ACLU panel reinforces that addressing police- community relations must be continual work

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Panelists for an ACLU-sponsored discussion “Is Grand Rapids the Next Ferguson: A Conversation on Police Practices” were, left to right, Rev. Jerry Bishop, Founder/
Pastor, LifeQuest urban ministry for young men; Patrick Miles, Jr., U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan; Darel Ross II, Co-Executive Director, LINC Community Revitalizion; and David M. Rahinsky, Grand Rapids Chief of Police, with moderator Mark Fancher from ACLU of Michigan.

legal news photo  by cynthia price

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

In the course of last Thursday’s panel discussion entitled, “Is Grand Rapids the Next Ferguson: A Conversation on Police Practices,” it became clear that there are a lot of people who have cared and continue to care about police-community relations.

In addition to the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, co-sponsors included Grand Rapids Community Media Center/Wealthy Theatre/The Rapidian, the Grand Rapids Urban League, LINC Community Revitali-zation, and the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance.

“The ACLU of Michigan puts on events such as this to help bring awareness and foster positive discussion,” said Mitch Min Chol Dennison, President - Board of Directors, ACLU of Michigan Western Branch. “We had a fantastic turnout for this important discussion. I was extremely pleased at the level of participation. The ACLU is a member driven organization and without our members we would not be nearly as successful in our ongoing endeavors to fight for our civil liberties.”

Added ACLU of Michigan Executive Director Kary Moss, “The event gave us a much-needed opportunity to allow communities to hear from one another and to be heard from as well. It’s critical that everyone be allowed to participate in such dialogue, as open lines of communication are our best chance at establishing trust and fostering accountability. We look forward to building on the success of this event as we seek to cultivate stronger ties between law enforcement and the communities they’re expected to protect and serve.”

Savvy and engaged panelists responded to questions about the role of police in communities, particularly communities of color; progress on recent recommendations; and what else might be done to make Grand Rapids a national leader.

Prior to settling into his moderator role, ACLU of Michigan Racial Justice Attorney Mark Fancher laid out his viewpoint on the historical origins of the continued friction. Fancher said about the times of legal slavery in the U.S., “In reality, this was a state of war between enslaved Africans and plantation owners, where slaves would cut off Massa’s head if they could. Because of this it became necessary to begin slave patrols; as an American it became your civic duty to go and track down runaways. The statutes enshrined functioned essentially to make all non-slaves act as deputies, and  with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, even free Africans when they walked the streets in Boston or other cities had to always be on the lookout for slave patrols. Even if they had credentials they were sometimes snatched up. This is the tradition that we had – the police department rose out of that tradition.”

Noting that at the same time, “I rarely meet a police officer that I don’t respect to the utmost,” Fancher contended that regardless of the good character or mental health of the officer, he or she comes into an institution which makes certain negative assumptions about African-Americans — primarily that they are inherently criminal and immediate threats.

As moderator, Fancher first asked Grand Rapids Police Chief David Rahinsky to speak. “I think we’re in a pivotal time in this country,” Rahinsky said. “Instead of looking back I think we need to look forward. And I don’t mean ignore what’s happened, not at all, I mean learn from it and move forward.

“In the last 12 months GRPD has enacted more changes and had more dialogue than any other department in the country I know of.”

Rahinsky noted that the GRPD has installed body cameras (which helps with police accountability through direct recording) as a result of community requests, including working with the ACLU to draft policy that protects citizens’ rights; changed its officer-involved-in-shooting protocols with an outside agency review; brought in outside experts to teach implicit bias throughout the department; and is looking at its traffic stop procedure.

Darel Ross, the Co-Executive Director of LINC, commented, “When LINC organized Operation Body Cam it wasn’t received in a positive light, but I think we’ve come a long way in transparency and increased the trust relationships between the community and police. They recently offered to give us their policy on drones to review, for example. So I think we have moved forward, to the credit of GRPD, but there is so much work still to be done.”

Pastor Jerry Bishop of LifeQuest Group, which is a ministry for urban young men, said, “Although I believe that we live in a world class community, we’re also a very reactionary community. In almost every capacity, in prevention we are light years behind similar cities with lower crime rates.”

One of Bishop’s complaints was that there is underreporting of less major offenses that may lead to complacency based on “a decrease in crime.”

In a report Bishop referenced, the City of Grand Rapids SAFE (Safe Alliances For Everyone) Task Force “Anti-Violence Strategy,” Mayor George Heartwell states, “While Category I crime statistics are at historical lows in Grand Rapids, this is, arguably, the best time to implement creative new approaches to reducing violence... we have the time to think creatively and try approaches we haven’t used before.”

Mayor Heartwell set up the task force, chaired by Commissioner Senita Lenear, in May 2014, before the August 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., at the hands of police  officers. However, the report, which has 51 recommendations, did not come out until after the Ferguson incident and others, including the death of Eric Garner in New York, had created a furor.

The report is available at http://grcity.us/Pages/SAFE-Task-Force-submits-recommendations-to-reduce-violence.aspx by clicking at the bottom.
One of the report’s recommendations, which Bishop heartily supports, is the installation of ShotSpotter, a comprehensive monitoring system that uses sophisticated technology to identify locations where guns are fired.

“When something like the civil disruptions in Ferguson happens, we’ve learned it’s from pent-up frustration within the community over time,” commented U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan Patrick Miles, referring audience members to the U.S. Department of Justice report on Ferguson. “At the time, I went out and spoke to police departments in Benton Harbor, Muskegon, Battle Creek, around West Michigan, and asked the police departments what they were doing to proactively prevent events like Ferguson, and the most common answer was outreach. Lots say, I’ve got great relationships with people in the community. And they do have good relationships one on one with the people they meet with, but when you have an incident it’s those teens and twenty-year-olds who don’t really have a connection before a crisis.”

Indeed, a careful observer at recent community forums on police relations can see that there is a major discrepancy in the way that group, and often other people of color, view the discussion. A 29-year-old African-American male named Sincere who attended last Thursday said respectfully but heatedly in an interview, “What I thought about the panel was just... it’s never going to end. I’m going to tell you straight up the police don’t have no real trust — I’m not saying all officers are bad, but the majority of them, they feel like they have the license to get away with anything. That’s very dangerous. I look at them as a gang, technically when you look at the definition, that’s what they are – they can shoot you down, but they don’t get locked up.

“I know lots of people who’ve just been pulled out of cars, and I’m one of them. They beat me up while I was in handcuffs when I was younger; I wasn’t resisting or anything. You can try to make the situation sound the best you can, but the police need to be held accountable,” he added.

Unfortunately, says Jerry Bishop, there were not too many people like Sincere at the forum, and Bishop said he saw almost no 17-to-20-year-olds. “They’re the highest percentage of those engaged in street level crimes, and they weren’t there. If we’re not reaching out to get them involved in the dialogue, we’re not reaching out at all. They have to be a relevant part of our dialogue.”

Bishop says there are still a number of recommendations the GRPD has not acted on, including increasing minority hires, identifying and “allocating manpower to the most crime-ridden neighborhoods,” and intervention. “We can’t arrest our problems away, but we can think about and start to meet the actual needs of those that are robbing and selling drugs. Typically they’re not doing it because they’re getting rich — not all but most are under economic duress. The city governments will call on ministries like mine to do the intervention, but to do that we need help.

“Overall I think dialogue is healthy, so overall I was very pleased.

Unfortunately, as a community we have a sort of wait-and-see attitude rather than demand-it-now, but we’re obviously going to keep working on getting to an impeccable level,” Bishop said.

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