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Billed as Community-Police relations “listening tour,” the meeting was a highly managed forum

June 13, 2017

Last night, I attended one of the 5 community-police relations meetings that are being held throughout the city. The one this writer attended was held on the westside of Grand Rapids, at Stocking School.

Billed as a “listening tour,” the format of the forum was to hear a report back from a city staffer on the progress of 6 of the 12-point plan the city has been working on for the past 2 years, then break into smaller groups and have participants provide feedback on the so-called progress. 

There was a handout provided on the progress made on 6 of the 12-point plan. However, a city staffer read through that handout, with some elaboration, which seemed unnecessary and those from the community could not ask questions or make comments during the large group meeting.

We were divided into three groups, each with a moderator, to cover just to 6 themes that the City wanted participants to discuss. In many ways this felt like the parameters of what people could talk about were highly managed. In addition, there was a limited amount of time allotted for each theme that was discussed, which felt more like a kind of speed dating rather than allowing for lots of feedback from the community and some robust dialogue to talk place.

At one point, the facilitator in our group said that they wanted to provide a safe space for people. However, there were several police officers in the room sitting just on the periphery of the breakout sessions, which didn’t really make the space safe. Did having police presence causing anyone in the community to self-censor? Police Chief Rahinsky was also present and moved around to the 3 groups as they were discussing issues.

There was also two retired police officers in the small group I was part of who were very dismissive of the current criticism of the GRPD. These two men had a very “back in my day” attitude, which seemed disrespectful to the criticisms and comments coming from participants. At one point, one of these retired cops interrupted an African American community member who was talking about the traffic study and who gets stopped more often and made a comment about the 1967 riot in Grand Rapids, saying, “Who do you think was rioting?” The African American community member responded by saying, “and why do you think they were rioting?”

Those who facilitated were asking questions like, “Are we headed in the right direction?” and “what was missing” in the six themes that we were encouraged to discuss. Several people in my breakout session wanted more accountability, a citizen review board with subpoena power and more transparency with police date and practices.

The amount of time that people were provided to give input was limited, although sticky notes were provided so that people could give additional written input. This meeting did not feel at all like the numerous city commission meetings, where dozens of Grand Rapids residents spoke passionately with their criticisms of the GRPD. At a recent city commission meeting members of the African American community even called for a State of Emergency

One of the reasons why the meeting felt so managed was that it was limited to discussion of just 6 predetermined points. There was not much of an opening for people to discuss issues outside of the predetermined framework and even then it felt like you would be stepping outside of acceptable boundaries.

What I was hoping to hear and to discuss was a recent comment that City Commissioner Joe Jones had made. He stated the following:

If I had it my way, the urban core of Grand Rapids would be devoid of police presence because of an unwavering commitment by the people to police our own communities. Not only should we aspire to do this, but we must also commit ourselves to creating real opportunities for our children and for others in our community to thrive. We have to engage in the work of community change by first of all being present in the community. We must avail ourselves and lend all of our gifts, talents, and resources collectively to provide uplift for any and all who desire to do and experience better. I believe if there were greater prosperity and access to opportunity in the urban core of Grand Rapids, there would be a reduction in crime.

Not only does this statement operate outside of the dominant narrative on policing, it makes it clear that there are other possibilities. In addition, the commissioner’s statement makes it clear that economic inequality in the city is a main obstacle to realizing a vision where neighborhoods could police themselves, since it is likely that crime would be significantly reduced  with great income equality.

These are the kinds of topics and discussions we need to have in this community. We can not limit ourselves to a narrative and a framework that is determined by those with power.

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