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How best to police the GRPD: Not with incremental reformism, no autonomy and no community control

August 31, 2020

Last Tuesday, the recently created Office of Oversight and Public Accountability (OPA) presented their strategic plan to the Grand Rapids City Commission. The OPA presented their plan during the City Commission’s Meeting of the Whole, which takes place in the morning.

The OPA’s Strategic Plan is 23 pages long and consists of lots of platitudes about equity and accountability, but is low on content that would actually translate into holding the GRPD accountable. Over half of the document is made up of introductions, overviews, mission statements and principles, before one gets to a real strategic plan.

Starting on page 12, one can read components of the Strategic Plan, beginning with the theme of Change and followed by Accountability, Restorative Justice, Engagement and Empowerment.

Before we provide a deconstruction of the Strategic Plan, we think it is important to point out a major flaw in the work and approach of the Office of Oversight and Public Accountability. The OPA is not an independent entity and they make it very clear that they are working collaboratively with the GRPD to achieve the goals they have laid forth. How to they expect to practice accountability if they are not a separate, independent entity? How does the OPA plan to implement real accountability when they are partnering with/collaborating with the very entity they are tasked to hold accountable? The GRPD has their own Internal Affairs, which is supposed to be an accountability mechanism, yet it is simply cops policing cops. How is the OPA going to be any different, especially since they answer to the same City officials?

In the section entitled Change, the first objective is to embed equity into all public safety operations, which is a more benign way of referring to policing. Here, some of the strategies are to 1) Evaluate the racial equity impacts of all public policies and initiatives, and 2) work with other City departments to ensure that a racial equity lens is applied to budgetary requests. It is the policy of the GRPD to disproportionately patrol Black and latinx neighborhoods, so how does racial equity factor in here? Also, on budgetary matters, when the GRPD requests weaponry, how exactly does a racial equity lens work when deciding which firearms, pepper spray or other dispersal weapons the department decides to purchase?

In the 2nd objective, under the Change section, referred to as “innovation and collaboration”, they include ride-alongs with the GRPD, plus reviews and reports on all lethal force used. These are innovative and collaborative practices???

The 3rd objective, under the Change section, is named as creating a path to healthy relationships between police and community. Here they suggest more diversity in hiring, having the OPA respond to all GRPD shootings and work with the GRPD to reimagine policing. All research shows that having a diversity of cops does not lead to greater trust within communities. What does it even mean for the OPA respond to all GRPD shootings and what exactly does reimagining the GRPD even look like? It’s as if they consulted with Richard Florida to write this stuff.

The next section is called Accountability, which also has 3 main objectives. Under the first objective, some of the strategies are to “publish standard operating procedures”, plus to make sure that the OPA has unfettered access to all public safety records. Shouldn’t the OPA automatically have access to all matters of policing? Isn’t that they very reason for their existence? Also, shouldn’t the public have access to this information, especially if the GRPD wants to practice transparency and accountability?

The second objective under the Accountability section has to do with the internal complaint process. Some strategies here are to monitor and review every internal affairs  investigation, review changes to Union contracts, and to ensure the findings of the internal affairs are shared publicly. This is one of the few times were the OPA states they will share information publicly, but unfortunately they do not say how this information will be shared with the public. The public should not have to request or hunt down such information online, instead it should be extremely visible and user friendly.

The third objective under the Accountability section are centered around the Civilian Appeals Board (CAB). Some of the strategies are to evaluate conflicts of interest, adjust the time and location of the Civilian Appeals Board meetings to increase community participation, and ensure that the finding of the CAB are reported publicly. Again, more clarity is needed on how this information will be accessible to the public.

Under the section entitled Restorative Justice, there are also 3 objectives. The first objective has tremendous potential, which includes:

  • Partner with the City Attorney’s Office to address historical systemic inequities and to create alternatives that can be utilized in addition to traditional prosecution
  • Evaluate and recommend the decriminalization of crimes or changes to policies, ordinances, and laws that disparately impact communities of color
  • Implement programming that assists formerly incarcerated individuals with re-establishing themselves as productive members of society
  • Implement expungement programs and other strategies that increase the ability of community members to obtain employment and housing after obtaining a criminal conviction

In this section, the OPA needs to reach out to the community to solicit ways to achieve these strategies, which should include an evaluation and oppositional approach to mass incarceration, plus an abolitionist approach to Restorative Justice, which would not only benefit those most impacted by mass incarceration, but demonstrate that the way Grand Rapids does policing and the size of the GRPD budget are NOT necessary.

The second objective under Restorative Justice includes, “facilitating discussion regarding understand the racist origins of the historic tension between public safety and race.” This could be an important conversation, but depending on how it is facilitated, by whom, and who would be involved. Too often when cops are present, people don’t feel safe speaking the truth. This discussion should be held throughout the year and they should center community voices.

The third objective in this section is primarily about more data collection on when people are stopped by the GRPD, in traffic or otherwise. We all know what these studies have produced in the past, with damning evidence, but no real outcomes or consequences for the GRPD.

The fourth and final section of the OPA document is entitled Engagement and Empowerment. Under objective one we find, “Create pathways to to elevate community voice in all policing operations” and ways to engage historically marginalized populations to be engaged with the GRPD. I find it hard to believe that this will be taken seriously, since there is very little trust between marginalized communities and the cops, plus what does it even mean to elevate community voices in policing? Frankly, little of this can be taken seriously, not unless the community has real control over policing.

In the second objective with Engagement and Empowerment, there are strategies like a civil rights youth academy for middle schoolers with stakeholders and hosting a Law Day to introduce middle schoolers to policing. Middle school age children should not have to interact with cops and a civil rights academy should also not include police, but could be effective if it was run like the Freedom Schools were during the Civil Rights era.

The third objective in this section all centers around the idea of making all people feel safe at all times. If the city is serious about this, then the GRPD needs to stop targeting people in Black and latinx neighborhoods and stop over-policing people subjected to poverty. The City also needs to actually defund the GRPD and redirect funds to Black residents and allow them to determine how this money would be used. These action would actually help build trust between residents and the City, by moving in the direction of defunding and paying reparations for those who have been affected by policing.

Again, this document from the Office of Oversight and Public Accountability might be seen as an important step forward, but as we note throughout our assessment, the plan has no real teeth to many of the strategies, too much incremental reformism and no autonomy for a community watchdog group to truly function.

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