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Grand Rapids Police Task Force Recommendations: False solutions and the need for Radical Imagination

September 28, 2018

For several years now the City of Grand Rapids and the GRPD have been reviewing their policies and making some adjustments because of public pressure.

Most of the public pressure has been coming from communities most negatively impacted by police presence and police practices, specifically the African American and Latino/Latinx communities.

This pressure coincided with increased police brutality and police killings of black people across the US, especially since Michael Brown was murdered by cops in Missouri a little more than four years ago.

The most recent round of recommendations that have been developed by a Task Force made up of cops and some residents is just the latest list of recommendations that ultimately present a false solution. 

There are 38 recommendations put forth dealing with the following areas:

  • Staffing and Deployment
  • Internal Affairs (Accountability)
  • Training
  • Youth Policy (this was added at the request of the police chief)
  • Community Policing and Crime Reduction
  • Recruiting and Hiring

As you can see from the list, the recommendations are internal to the GRPD and are essentially mild reforms that do not address the fundamental role of cops, which is to protect power and maintain the status quo. To quote Alex Vitale, author of the book, The End of Policing:

The problem is not police training, police diversity, or police methods. The problem is the dramatic and unprecedented expansion and intensity of policing in the last forty years, a fundamental shift in the role of police in society. The problem is policing itself.

Do we really believe that if police officers take cultural competency courses that it will result in a reduction of policing and arrests in black and brown communities? Do we really believe that hiring more minority officers or female officers will fundamentally change the function of policing? Does having more cops in neighborhoods, walking a beat and getting to know the residents mean that crime will be reduced? These are all reformist solutions that are generally presented to communities all across the country, yet the results are still the same.

  • The US has the highest incarceration rates in the world and the highest percentage of people who are on parole, on probation, in jail or prison are disproportionately black and brown communities experiencing poverty.
  • Police harassment and violence directed at communities of color are on the rise.
  • Police departments have become more militarized.
  • Police departments are engaging in increasing levels of surveillance.
  • Police departments are using massive amounts of city budgets – 1/3 of the Grand Rapids City Budget is devoted to policing.

Take for instance the idea of community policing. In the new recommendations, there are eight community policing recommendations:

Recommendation 5.1: Recognizing that community policing works best when it is supported by elected leaders and is a subset of community-based governance; the Mayor and City Commission should adopt a Resolution that mandates community policing as the operating philosophy of the police department and require all city departments to contribute to enhance public safety through community collaboration.

Recommendation 5.2: GRPD should develop a citywide community policing plan that incorporates crime reduction strategies, community engagement and partnerships, and police department oversight.

Recommendation 5.3: GRPD should include community members in its CompStat process.

Recommendation 5.4: Develop a patrol strategy that allows Beat officers time to engage with the community in non-enforcement activities (e.g., foot and bicycle patrols).

Recommendation 5.5: Require Problem-Oriented Policing (POP) training to all sworn officers. This training teaches officers how to solve community problems in partnership with the community and through a mode that is comprehensive and evidence-based.

Recommendation 5.6: Incorporate the core principles of community policing – engagement, collaboration, problem-solving, and building trust and legitimacy in annual performance evaluations for all officers.

Recommendation 5.7: GRPD Beat officers should be required, and given the time, to initiate and complete at least one POP project on a quarterly basis.

Recommendation 5.8: GRPD should develop a specific POP incentive program(s) that recognizes and highlights GRPD staff – both sworn and civilian – in problem-solving with the community.

These recommendations might sound like a good idea, but that is only because we fail to understand the essential function of police departments as protecting power and maintaining the status quo. Within this framework of understanding, community policing is essentially a form of counterinsurgency, which seeks to win over the populace of any community, to gain access to information about populations they consider dangerous, and to undermine efforts for collective liberation.

Kristian Williams, in his book, Life During Wartime: Resisting Counterinsurgency, examines the history of community policing and the disastrous impact it has had on communities of color and poor communities.

In Williams’ book, he looks at the research done by the RAND Corporation, which studied community policing. The Rand Corporation says this about community policing as its paradigm for counterinsurgency:

Pacification is best thought of as a massively enhanced version of the ‘community policing’ technique that emerged in the 1970s. Community policing centered on a broad concept of problem solving by law enforcement officers working in an area that is well-defined and limited in scale, with sensitivity to geographic, ethnic, and other boundaries. Patrol officers form a bond of trust with local residents, who get to know them as more than a uniform. The police work with local groups, businesses, churches, and the like to address the concerns and problems of the neighborhood. Pacification is simply the expansion of this concept to include greater development and security assistance.

Does this assessment by the RAND Corporation sound eerily like the recommendations put forth by the GRPD?

A Community-based vision for Liberation that doesn’t include cops

Part of the work that community-based organizing must do, is to challenge all of us to engage in radical imagination. Radical imagination simply means to envision a world that is outside of the acceptable and existing frameworks. For instance, instead of proposing that those with tremendous wealth donate to projects that provide affordable housing, we could propose that housing is a fundamental right and if everyone had a livable wage they could afford adequate housing.

When we talk about radical imagination and policing, many movements propose that every community should be able to determine how to create safe and secure communities. This is exactly, what many communities of color, specifically black communities have been calling for since Michael Brown was murdered by a cop in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. This is exactly what the Movement for Black Lives has been calling for in the radically imaginative vision, seen here on the right.

We all most push for a radically new way to create safe and free communities. We all need to radically imagine our communities that no longer includes state violence in the form of police or prisons. Together we can imagine something new.


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