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Operation Safe Neighborhoods? The GRPD, Community Policing and the Suppression of Dissent

March 31, 2021

Last weekend, the Grand Rapids Police Department began what they referred to as Operation Safe Neighborhood. This operation involved deploying a “new” community policing program, which also included the use of helicopters.

Like many people, my Facebook newsfeed blew up over the weekend with people complaining about the helicopters flying over the neighborhood, with the general sentiment being that it did not make people feel safe.

In a statement released by the GRPD it states:

Despite the evening’s achievements, Chief Payne appreciates that the operation, including the use of aerial resources, can cause disruption in the community.  “No one wants to be sitting in their living room listening to a helicopter flying overhead, including me,” the Chief said.  “But I have to weigh what’s happening on our streets with how people may feel. We conducted door to door engagement during the week leading up to this operation, and the residents made it clear that they were glad we were there.” Last night represents another successful implementation of the GRPD strategic plan. “By engaging with the community ahead of time, deploying a diverse team of resources, and using data driven tactics, we made a significant impact on violent crime in the city while partnering with our stakeholders”, the Chief said.

Two things stand out for me in this statement. First, despite his rhetoric, Chief Payne doesn’t care about how people feel, because he has to focus on what is happening in the streets. I take this to mean that Chief Payne is going to do whatever he wants, no matter what the public thinks. The police know what’s best, so if you don’t like what they are doing, then too bad. In recent years this has been the experience of many community organizers that I have spoken with, all of which feel that the GRPD does whatever it wants to do.

Second, Chief Payne suggests that their actions over the weekend were a success, because they made some arrests, etc. However, did Operation Safe Neighborhoods make people feel safer? It may be impossible to know for sure, since we don’t really hear from the public or the so-called “stakeholders” that Chief Payne mentions in his statement. 

The local news media did primarily what they always do, which is to rely exclusively on the GRPD’s perspective. In the case of MLive, WZZM 13 and WXMI 17, all they did was to regurgitate what the GRPD said in their statement. The only exception was the channel 8 story, which still featured a GRPD perspective, but it was the only news outlet to actually talk to someone from the community. A local restaurant owner had this to say:

“The shooters, the violators are not being invited to the table,” Libbett said. “They’re not having a conversation with the powers that be or the police.”

Libbett recognizes it’s not an easy task to get both sides to meet.

“If something happens in the streets and there’s a lot of people around and they say, ‘Why don’t they say something?’ Because it’s a code they live by,” Libbett said. “If you got a policeman that’s harassing someone in the community, no other police come forward and say, ‘Hey, stop doing that’ or go to his sergeant and say he used excessive force. When the community sees this is how they are treated, they get defensive, they don’t want to have a conversation.”

Mr. Libbett’s comments are instructive, since he points out what so many people have been saying in recent years, particularly in the Black community, that they do not trust the GRPD and do not want to talk with them, because of how the police treats the community, often using excessive force

However, the very next day, WOOD TV 8 ran a follow up story about Operation Safe Neighborhoods, in a different neighborhood, speaking with white residents, who said they were “happy with increased GRPD patrols.” It’s almost as if the GRPD leaned on WOOD TV8 after they had a Black man speak the truth about how policing is perceived in his community.

So, despite the use of helicopters and the arrests that were made, how does the community feel about the GRPD? We can never know completely and we certainly are not going to get honest and complete community feedback from the use of tools like FlashVote. We can make some determinations about how the community feels about the GRPD, based on what has happened in recent years.

Here is a list of numerous incidents that communicate that there are plenty of people, particularly in the Black and Brown communities that are highly critical of the GRPD:

“It was a peaceful event”: How media framed Saturday’s event and virtually eliminated any analysis of state violence that targets the Black community

The GRPD, White Supremacy and Community Accountability

Calls for a State of Emergency in Grand Rapids elicits no meaningful response from City Officials

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

Chief Rahinsky gets nauseated, but defends police violence against the black community in Grand Rapids

GRPD’s recent detaining of black youth was just following procedure and it was racist

Latino youth stopped at gunpoint by the GRPD because they were walking in the street in the southwest part of Grand Rapids

Latest GRPD Press Conference addresses recent police assaults on residents of color: Acting Chief says if people obeyed the police there would be no problems

Coalition of groups hold Press Conference to issue demands in light of increased GRPD and ICE violence

Grand Rapids shares stories of harassment, intimidation and racists encounters with the GRPD: Michigan Civil Rights Department hearing on GRPD police abuse

All of these links are between 2016 and 2019, but we know what has happened in 2020 and beyond in terms of the community’s call to defund the GRPD and how the City has responded.

Lastly, it is worth noting that during Operation Safe Neighborhoods, the GRPD arrested several organizers with Justice for Black Lives in downtown Grand Rapids on Saturday. The arrest charges were bogus and demonstrated once against that community members who publicly challenge the authority of the GRPD will be met with repression.

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