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The Grand Rapids Police Officer’s Association is not interested in answers to how to deal with violence in our community, they just want people to not question the function of policing in Grand Rapids

June 27, 2021

Within the past week, the Grand Rapids Police Officer’s Association (GRPOA) has made two posts on their Facebook page about defunding the police. The first one stated, “For all the de-funders  that follow our page, what is the solution to get this violence under control?” The second comment read, “Still waiting for an answer from the de-funders.  How do we stop the violence if properly staffing the police department is not the answer?” In both instances, the GRPOA included a story about gun violence in Grand Rapids. 

These posts by the GRPOA are an intellectually sophomoric way of trying to say that those who advocate for defunding the police have no answers to the issue of gun violence or crime being committed in Grand Rapids.

The fact is, the GRPOA is not even interested in what those who are advocating defunding the police have to say. Their question is nothing more than a ruse, meant as a distraction so that we don’t actually have a serious community conversation about how to reduce violence in the city and practice different forms of public safety. 

The real question that we should be asking, and a question that should be posed to the GRPOA is, what evidence is there that the GRPD actually prevents violence in Grand Rapids? The reality is that with all of their resources and more than a third of the City’s budget, the GRPD rarely prevents crime. Whether it is gun violence, assaults, theft, etc, the GRPD primarily shows up after the fact with the intent of investigating these so-called crimes. 

Two years ago, there was a study done by the group Hillard-Heintze, LLC, to determine what kind of calls the GRPD was getting from the community. The study demonstrated that the majority of calls from the community were not ones that required police, such as disorderly conduct, parking violations, noise complaints, etc. In other words, most of the calls received by dispatch could be handled by someone other than the GRPD. 

But back to the GRPOA’s question about gun violence. First, the fact that gun-related violence has been on the rise recently demonstrates that the GRPD does not deter people from engaging in gun violence. Second, the GRPD doesn’t do violence prevention work, they show up after the fact. Third, we need to ask ourselves why there is violence in the community, and once we understand why there is violence in the community, we can address appropriate responses.

There are no simple solutions to community violence and we will not solve the problem overnight. However, if we are really serious about ending violence in our community, then we have to look at the bigger picture and not only talk about root causes of violence, but structural violence as well. 

Most news stories having to do with violence are about homicides. This is understandable, since a person being shot is horrible and traumatic. However, if we expand our thinking to address structural violence, then we can see how the GRPD not only does not prevent structural violence from happening, they allow it to persist. People living in poverty is structural violence. People not able to make enough money, because of low wages, is a form of structural violence. Malnutrition is a form of structural violence, as is the for-profit driven health care system and rent/housing costs. White Supremacy is a form of structural violence.

Now, the GRPD does nothing to address these forms of violence. The GRPD doesn’t arrest billionaires who pay no taxes, they don’t arrest corporations for paying shitty wages, they don’t intervene to prevent landlords from evicting people. However, the GRPD will make sure that people who are fighting for a livable wage, Medicare for All, truly affordable housing and healthy food will, especially if they are using direct action tactics, will be harassed, intimidated, monitored and arrested by the GRPD. In other words, the GRPD defends structural violence.

Moving towards a radical community safety model requires two things. First, a divest/invest plan, which has always been part of the Movement for Black Lives agenda. If we defund the police and invest in the communities most affected by policing, it will create greater equity. We wrote about what the budget of the GRPD – $54 million, if invested in the Black community could do. Mind you, the $54 million (based on the 2020 City Budget) is just for one year, so we need to imagine what that kind of monetary investment into communities affected by policing would look like in the short term and the long term. 

$54 million a year would lift thousands of families out of poverty. $54 million a year would allow people to purchase homes. $54 million a year would make sure that people didn’t have to chose between heating their homes or feeding their kids. $54 million a year would go along way to provided needed health care to people, as well as educational resources and opportunities to reduce pollution and create sustainable ways of living. Greater equity would actually reduce and potentially eliminate crime and violence, both personal and structural.

The second step needed would then be to look at models of community safety that do not relay of policing. Those of us who have been promoting the Defund the GRPD campaign are not naive and we recognize how hard it will be to not have the GRPD. However, we also believe in radical praxis and radical imagination.

Together We Are Safe already encourages people to not call the GRPD when there is a conflict or a problem in the community. They distribute a two-page document that provides reasons why not to call the GRPD and then provides other valuable resources in the community that would more effectively respond to the conflicts in our community. When the GRPD becomes involved in conflicts, it only increases the possibility that the conflict will escalate.

So what are alternatives to having heavily armed cops in our neighborhoods, which often result in a disproportionately large number of black and brown residents going to jail?

In Zach Morris’s book, We Keep Us Safe: Building Secure, Just and Inclusive Communities, he acknowledges that we live in a failed state. What Morris means by a failed state, is that too many people do not have their basic human needs met – housing, health care, food, transportation, child care, employment/wages. The result is the Prison Industrial Complex, the War on Drugs, Gentrification, a health care system based on profits over human needs, a dysfunctional transportation system and employment that is based on exploitation. One powerful example of how the failed state impacts black people, is this statement from Prison Abolition group Critical Resistance.

While Blacks only represent 13% of drug users, Black drug users represent 38% of those arrested for drug offenses, 55% of those convicted of drug offenses and 74% of those sent to prison.

What We Keep Us Safe advocates, in the face of a failed state, is a care-based strategy for public safety that overturns more than 200 years of fear-based discrimination, othering, and punishment. In addition, the book:

“We Keep Us Safe is a blueprint of how to hold people accountable while still holding them in community. The result reinstates full humanity and agency for everyone who has been dehumanized and traumatized so they can participate fully in life, in society, and in the fabric of our democracy.”

In addition to ideas and examples provided in We Keep Us Safe, there are other very practical ways that people can practice community safety. One of the most important and misunderstood aspects of the Defund the Police movement is that people have not taken the time to actually read what is being proposed. We encourage people to read the Defund the Police Toolkit, which is a powerful document.

Another solid resource is an anti-racist neighborhood watch manual that was developed by people in Portland Oregon. This 31 page manual provides great practical resources and application around community safety, specifically that are anti-racist in application. In some ways, this manual builds on the work of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, which was essentially about responding to the ongoing police harassment and violence directed at black communities across the country.

A third great resource, which was produced by the Women of Color group, INCITE!, is a 121-page toolkit that focuses on why calling the police is especially problematic for women of color and trans people of color. This toolkit also covers the following areas: 

  • Gender Policing
  • Immigration Enforcement
  • Cops in Schools
  • Policing Sex Work
  • The War on Drugs
  • Police Violence and Domestic Violence
  • Law Enforcement Violence and Disaster

A second major section of the toolkit, provides great examples of practicing community safety from several organizations. This toolkit is a must read and resource for people who want to practice community safety, plus it is a great resource to help us all radically imagine how life could be without the cops.

Lastly, I think it is worth quoting from the final page of the book, We Keep Us Safe:

“Real safety happens when we bridge the divides and build relationships with each other, overcoming suspicion and distrust. Real safety comes from strategic, smart investment – meaning resources directed towards our stability and well-being. Real safety addresses harms that the current system is failing to tackle, and holds people accountable for those harms while still holding them in community. Real safety results from reinstating full humanity and agency for everyone who has been dehumanized and traumatized, so they can participate fully in society. If we are able to transform our old system and create a culture of caring and healing in its place, we may have an actual shot at creating real democracy for the first time.”

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