Skip to content

Interview with Michigan Association of Civil Rights Activists (MACRA) on Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the City of Grand Rapids regarding Clergy on Patrol program with the GRPD

September 6, 2021

GRIID – In late July, you submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the City of Grand Rapids regarding their newly announced program called Clergy on Patrol. What was your motivation for submitting such a request?

MACRA: John F. Kennedy wrote, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” and we could not agree more. Government religion is antithetical to freedom of conscience and to freedom in general. Just look wherever religion is in power, theocracies like Saudi Arabia, Iran, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, or where religion has undue influence on laws, in places like Ireland and the United States. The Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD) Clergy on Patrol program is likely unconstitutional and MACRA aims to find out by reviewing communications between GRPD and clergy invited to participate. For example, were all locally represented religions invited to participate? Were Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans, Satanists, Humanists, and atheists or agnostics invited and/or given equal opportunity to participate?

GRIID – What exactly did you [specify] in the FOIA request?

MACRA: The exact language of our FOIA request is as follows: Any and all written communications, including, but not limited to letters, text, social media messages, and/or email, including any enclosures, attachments, etc., to or from, by or between, the City of Grand Rapids, the City of Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD), and/or any other department thereof, including, but not limited to, the GRPD Chaplaincy, or any other representative, agent, officer, or employee of the City of Grand Rapids, and/or the City of Grand Rapids Police Department, and any clergy, priest, nun, pastor, minister, chaplain, rabbi, imam, shaman, witch doctor, palm reader, and/or psychic, and/or any church, synagogue, mosque, temple, coven, or other religious sect and/or cult, institution, and/or organization, and/or any representative, agent, and/or employee thereof, and/or any other person, and/or organization with respect to the City of Grand Rapids Police Department’s “Clergy on Patrol” program from January 1, through July 30, 2021.

GRIID – You received a response from the GRPD on August 6. What was the content of their response? And did they alter the language of your request?

MACRA: In its response, GRPD informed MACRA the department would require an extra 10 days (allowed under the FOIA) to respond. GRPD improperly and unlawfully edited the language of our request to read as follows: Any and all written communications, text, social media messages, emails including all attachments, to or from, by or between the City of Grand Rapids, GRPD and any other department and any member/associate or relation to Clergy on Patrol from January 1, 2021 to July 30, 2021. GRPD provided no explanation for editing our specific language, which was admittedly written to be both specific and to ‘poke the bear.’

GRIID – Two weeks later the GRPD sent you the cost of the documents, but they also said they said there would be costs for redacting the documents. Why would they redact information regarding the Clergy on Patrol docs requested?

MACRA: In its response, GRPD estimated 2 hours for labor, to “search, locate, and examine” the documents, which is fair, but then estimated a full 5 hours for “redaction”, and 3.5 hours for “duplication,” for a total estimate of 10.5 hours. GRPD also said it would take 2-3 months to fulfill the request. How does 10.5 hours become 2-3 months? Because there can be no substantive redaction of communications with the public, including clergy, the estimate of 5 hours for redaction is excessive on its face. We believe GRPD has attempted to use excessive charges, the threat of redaction, and inordinate delay to dissuade members of the public from pursuing disclosure of documents relating to the controversial Clergy on Patrol program.

GRIID – You also decided to appeal the costs, since they were substantial. What was the GRPD’s response to that?

MACRA: GRPD estimated it would cost $333.85 to locate, redact, and duplicate the documents requested, with a 50% deposit required prior to fulfillment, and the balance due before disclosure. Therefore MACRA filed an appeal to City Manager Mark Washington. To their credit, the Grand Rapids City Commission’s Committee on FOIA Appeal scheduled a timely hearing for September 2 at 9:00 AM at City Hall. An attorney representing the City and GRPD then filed a 5-page response that was virtually devoid of legal substance, citing no specific laws to justify the improper editing, threatened redactions, excessive costs, and inordinate delay (2-3 months) to disclose the documents. To their response, MACRA filed a detailed opposition memo on the eve of the hearing.

GRIID – The City then scheduled a meeting to hear your appeal on September 2nd. What happened during that meeting?

MACRA: The City’s Committee on FOIA Appeal denied our appeal after less than 5 minutes deliberation, but the Commissioners did question GRPD about editing the language of our request and instructed the department to respond to our specific request, not their improperly edited version. We argued that any redaction would violate open records laws. MACRA informed GRPD at the hearing that it must respond with all the requested non-exempt documents within 10 days, as the law requires, and promised to appeal to the Circuit Court if any communications with clergy are redacted in any way whatsoever.

GRIID – What do you plan to do moving forward?

MACRA: Going forward MACRA will file additional FOIA requests and pursue a thorough investigation of GRPD’s Clergy on Patrol program, from its inception through implementation, and publicly share all of the documents and records uncovered. We ask members of the public who may encounter or interact with police and clergy on the streets or in their homes or businesses, to contact MACRA at macrainfo@gmail.com or send private message to our @gomacra Facebook page.

GRIID – Why is the issue of transparency so important in this case and what do you think is motivating their failure to be completely transparent with the Clergy on Patrol program?

MACRA: The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is one of the most power tools the public is granted by law to audit government activities. Anyone can use this law to force the government, including police departments, to be open and transparent in publicly funded programs. Although, as this case illustrates, government may not appreciate it when members of the public exercises their rights in this way. We encourage every person to read Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s FOIA Handbook, available online at https://www.michigan.gov/documents/ag/FOIA_Handbook_2019_644053_7.pdf, and to use the FOIA whenever necessary or desired.

As to what is motivating GRPD to employ excessive charges, redaction, and delay, in responding to our request to review communications with clergy, we believe the writing is on the wall—they know the “Clergy on Patrol” will not withstand public scrutiny and exposure. The First Amendment does not permit favoritism or preference for one religion over others or for religion generally over non-religion, nor excessive entanglement with religion. How does the program even function on the streets of Grand Rapids? What are the rules for clergy on these “ride alongs” with police? Clergy are not trained social workers or counselors. Each time police deliver a preacher to a traffic stop, emergency call, or crime scene, the constitutional rights of all involved are violated.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: