Editor’s Note: In the midst of ongoing Police and Community relations today, it is important to note that there have been numerous reports and recommendations on police abuse and community relations. The report referred to in this article from 1996 is one, with another coming in 2005. It is interesting to see how the recommendations don’t change much, which should tell us something about police and community relations. This article is re-posted from a May/June 1995 issue of the FUNdamentalist.
Since our last issue much has happened in Grand Rapids surrounding the issue of public allegations of police abuse. Because of the numerous examples and testimonies from citizens in the Grand Rapids area the City Commission formed a committee to investigate these allegations and put forth some recommendations. In March, this committee produced a 5 page report that came up with 10 fundamental policy recommendations.
As I read the report the majority of it focuses on changing some of the procedures in the complaint process, especially with Internal Affairs and the issue of racism and race “sensitivity.” Even though the commission’s investigation was prompted by the issue of police abuse and not race, the report puts too much emphasis on race . I counted the references to police abuse/misconduct in the report and found it mentioned just 3 times. In regards to the issue of race or racism, I found 10 references. Even though the majority of complaints were brought forth by the African American community, many of the spokespersons were not happy with the emphasis on race.
Paul Mayhue said of the report’s focus on race, “This seems to perpetuate the situation where it seems like a race problem. We want to let you know we are not talking about a race problem. We’re talking about police officers coming into communities and using excessive force on people. We’re talking about Black cops, White cops and cops that are unscrupulous in general. It (the report) makes people in the White community say that the African Americans are coming to the Commission again and asking for special favors, quotas, affirmative action and all that stuff. We are not asking for special favors. We want the law of the land enforced.”
Other concerns and objections to the report recommendations had to do with the proposed make up of a civilian review board. The report proposes a 3 level process on how to deal with complaints and allegations of police abuse. First, Internal Affairs would conduct its own investigation. This would include the participation of someone from the City Attorney’s office. Second, the City’s Labor relations Department would look at the case and confirm, modify or make changes to the recommendations of Internal Affairs. Lastly, a civilian review board (made up of 3 members) would review the findings and make their own conclusions from the other 2 groups findings. The civilian review board would not have the opportunity to engage in separate investigations or the interviewing of witnesses. They also would not have access to records, except at a low level. Most dis-heartening to those who came to the March Commission meeting was the assertion that the “Chief of Police or his designee would continue to administer discipline.”
People spoke clearly and passionately at both the March and an April 9 meeting held at Ottawa Hills High School about these issues. Most people felt that there should be 6 or 7 members from the community that would serve on a civilian review board. Two representatives from each ward and maybe one member of the City Commission. People expressed the importance that these 7 people should be representative of racial, ethnic, gender and class groupings. Many also felt strongly about not giving the final say to the Police Chief or the City Manager, especially since these positions are not elected positions, thus making it more difficult for citizens to remove them from office if dissatisfied with their performance.
At the April 9 meeting citizens also outlined some other concerns. They called for an end to public searches, especially body cavity searches, that they felt were humiliating and degrading. One person said, “how would you feel if your mother or your sister or your grandmother was subjected to a body cavity search in broad daylight?” Some citizens were also asking for public access to records so residents would know when police officers were disciplined for misconduct.
Much of this analysis is absent from the Grand Rapids Press, which chose to give readers simple overviews that framed the issue in a battle between opposing forces. As mentioned in the last issue of this paper, the stories and testimonies of Black, White and Latino members of the community were not reflected nor recounted in the Press articles by Kelly Root. The City Commissioners, Mayor, City Manager and the Police Chief were all given space to respond to citizen concerns. Citizens, however, were given little space and their comments are usually not polite. This is certainly understandable, but if one read the article without understanding what precipitated the rage expressed in the testimony, it would be easy to dismiss these people as hate mongers who just like to use anti-establishment rhetoric or who want to blame everything on White people.
The only person who was quoted and was in favor of the civilian review board is Paul Mayhue. It might be that because Mayhue is a County Commissioner that he is given the space in the article or that the organized body that is pushing the issue has made Mayhue their spokesperson. If it is the later, this is not sufficient cause for the Press reporter to not seek out other input and ideas from the community. There were over 20 people who spoke at the last public hearing on this matter, only 5 are given voice in the Press article on April 10.
Of the 5 that are cited, 2 of those are primarily an exchange between a police officer who was opposed to a civilian review board and a member of the West Michigan March Delegation. Both accompanying photos are of those 2 people that again re-enforces this oppositional perspective. This article is even headlined, “Officer speaks against civilian review.” I found this interesting and at the same time disgusting. What if all the people who spoke at this hearing were police officers who were in favor of keeping things the way they are now and only one concerned citizen got up to voice a dissenting opinion? Do you think the Press would have given them nearly a third of the article or entitled the headline after their concerns? Not likely. Yet, the officer got significant print space as well as commentary from the reporter. Most importantly, the Press article of April 10 did not mention the numerous concerns and feedback that was shared with regard to the issue of a civilian review board, which was the whole reason the public hearing was held for in the first place. The Press, it would seem, wold rather distract readers from the issues at hand and make you think the whole thing was about petty bickering by disgruntled inner city folk.
Clearly one cannot rely on local corporate media reporting in order to get a more accurate picture of what is going on. I suggest that if people want more information that they need to contact the city directly if they want a copy of the recommendations drawn up by Commissioners Heartwell, Williams and Mayor Logie. I am not aware of any other hearing on this matter nor when the commission will vote on whether or not to adopt the recommendations as are or an amended version. The West Michigan March Delegation is planning a petition campaign that would put this matter on the ballot in the fall. They need 14,000 signatures for that to happen.
Editor’s Note: The West Michigan March Delegation did not get enough signatures to put it on the ballot in 1996, but the City of Grand Rapids did create a Grand Rapids Police Civilian Appeal Board. However, the Civilian Appeals Board can only make recommendations and has no real power to challenge the decisions made by the Internal Affairs section of the GRPD.