The Rapidian Home

Community listening sessions: What will you say about policing?

In light of the recent traffic stop study and incidents involving young African-American males and the police, the City of Grand Rapids will hold a series of "Community Listening Sessions" to deepen engagement around the issue of policing. With up to $5 million on the table, what will you say?
Black men stand in solidarity over concerns with policing at City Commission meeting on Tuesday, May 9, 2017.

Black men stand in solidarity over concerns with policing at City Commission meeting on Tuesday, May 9, 2017. /Elizabeth Rogers Drouillard

Community listening meetings

First Ward Meeting
June 12, 2017
6:00 p.m.
Stocking School (863 7th Street)
Second Ward Meeting
June 20, 2017
6:00 p.m.
GRPS University (1400 Fuller)
Third Ward DAY Meeting
June 12, 2017
12:00 p.m.
Michigan First Credit Union (Burton & Breton)
Third Ward EVENING Meeting
June 19, 2017
6:00 p.m.
Gerald R. Ford School (851 Madison)
Spanish Language Meeting
June 16, 2017
6:00 p.m.
Cesar Chavez (1205 Grandville)

The Grand Rapids City Commission is earmarking a possible $1 million a year for the next five years for "police and community relations." They are waiting on input from a series of “Community Listening meetings" to decide how to use those funds. The meetings, designed by City Commissioner Joe Jones, are meant to be part of an "ongoing, robust and authentic community outreach plan" according to the city website. During each meeting, the city will present the progress on the 12-Point Plan for Community and Police Relations, and a facilitator will engage the public in a community dialogue. The meetings will begin on Monday June 12, will wrap up on June 20, and will include a Spanish language meeting. (Full schedule here and in sidebar.)

What will you say? How do we as a community talk about big issues such as policing? And how do we hold the Commission accountable for including us in the budgeting process? As you consider your comments, here are edited excerpts from my letter to Mayor Bliss and my commissioners in preparation for these meetings.

Extend Lamberth Consulting contract

With the money the City Commission is setting aside for community and police relations, I believe the city should follow Lamberth Consulting’s recommendations, including continuing the contract with Lamberth or another consultant who can assess racialized outcomes for traffic stops over the next few years.

As Russell Olmsted of the Community Police Relations Council said, “The Lamberth consultants’ recommendations are one of the things the city hired them for. This was explained again and again at meetings last fall when the city introduced the consulting team and the methodology of the upcoming study.”

Olmsted continued, “The city hired Lamberth Consulting because it is one of the world leaders at this type of study and the systemic reforms needed to address issues around this study. Step one of the recommendations laid out by Lamberth Consulting was to now analyze the most recent data from 2016 to see if the reforms that have been put in place through the 12-point plan are working, then audit and release the data for the next few years to measure our progress.”  

It seems clear we need continued data to see what’s working, and the cost is reported to be a quarter of a million dollars, a fraction of what the city proposes to set aside.

Olmsted said this is important for a few reasons.

  • It rebuilds trust in the community through transparency of information. If we don't continue to investigate and collect data on this issue it will give the impression are leaders yet again looking the other way when shown facts about racial bias and systemic racialized outcomes in our city.
  • Information and data on this issue is the only way to form long term goals and plans. Not acting on or obtaining that data shows a lack of regard for using the evidence in forming a long-term strategy.
  • The benchmarking used in the study is only good for a limited time, especially in a city that is expanding like ours. “Acting sooner rather than later will actually save money because we won't have to pay for the benchmarking portion of the study to be done again.”

SAFE and Equity PAC recommendations

  • In light of the results of the Lamberth results, the Commission has not wanted to extend the contract, but has already decided to pay more attention to the SAFE task-force (Safe Alliances For Everyone) recommendations developed and delivered two years ago by a committee headed by Commissioner Senita Lenear. The recommendations include a restorative justice focus, neighborhood youth programs, targeting initiators of gang-related violence, and greater support for parents. Certainly much of the funding should go toward ensuring those are done well.
  • Though I do not want to see more police officers hired, we must make sure the ones who are hired are trauma-informed and have a real stake in the community. Implicit-bias testing, diversification of the workforce, and increased anti-racism training and de-escalation training for the force are all recommended by Equity PAC.

Broader solutions

When looking at the bigger picture of systemic racism, though, many of these solutions barely scratch the surface. Policing is only one part of the hyper-segregated and white-driven culture of West Michigan that result in such poor outcomes for people of color in our city, including higher rates of incarceration and unemployment and lower rates of income and wealth-creation.

Racism and other bias often hide within the pro-business attitude of the Commission, a body that accepts money for the city from donors and developers who support candidates and oppressive policies against immigrants, people of color, folks with disabilities and mental illness and the LGBTQ community. If we want more equitable outcomes in policing and justice, we need to address the bigger picture.

Since there would be money left over after paying Lamberth, here are some ideas that might be worth discussing:

  • Social workers or community members trained in de-escalation could either ride with the police or be available in neighborhoods separately so that when a mental health crisis or a disagreement arises, people without weapons are on hand with a primary goal to de-escalate, mediate, and problem-solve. Denver and San Diego both have versions of these programs.
  • The Dispute Resolution Center and other restorative justice experts could help train the community in handling their own problems rather than calling in the law. (The SAFE recommendations mention restorative justice approaches as well.)
  • A fine-forgiveness program. Many folks end up with warrants and arrests because of small tickets and fines that accumulate to overwhelming numbers - I've talked to some who were jailed just as they started a job that would help them get out from under the fines.
  • The police force could be restructured so that the same police who patrol a community spend time getting to know the community, outside of their patrol cars. This is not the same as kids getting comfortable with police in uniforms -- it means the officers know who is in their community.
  • The SAFE task-force recommendations talk about social opportunities for youth. Support and funding for cooperative Black-owned businesses could also allow families and youth to be involved with enterprises that earn them money and capital as a way to provide positive social activities for youth.
  • As SAFE recommends, we need to Ban the Box (the question about felony convictions on job and rental applications).
  • Initiate neighborhood-driven gun reduction and recovery programs, along with judgment-free conversation on why people have guns and what problems they are trying to solve with those guns.

I look forward to hearing others' experiences and ideas at the upcoming meetings. We as a community will then need to hold our city leaders accountable for following through on meaningful solutions. If the community response continues to be anything like the crowds who have shown up at recent City Commission meetings, maybe we can hope to see real action and reduced harm to communities of color.

The Rapidian, a program of the 501(c)3 nonprofit Community Media Center, relies on the community’s support to help cover the cost of training reporters and publishing content.

We need your help.

If each of our readers and content creators who values this community platform help support its creation and maintenance, The Rapidian can continue to educate and facilitate a conversation around issues for years to come.

Please support The Rapidian and make a contribution today.

Comments, like all content, are held to The Rapidian standards of civility and open identity as outlined in our Terms of Use and Values Statement. We reserve the right to remove any content that does not hold to these standards.