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The GRPD & Respectability Politics vs Community Control over public safety

July 16, 2020

The current push from the city of Grand Rapids to say that they are working on implementing a series of police reforms is nothing new.

A few years after the 1967 racial uprising in Grand Rapids, several members of the African American community submitted a position paper to the Grand Rapids City Commission. This was in 1970, which was reported in the Grand Rapids Press, saying:

“some of the demands from the black community were that the city should hire a black aide to Police Superintendent Robert Anderson, the withdrawal of the police tactical unit from the inner city until an investigation of alleged police brutality is completed and a request that any time there is a request for a cruiser in the black community, if there are no black policemen available, do not send any.”

The result was that another committee was established to look into the demands. This is a pattern that has been repeated over the decades, when the Black community presents demands and the City’s responses are to set up another committee and maybe adopt some mildly reformist policing practices.

In 2016, there was a protest organized by Black youth, where the Chief of Police was confronted on the issue of police violence against the Black community. 

In 2017, a group of Black men came to the Grand Rapids City Commission meeting, demanding that the City call for a state of emergency around policing. 

Two months after the group of Black men made demands, the GRPD held “listening sessions” in Grand Rapids to re-build community/police relations. 

In late 2017, the GRPD held a Black girl at gunpoint, with additional calls for police accountability. 

In September of 2018, after another Black youth was detained, the Chief of Police said they were simply following procedure. 

In March of 2019, after more police abuse of Black and latinx residents, the GRPD hosts a press conference to say that people need to “obey the police.” 

The most recent calls for police accountability and Defunding the GRPD have been met with the same responses this community has seen for decades. The GRPD comes up with a new list of “reforms” and another committee is established to pacify the public. The new Community Police Advisory Council was announced last week by Chief Payne, which will include the Chief and the following members of the community:

  • Tracey Brame – Assistant Dean at WMU – Colley Law School. Brame started the Access to Justice Clinic at WMU-Cooley and teaches courses in Family Law, Race and the Supreme Court, and the Death Penalty.
  • Marco Bulnes – Mayan Buzz Cafe, Mayan Industries LLC
  • Ja’Von FieldsNewly elected President of the Greater Grand Rapids NAACP Youth Council. His involvement with the NAACP ranges from being President of his local branch, to Juvenile Justice Chair of the MI State Youth & College Divison, and a certified Trainer of the National NAACP Youth & Collge Divison.  
  • Willie Gholston – Senior Pastor at First Community AME Church in Grand Rapids
  • Larry Johnson – former GRPD officer, now the head of Public Safety & Security for the Grand Rapids Public Schools
  • Raynard Ross – Associate Dean at GRCC and members of the Board of Education for the Grand Rapids Public Schools.

Now, I have nothing against these six people, but it seems as though Chief Payne chose people based on respectability politics, rather than those who have been directly impacted by police violence or those who have been involved in organizing protests since May 30.

Regardless of how one feels about the new Community Police Advisory Council, such a move not only seeks to minimize public pressure for defunding the GRPD, it also means that City Officials and the GRPD have no real interest in community control over policing. 

Community Control is one of the main components of the Black Lives Matter vision, which was crafted in 2015. Along with End the War on Black People, Reparation, a Divest/Invest component and Economic Justice, Community Control is central to this vision.

This vision of Community Control states:

Direct democratic community control of local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, ensuring that communities most harmed by destructive policing have the power to hire and fire officers, determine disciplinary action, control budgets and policies, and subpoena relevant agency information.

Community control over policing is also what many other Black-led groups have been calling for. In a recent article on Black Agenda Report, it cities Chicago organizer Frank Chapman: 

“All of the reforms being called for, including abolishing and defunding the police – reforms that directly affect the current existence of the police as outside occupiers of our communities — are embedded in CPAC. CPAC is the way to ensuring these demands are met. CPAC puts the power of reform in the hands of communities through directly elected representatives. That’s community control. With community control, we decide the if, when, and how of policing – up to and including abolition. With community control, we can defund, demilitarize, and regulate the police out of existence. Communities can reimagine a world without police – but not without the power to do so themselves. We’ve heard nothing from our elected leadership about this broad demand to re-conceive public safety, except for the 19 alderpersons who support CPAC.”

If the GRPD is truly committed to protecting and serving the residents of Grand Rapids, then City officials need to let the public, and especially the Black community, have community control over policing in this city. In fact, there is no justifiable reason for not allowing this to happen, especially since the public pays the salaries of the cops.

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