A well founded fear: The GRPD and the Immigrant Community
Nearly two weeks ago, the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan hosted a forum with some elected officials and Grand Rapids City staff to address concerns from the Latino/a community about immigration policy and law enforcement.
A few days ago, Michigan Radio interviewed Grand Rapids Police Chief David Rahinsky about that forum and his take on how local law enforcement should respond to the most recent concerns over immigration status.
The interview is instructive and should raise concerns amongst the immigrant community and those who stand in solidarity with them. While Rahinsky implores the immigrant community to not be afraid to call the GRPD, he makes some statements that would not reduce the level of fear the immigrant community has of law enforcement agencies.
In response to the question of what constitutes a sanctuary city, Rahinsky said, “If an agency arrests someone who is here illegally and books them into either their municipal facility or their county facility, I believe we have an obligation to notify our federal counterparts in ICE of that arrest.”
This statement is consistent with what the Grand Rapids Chief of Police has said in recent months in that he still believes that his officers have an obligation to cooperate with ICE. There are no clear parameters of what it means to be a sanctuary city, but one thing that has been fairly consistent is that local law enforcement will NOT cooperate with ICE officials.
Something else that Rahinsky said, which should give us cause for concern, was this response to a question of how he can get the immigrant community to trust the police.
“Conversely, if you are a criminal and you are here illegally, we are not offering safe haven. We are not neglecting our role in law enforcement. We are just making a clear line of demarcation in terms of people who need our help and the criminal element.”
Such a statement does not reduce the fear that people will feel, especially since the line between criminal behavior and those who come to the US as undocumented is not very clear when it comes to police interpretation. The current administration and many people in the community already see those who are undocumented as having engaged in “criminal” behavior.
There are efforts underway right now by immigration lawyers and immigration justice advocates to get the city of Grand Rapids to adopt clear guidelines and policies that will minimize the possibility of people who are undocumented ending up at the Kent County Jail. The Kent County Sheriff’s Department has made it clear that they WILL fully cooperate with ICE officials and notify them when those without documentation are booked into the jail.
What was noticeably absent from this Michigan Radio story were immigrant voices. The article would have been fundamentally different had their been immigrant voices talking about their reality and their lived experience of being afraid of law enforcement agencies.
Lastly, it should be stated that we must come to terms with what the function and role of law enforcement agencies is, which is not focused on community safety. The bottom line function of police department is to protect power and privilege. When Chief Rahinsky says he wants people to not be afraid to call them, he wants us all to believe that the GRPD’s role is to protect people. The GRPD might, in some instances, protect people from further harm, but their primary function is to protect power, which does not include the most vulnerable in our community – people of color, immigrants and the working class poor. The sooner we come to recognize this the more we can imagine and practice how to keep our communities safe without relying on police departments, but relying on each other.