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State civil rights department files more racial discrimination charges against Grand Rapids police

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio

The Michigan Department of Civil Rights has filed more charges of racial discrimination against the Grand Rapids Police Department.

The charges announced Thursday are over an incident that happened in the city in 2018, when GRPD stopped a group of three Black boys and held them at gunpoint, based on a call that the boys had a toy gun.

“There was no initial crime reported,” said MDCR director John E. Johnson Jr. “There’s nothing illegal about two children walking near train tracks with what the 911 caller identified repeatedly as a toy gun.”

Johnson said GRPD couldn’t provide any evidence of white children ever receiving the same treatment. The formal civil rights charges against the department only involve the treatment of the two 11-year-old boys stopped during the incident. The MDCR says it didn’t receive a complaint about the 17-year-old who was stopped with them.

The MDCR says it currently has 21 open investigations of alleged civil rights abuses by the GRPD — more than twice as many open civil rights investigations as any other police department in the state. The next highest number is for Detroit police, with eight open investigations against it, then Lansing, with six, according to a civil rights department spokesperson.

The spokesperson said the department currently has a total of 119 open civil rights investigations involving police departments in Michigan.

The number of open investigations of alleged abuses involving GRPD includes two cases that led to formal charges filed this summer.

All of the formal charges announced by the MDCR are submitted to an administrative law judge, who decides whether to issue fines against the police department, and possibly force the department to take steps to correct its practices.

“We are aware of today’s announcement by the MDCR," said a city spokesperson in response to a request for comment from Michigan Radio. "We have not yet been served with the charges. We’ll be reviewing the charges and responding appropriately.”

Residents in Grand Rapids have complained for years about how the Grand Rapids police department treats its non-white residents. A 2017 report commissioned by the city showed that Black drivers were twice as likely to be stopped as white drivers. And there have been a series of high profile incidents involving how GRPD treats children during stops. Two of those incidents are now part of the formal charges against the department.

The civil rights department held two public listening sessions in the city in 2019 to hear residents' claims about the police department. Johnson said more than 80 people spoke at the hearings, and dozens more filed complaints with the civil rights department.

The formal charges announced Thursday come a week after the city was hit with a $100 million civil lawsuit that alleges racial discrimination in the killing of Patrick Lyoya. A Grand Rapids police officer shot and killed Lyoya following a traffic stop in April. Lyoya was Black and had no weapon when he was stopped.

And earlier this month, Grand Rapids city commissioners approved paying more than $300,000 to settle a lawsuit over the police department violating the civil rights of two Black men it stopped in 2011. Police took photos and fingerprints of the two men, Denishio Johnson and Keyon Harrison, after stopping them — though neither was accused of any crime. The Michigan Supreme Court ruled this year that the policy of photographing and fingerprinting innocent people violated the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The ACLU of Michigan said 75% of the people GRPD photographed and fingerprinted under the policy were Black.

On December 6, Grand Rapids City Commissioners agreed to settle the 11-year old lawsuit by paying Harrison and Johnson $30,000 each, and paying the ACLU of Michigan $270,000 in legal fees.

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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