic conditions and racism, many black Americans left the south for the northern U.S.), were violently attacked, including the homes in which they attempted to live in predominantly white areas being firebombed. Again, those perpetrating these crimes were rarely held accountable.

“We’ve never really done anything about policing black bodies,” Moore says. “What we see today hasn’t changed in a very long time.”

A police officer speaks with a woman while on a call.In Grand Rapids, as in cities across the country, the relationship between communities of color and law enforcement has been a deeply problematic one, with black residents long facing racism in such institutions as housing (landlords would frequently force black residents to reside in run-down structures, as author Todd Robinson writes in his book, “A City Within A City: The Black Freedom Struggle in Grand Rapids, Michigan), employment, restaurants, education, and more. But, again, black residents found little support for addressing these issues through formal law enforcement or legal systems. Black residents also witnessed support from law enforcement for racist organizations, such as the KKK, which held a procession in downtown Grand Rapids on July 4, 1925, Robinson writes.

“Local law enforcement permitted public displays of white supremacy, and state laws and city ordinances placed minimal restrictions on KKK parade demonstrations,” Robinson writes in “A City Within A City." “Even though a Klansman had set off three bombs just months prior in Traverse City, Michigan, city officials in Grand Rapids maintained they lacked authority to stop the impending rally.”

The distrust that ensued among people of color continues to resonate in West Michigan, with panelists at last Wednesday’s forum noting that their parents gave them, and they’ve given their children, what is known as “The Talk,” a plan that essentially lays out what youth, and adults, of color need to do during police interactions to remain alive, as well as how to avoid police in general.

“For the past 30 years, it’s been a life’s mission to keep my children safe,” Tamika Henry, an educator in the Allendale Public Schools, one of the three panelists at last Wednesday's forum.

“When you live at that heightened level of stress, it’s really unhealthy,” Henry continues, referring to the constant stress parents will feel regarding children of color being pulled over by, or otherwise encountering, police, something which numerous speakers at recent forums around the city have stressed.

Chris Sain, Jr., an educator, community activist and coordinator of retention at Grand Rapids Community College, as well as the vice president of the NAACP’s Grand Rapids chapter, notes at the same forum that, while progress is occurring with local police, including in Grand Rapids, Kentwood and Kent County, he, as an individual of color, has “been harassed and profiled” by law enforcement.

“I can’t drive through East Grand Rapids with my music turned up” without getting pulled over,” Sain says. “That said, I work alongside police officers; I can tell you firsthand many want to get it right.”

This idea, that officers want to right the wrongs of the past is something that, particularly in recent days, has been echoed in Grand Rapids, with some community leaders of color stressing the city’s police culture is changing, and they believe the police chief, and his officers, are intentionally reforming the department in order to create lasting positive relationships with residents and communities of color. (This, however, is not a view shared by everyone, which we will discuss further in the article.)

How the Grand Rapids Police Department is strengthening community relations

Almost immediately after GRPD Chief David Rahinsky took his position at the helm of the department in July of 2014, Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, was fatally shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, prompting vigorous national debate regarding long-standing and deeply rooted problems with police and communities of color, as well as widespread protests across the country.

GRPD Chief David Rahinsky“What happened in Ferguson made us very introspective,” Rahinsky says. “You ask yourself, ‘If we were faced with an officer-involved shooting, could you say you did everything you could to build community relationships?”

And, more than that, Rahinsky, a 28-year veteran of law enforcement who has worked in such cities as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, says it’s imperative that the 400-person GRPD strive to not only never have a police-involved shooting, but to strengthen relationships and build trust with residents throughout the city, including with communities of color.

“What the community wants should be driving our priorities,” Rahinsky says.

To begin tackling these relationships, the chief, other police department employees, City Commissioners and other area leaders met with residents and community groups throughout Grand Rapids. From these meetings, police and city leaders crafted a 12-point plan, which began to be implemented in January 2015 and which includes outfitting all sworn officers with body cameras, implementing protocols for the use of body cameras, the establishment of a citizen’s committee to oversee the remodeling of the department’s hiring practices in an effort to encourage more diversity, a reorganization of the GRPD to create additional opportunities for the police chief and captains to regularly engage with residents, providing mandatory cultural competence training and implicit bias training for all officers, analyzing racial disparities of arrests of people of color by hiring a consultant to conduct an independent study of GRPD data, and hiring another consultant to conduct a race-based review of traffic stops.

So far, officers have been receptive to the reforms, Rahinsky says.

GRPD body cameras.“They were quick to embrace the cameras,” he says. “And the implicit bias training is going very well. We’re approaching it from a cultural competency perspective. They’ve embraced the training; the officers don’t see it as a personal critique.

“You really step outside your own skin and see things differently,” the chief continues. “It brings out biases that are so ingrained institutionally that you may not even know you have them.”

As for the need to address diversity in the police department? It clearly exists, and the chief won’t shy away from admitting that. “[The force’s racial makeup] is not as reflective [of the community] as I’d like it to be,” Rahinsky says of a department where, of the 290 sworn police (the chief, deputy police chief, captains, lieutenants, sergeants and officers), there are 225 white males, 29 white females, 12 African American men, 10 Hispanic men, two Hispanic women, five Native American men, six Asian males, and one Asian female. The highest ranking person of color in the GRPD is a police captain; there is one African American police captain out of six total captains. This translates to white men representing 78 percent of the GRPD's sworn officers, white women 10 percent, African American men four percent, Hispanic males three percent, Hispanic females one percent, Native American men two percent, and Asian American males two percent.

While police were unable to provide current statistics regarding the racial breakdown of arrests in Grand Rapids, it’s something Rahinsky says he welcomes outside assessment of, saying that “there’s no doubt we arrest a greater number of minorities.” As part of the conversation regarding people of color being arrested, the chief stresses that, in addition to addressing police bias, there needs to be more economic and job opportunities for people of color, which he says would help to significantly change the GRPD’s arrest statistics.

“The lack of economic opportunities, job opportunities, the police arrest numbers reflect that,” he says.

The arrests of people of color in Grand Rapids has led to criticism from the ACLU of Michigan, which has a pending lawsuit, filed in 2013, one year prior to Rahinsky becoming chief, against the city regarding GRPD arrests.

According to the ACLU, the GRPD decades ago introduced a practice that “relies on the use of generalized ‘No Trespass Letters’ to justify arrests for criminal trespassing on commercial property. But more to the point, the policy gives police in Michigan’s second-largest city an excuse to stop and search people immediately based on nothing more than a gut reaction to the way someone looks or acts — without bothering to determine whether the person is actually trespassing.”

Essentially, what the ACLU says happens is officers will solicit business owners in “high crime” areas and ask them to sign what’s known as a “No Trespass Letter,” which states they don’t want unauthorized people on their property. This signed letter then allows officers to stop and arrest individuals at the business, including while the business is open, which the ACLU says has led to racist results. Between 2011 and 2013, the GRPD either cited or arrested approximately 560 people for trespassing on business property, and, in a city in which black people make up about 20 percent of the population, 59 percent of those detained for trespassing were black.

“Perhaps even more telling is the fact that African-Americans are more than twice as likely as whites to be arrested, rather than simply ticketed, when the police bring charges for trespassing on the property of an open business in Grand Rapids,” the ACLU says.

Community leaders too have criticized the GRPD’s statistics when it comes to the department’s racial makeup and arrest statistics.

“We need the deployment of people who look like the neighborhood they serve,” says Rev. Jerry Bishop, the pastor at LifeQuest Ministries, who frequently works with the community and police regarding policing issues.

“Very few GRPD live in the areas of greatest need,” Bishop continues. “Many officers’ attitudes would be adjusted if they understood what people go through.” Continuing, the pastor asks “how many petty arrests would be reduced” if officers had a deeper, more nuanced understanding of residents’ lives.

Patrol officers keep detailed records on citizen interactions as part of reforms.“We need compassion,” Bishop says. “It’s hard to police from a car; we need people getting out of their car.” The pastor goes on to stress that he’s “not anti-police; I'm anti-abuse. We have a great chief of police in Grand Rapids.”

Stressing that the GRPD trains officers to get out of their car and interact with neighbors in their geographical beat, Rahinsky notes that, “no one signs up to be a police officer to drive around with their windows up all day.

“They want to make a difference in the community,” he says.

Out of the car and into the community: Riding along with the GRPD

Officer Ryan Manser, with whom Rapid Growth went on a ride-along in southeast Grand Rapids last week, backs the chief’s statements, with the lifelong Grand Rapidian who now lives on the city’s southeast side saying strong relations with the community are crucial.

“It’s not an us vs. them mentality; if you fall into that, it won’t get any better,” says Manser, who has served in the GRPD for three years, as he drives around the Baxter neighborhood.

To build relations, Manser, who works his regular 12-hour shifts from about 5pm to 5am, says he’ll frequently leave his car in the evening to play baseball with kids in the spots like Martin Luther King Jr. Park or chat with neighbors about everything from family to concerns in the area.

“Even five or 10 minutes of interaction shows you care,” Manser says. “You’re bound to get so much more cooperation when you build relationships.”

And while there’s plenty of skeptical glances as Manser drives the GRPD SUV around the neighborhoods, he frequently gets people shouting greetings and issuing friendly waves. When he stops to take a report of an individual driving off after running into a parked car near Oakdale Gardens Park, neighbors tell us that they, for the most part, appreciate the police.

“You want the police here when something bad happens; we don’t hate the police,” one neighbor, who asked to remain nameless, says. “The police are important; it’s an important job. I have family who are police. You just want to make sure the police are being respectful. You want officers to get out and know people, get out and know the black people who live here. Get to know us; we’re not scary.”

Beyond the 12-point plan

Further, Rahinsky, who was recently invited to discuss the GRPD’s community relations work during a White House 21st Century Policing Briefing, notes police are attempting to strengthen relationships with youth in the community by continuing its longstanding relationship with the Boy and Girls Club of Grand Rapids, including facilitating programs involving sports teams, mentoring, and field trips, as well as offering “On Base with GRPD,” a two-year-old baseball program that partners about 50 underserved youth, ages 10 to 12, with officers, who do everything from mentor them to teach them to play baseball. As part of that program, the chief notes that the officers will soon be taking the 50 kids to their first Detroit baseball game, an effort that allows law enforcement officials to build relationships with children outside of a punitive context. There are also a myriad other police programs that aim to support youth and grow the relationship between the GRPD and the city's younger residents.

All of these efforts, Rahinsky says, are working to bridge gaps that have existed between the community and police, with the chief saying that the gap is closing locally. “There’s an interesting paradigm," he says. "People recognize problems nationally, but they appreciate what’s happening in Grand Rapids.”

And, according to information shared at the White House conference, what’s happening in Grand Rapids is more progressive than many other places around the country, Rahinsky notes.

“What I heard [at the conference] were things we’re already doing: cameras, traffic stop data, and so on,” he says. “I came back saying, ‘We’re on the right path.’”

Particularly after the shooting and killing of five police officers, and the wounding of nine others, in Dallas (and now the shooting and killing of three police officers and the wounding of three others in Baton Rouge), the GRPD chief says the community has been particularly vocal about its support.

“I’ve been very encouraged by the number of people coming up to us, saying, 'the GRPD  is doing a great job,’” Rahinsky says.

Still, officers are, in the wake of the shootings of police, feeling “vulnerable and underappreciated,” according to the chief, and he’s hoping people will increasingly reach out to officers.

“Something as small as a smile and nod can really make a big difference,” Rahinsky says. “Our officers don’t need parades; they just need people to say thank you and give a nod of appreciation.”

“I can’t remember a time more tenuous than it seems now,” the chief continues. “It seems we’re all holding our breath, waiting to see what happens. The last thing an officer wants to do is be involved in a shooting, take somebody’s life.”

Black Lives Matter: Community actions focus on police and justice in GR

To protest and process the police shootings in Minnesota and Louisiana, as well as to shed light on racial profiling, discrimination, harassment, and more, there have been a number of community events, including a Black Lives Matter GR healing space offered last week for people of color struggling with a culture of violence and a protest at Rosa Parks Circle on Saturday.

Protests at Rosa Parks Circle. Organized by four high school students, Je'na Mason, Eugene Brown, Desiree Taggert, and Danielle McMillon, who have gone on to found a group called 4Unity, Saturday’s “Am I Next” protest at Rosa Parks drew hundreds of people to the public space downtown and featured such speakers as the organizers, representatives from the ACLU and Chief Rahinsky. The decision to allow the chief to speak drew criticism from Black Lives Matter GR, which issued a statement explaining why the group was not supporting the event, in light of the police’s involvement. Black Lives Matter members attended the rally, but did so with signs that included the names of local police brutality cases, including Jolly Jackson and Donovan Braswell, as well as other criticisms of the GRPD and police in general.

The organizers stress that their decision to ask the chief to speak was an effort to bring together law enforcement and community members to work towards better relations between the GRPD and the community.

“We are tired too, and we want police brutality to end,” McMillon says at the protest.

But for community leaders like Breannah Alexander, of the Grand Rapids-based Partners for a Racism-Free Community, and Briana Urena-Ravelo, of Black Lives Matter GR, it’s crucial that space, and dialogue, is given for people to be able to criticize those in power, including the police, and discuss the history, present and future of policing in the city. And, Alexander stresses, that doesn’t mean that community activists aren’t supporting the teenagers who poured their time and effort into creating Saturday’s protest; it just means that these issues are complicated, which translates to what can often be messy dialogue. But, she notes, that’s what real dialogue that results in actual change will inevitably be: it can be difficult; it can be awkward; it can be charged; it can be frustrating. All of this, however, doesn’t mean that people are failing in their discussion; it means silence is being broken and change is, at the very least, being contemplated.

The future of police and the community in Grand Rapids

As oft stated in this article, there is a nearly constant dialogue happening regarding policing in Grand Rapids these days, including what shape it will take in the city's future.

Alexander, for example, who studied criminal justice at Grand Valley State University, says she would like to see more of a response from the police in regards to community ideas, citing the city’s recent decision to allocate hundreds of thousands of dollars to purchase semi-automatic rifles for police cars, despite serious misgivings from the community. Additionally, she notes that dialogue around racial profiling, harassment and other police misconduct is crucial.

“How do you listen to people who were negatively affected, not just the people who say police are good people?” Alexander asks. “Because, in the end, the conversation isn’t about if police are bad, but how to hold people accountable while keeping people safe.”

She also stresses that a lack of national policing standards leads to serious accountability issues, in West Michigan and across the country.

“When you talk about issues of police brutality, it’s an issue of a system that educates people to be semi-militarized in local spaces, and you have people coming out of communities with fragmented ideas of populations they’ve never interacted with,” Alexander says. “When you marry those together, you get a recipe for disaster.

“There aren’t training, hiring standards across the board in the policing world,” she continues. “You can go from Grand Rapids PD to the Lansing Police Department and get different standards because there are not streamlined police standards. That’s where issues of accountability become problematic.”

While having these conversations around police brutality, it’s simultaneously important for community members to remember the humanity of police officers, Alexander stresses.

“To me, the simplest thing I’d like people to hold onto is police are people,” she says. “They are not exempt from elements of social learning that complicate every space on earth, and the moment we remove the humanity of police officers, we make that a counterproductive conversation.”

Urena-Ravelo, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter GR, too emphasizes the need for dialogue regarding police violence, particularly that which happens in West Michigan, and, as part of that conversation, she says Black Lives Matter GR will be becoming increasingly active in the community.

“We want to provide education on what the institution of policing does to a community,” Urena-Ravelo says. “The police like to say, ‘We haven’t had an incident of someone getting shot and killed unjustly by police.’ But, we have incidents of people getting harassed by police and disproportionate policing.

“We’re trying to connect the dots and show there are certain neighborhoods that are overpoliced, and that’s part of a larger system of inequality,” Urena-Ravelo continues. “We want to avoid becoming the next Ferguson.”

Two of the root causes of overpolicing, Urena-Ravelo notes, are lack of economic and educational opportunities. If those begin to be addressed and “if we can create strong communities that can create alternatives to police, you’ll see communities that are policed way less.”

What are these alternatives to policing?

“A big thing I’m about is relationship building” Urena-Ravelo says. “Get to know your neighbors. Look for alternatives to calling police. Find people who are trained to respond to mental health issues, domestic violence issues. Find a solution by getting to know your neighbors and know what resources are in your community.”

Getting involved

If you’re interested in learning more about policing in the area, you can attend the “Solutions Summit: Community Informed Policing” from 9am-1pm on Saturday, July 30 at Cooley Law School.

Partners for a Racism-Free Community is partnering with WGVU Public Media and the Western Michigan University Cooley Law School to host the summit that’s focused on community policing.

“The event is meant to create space for community members to share concerns and construct solutions,” according to the event’s Facebook page. “We believe that sustainable actions are ones that originate from the communities it is meant to address – a belief that fuels the idea behind our solutions summit.”

Panelists at the summit include Williamson N. Wallace, the director of criminal justice training at Grand Valley State University, Mariano Avila of WGVU Public Media, and a representative from the community police relations council. The event is free and open to the public.

It is these conversations, Alexander, of Partners for a Racism-Free Society, stresses will hopefully bring change to the city, state and country.

“In the end, the only way you can truly have a conversation is to create spaces where the primary goal is listening and elevating marginalized voices in those spaces,” she says. “The next step is sit with what you’ve heard and think about ways that this individual’s pain and suffering doesn’t go unnoticed and unaddressed, and develop solutions that way.”
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