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Unsubstantiated claims and Structural Violence: Another look at the Grand Rapids Police Officer’s Association statement

July 9, 2019

The Grand Rapids Police Officers Association, the union that represents those employed by the GRPD, is getting some pushback from a recent statement posted on their website. The statement reads:

The recent and continued violence is the direct result of city officials not properly staffing and supporting the police department. To allow the police department to be constantly scrutinized discourages any type of proactive enforcement necessary to keep Grand Rapids safe. It is evident that stop the violence rallies have no affect on criminal activity. It’s time to let GRPD get back to policing.

The cop union statement is instructive on many levels. First, they blame city officials for not hiring more police and for not supporting what they do. A recent study has determined that the GRPD has enough staff, but that they do not utilize current resources efficiently. Also, to say that City officials do not support them is code for “we don’t like it when you scrutinize how we operate in the community.”

Second, the police union says that the “stop the violence” rallies have no effect, but offer no evidence to refute such a claim. In fact, the police union makes the claim that if they had more cops the “recent and continued violence” would stop or be diminished. Again, the police union offers NO evidence to support their claim.

One of the community members who have been critical of the GRPD’s use of violence against black and brown people is Rev. Jerry Bishop. He responded to the police union statement on Facebook, with his own statement that you can read in response to the GRPD union post on July 7. The Urban Core Collective also responded and challenged the police union on their dismissive comments about the stop the violence rallies.

However, there were numerous other responses, most of which are defending the GRPD and in one case slandering Rev. Bishop, comments you can read on the Grand Rapids Police Officer’s Association FB page from the July 7 post

There has been a fair amount of local news media reporting on the statement and the reactions from the community. However, most of the local news do not verify of the claims made by the police union, both the claim that the stop the violence rallies don’t work and that more cops would mean less crime. So, what would it look like to further explore these claims?

First, there is little evidence to suggest that increasing the number of cops will actually reduce low level crimes. So-called community policing, as it has been practiced since the 1970s, has not resulted in reduced incidents of low level crimes. In fact, what it has done, particularly in communities of color, is to increase the level of mistrust between communities of color and local law enforcement agencies, according to Alex Vitale, author of the book, The End of Policing.

Second, what communities of color have been calling for in recent decades, is for more systemic change that will benefit their communities, but actually reduce crime. The Movement for Black Lives calls this the Invest/Divest strategy. This strategy takes money going to police department and the prison industrial complex and puts it into community safety programs, education, anti-poverty initiatives, etc. This Invest/Divest strategy is worth looking at, especially if we are not interested in a quick fix. 

Third, another important aspect of what is problematic about the Grand Rapids Police Officer’s Association statement, is that it underscores how they see crime. For police departments, crime is something that people commit when they violate existing laws. However, we all know that laws are often designed by those with power and privilege, which means that these laws often only impact people who are part of the working class or communities of color.

People who don’t make a livable wage, people who can’t afford good health care and people who pay too much for rent are often in precarious situations because of limited financial resources. The harm that they experience or the violence that they experience is structural. Structural Violence. One way to define structural violence is this: 

“Structural violence is one way of describing social arrangements that put individuals and populations in harm’s way… The arrangements are structural because they are embedded in the political and economic organization of our social world; they are violent because they cause injury to people … neither culture nor pure individual will is at fault; rather, historically given (and often economically driven) processes and forces conspire to constrain individual agency. Structural violence is visited upon all those whose social status denies them access to the fruits of scientific and social progress.”

Therefore, corporations that pay people poverty wages or don’t provide workers with health care benefits are not technically breaking the law, but they are doing real harm. The CEO of Wolverine Worldwide is complicit in the terrible violence the company has caused by polluting large areas of Kent County, because of toxic chemicals they have been using to manufacture shoes. People have been getting sick from the toxic dumping, have developed cancer and many people may have already died, in part, because of the toxic waste from the Wolverine Worldwide plant. However, when was the last time that the GRPD or any other law enforcement agency has arrested corporate bosses for paying people poverty wages or for polluting local communities?

The reality is that crime is defined by governments and governments use police to enforce laws, which disproportionately impact working class communities and communities of color. AND this is all done by design. When people protest against Immigration and Customs Enforcement, private detention centers or companies profiting from contacts they have with ICE, who are the police there to defend? Not those who are protesting structural violence.

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