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Managed Community Engagement: Police Chief searches and the con of public input

October 18, 2021

The opportunity for the public to have input in who will be the next Chief of Police in Grand Rapids is about to close. In many ways, it was never really open.

The City of Grand Rapids has promoted four virtual meetings, with the last one happening tonight, October 19. I participated in one of these meetings, the one that the City hosted on Saturday, October 16, from 3 – 4:30pm.

There were 4 residents of Grand Rapids, one City staffer and the meeting was hosted by Gary Peterson. Peterson and his firm were hired to formalize the search for the next Grand Rapids Chief of Police. The firm that was hired to find the next Chief of Police, Public Sector Search & Consulting, is a California-based firm that specializes exclusively on “recruiting police executives.” 

The meeting I listened in on was run by someone who is not from Grand Rapids, but was paid to do the search. The questions that were asked were basically, “what kind of qualities should the next Chief of Police Possess” and “what should the be the priorities of the next Chief of Police.” 

However, the paid consultant began by telling those of us on the zoom call that his firm had conducted several stakeholder meetings, which included business, faith, mental health professionals, etc. These meetings were not publicly announced, so either the paid consulting firm, city staff, or both, made determinations about who would be invited to those meetings. In addition, the public will probably never know what was said during those meetings, nor the parameters of the conversation.

If you couldn’t make the virtual meetings, you could take an online survey as well. The online survey is brief and managed as well, with questions like what qualities are most important for the next Chief of Police, or a ranking of the top 5 areas of career experience. There were a few questions asked that allowed people to write responses, but even those questions are vague, and more importantly, to providing any real opportunities for people to have a much larger conversation about the function of policing in this community and how Black and Brown people have been the primary targets of GRPD harassment, intimidation and arrests. 

Equally important is how the paid consulting firm is presenting what Grand Rapids is like, based on their own police chief search application. The 14 page document paints Grand Rapids as the ideal city, with great public/private partnerships and a great place to raise a family. The page on the GRPD has no language that is critical of the department nor any reference to recent examples of how the police target Black and Brown communities. Oh, and the document also presents Grand Rapids as a city that is vibrant and rich in culture.

So, it appears that Public Sector Search & Consulting is not only selling Grand Rapids to police chief candidates, they have done a fabulous job of managing how the public provides any input on the matter.

Radical democracy and real community engagement

As one can see, the whole process of looking for the next Chief of Police is really being done by people who are being paid to find the next top cop. The Who community engagement process was just another box to check off, so that it can be said that they provided many opportunities for public input, despite the input being highly managed. 

It is sort of like voting in this county. You have no real choices, yet if you refuse to participate in the charade, you are belittled for not participating and often told that you have no right to complain or critique. In fact, Mr. Peterson, from Public Sector Search & Consulting, said pretty much the same thing in his opening comments of the virtual meeting I sat in on, in regards to the Police Chief search.

The larger problem is that those who have power do not really want the rest of us to have any say in the future. Those in power create the choices and the process, despite the fact they they are highly managed and do not allow for much larger and broader public engagement.

On the matter of the search for the next Chief of Police, the public is not afforded an opportunity to have ongoing, robust, unmanaged conversation about the history and function of policing in Grand Rapids. This has especially been the case since the 2020 uprising in Grand Rapids, where city officials and those with real power in this community have made it known that criticism of the GRPD is only mildly tolerated, but discussion about police funding, particularly defunding of the GRPD is completely unacceptable.

What would it even look like if the public demanded there be ongoing conversation and dialogue that not only encouraged a healthy critique of the GRPD, but allowed for and encouraged people to talk about how we can create public safety that doesn’t rely on heavily armed people who are trained to use force as the normal approach to conflict.

What would it look like if people were allowed to and encouraged to talk about things like:

  • Is there concrete evidence that the GRPD prevents crime or solves crime?
  • How does structural violence and structural racism impact people, especially since it is legal for institutions to practice structural racism and structural violence?
  • What would real community safety look like?
  • What if the necessary resources were available to people, would that eliminate the need for street level crime?
  • What if the current police budget were re-imagined into meeting the real needs of people?

These are the necessary conversations that we all need to have. We need to stop allowing the systems of power and oppression to dictate how we have community engagement and how we practice participatory democracy.

The fact is, those with power in this city, particularly those with economic and political power, have already determined what they want in the next Chief of Police. They have been having this conversation for months and the process of community engagement is really nothing more than a distraction, a con, meant to make us feel like they care about what the public thinks. 

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