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Grand Rapids officials promise policing reforms after protests, to skeptical audience

Brian Jennings stands at the front of a crowd of protesters who marched through Grand Rapids Wednesday.
Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio

Grand Rapids officials told residents the city is commited to implementing changes to make policing more accountable, and safer for residents, in an online update forum on Friday.

The forum was held in the wake of sometimes destructive protests against police brutality in Grand Rapids, resulting in the city calling in the National Guard on Sunday, as well as setting curfews.

Residents who asked questions and made suggestions after the presentations were highly skeptical of the promises, and many called for the Grand Rapids Police Department to be "defunded," and the money used to improve conditions in distressed neighborhoods in the city.

"With the recent events, we've all had to take a long pause and ask if we're making progress," acknowledged City Manager Mark Washington. "Because the tragedy just shakes us to our core and it feels like we continually have to hit reset and start all over again."

But Washington said any changes to policing policy would have to also protect public safety, including protecting staffing levels, although he said the department would be increasing funding for community police officers. 

Washington also praised police for showing restraint during protests.

Washington said he had ordered Grand Rapids Police Chief Eric Payne to ensure strong, clear language in police policy regarding an officer's constitutional duty to intervene in any misuse of force.

Other responses the city plans include:

-The city's Office of Oversight and Public Accountability (OPA) will release a report in next 30 days summarizing previous reports on issues related to public safety, racism, and use of force.

- A Community Police Advisory Council will be established by June 6.

- Scheduling a virtual town hall at a later date

- Confer with subject matter experts to help people in the community heal from trauma inflicted by racism and use of force.

- Establish a Safety and Accountability Ambassador program to train people on use of video and processes to report incidents, including allowing people to file reports of police brutality with a community member rather than a police officer.

- Partner with community groups to help people find ways to become involved in improving policing and police-community relations.

- Review GRPD policy and practices, including use of force and whether the outcomes are inequitable, and  and recommend changes.

- Increase training of city staff on equity, justice, and implicit bias.

- Continue previous work to develop a strategic plan for change, accountability, restorative justice, and engagement and empowerment.

- Work with economic development department to increase summer job opportunities for youth.

Comments from residents were overwhelmingly negative. Many asked why it has been six days without an announcement of consequences for a city police officer caught on video launching a chemical crowd control canister into the face of a protester. 

Many also demanded an emergency city commission meeting to re-open the budget and move funds for the police department into community reinvestment and support.

Skepticism that the announced changes would amount to much was high.

"There was no restraint shown on Saturday," said Grand Rapids resident Lia Butkowich, referencing the use of tear gas.  "It was violence, coming from the police.  And I think there's something with Grand Rapids, where they put on this face of like, we take responsibility and we're doing all this, and they put on a smile like we're such a good city.  But if stuff like this keeps happening, then it's just fake."

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Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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