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“Problematic” show of force from Grand Rapids police strikes a nerve

Grand Rapids Police Department station
Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio
The Grand Rapids Police Department

A coalition ofcommunity groups is encouraging Grand Rapids residents to contact the city manager and police chief after a March 24th encounter between police and a group of five African American boys.

Grand Rapids Police Sgt. Terry Dixon says officers were call to the Kroc Center, a large community center, just after 7 p.m. There was a report that “about 100 people were fighting.” When officers arrived they found about 20 people playing basketball, Dixon said, but no one fighting. There were groups of young people leaving the scene.

Dixon says a neighbor flagged down an officer on the way to the scene. The neighbor said they had seen a group of teens walking down the street. The neighbor said one of the teens had dropped a revolver, picked it back up and put it in his waistband. The officer took the descriptions and relayed the information over the radio that a weapon had been seen.

Soon after, Dixon said, officers saw a group that matched the description the neighbor gave. The officers approached with their weapons drawn, and ordered them to the ground, Dixon said.

“You could see the level of fear, the level of anxiety. One of them started to cry,” said Allison Colberg.

Colberg is the executive director of the Micah Center, a faith-based justice organization.

“One of the parents arrived and she was just extremely distraught, because her young black son was in an encounter with the police and we’ve seen that go wrong in a number of places across the country,” she said.  

“You can imagine what were these children thinking."

Colberg was among a group of people who were able t o view the video footage from an officer’s body camera. The police chief met with them and the boys’ family members to explain what happened and the policies officers followed, Sgt. Dixon said.

Police found the boys, between 12 and 14 years old, were unarmed. Some of the boys remained handcuffed after they were searched and placed in the back of a patrol car as officers checked the scene.

“The scene was very militaristic,” Grand Rapids NAACP branch president Cle Jackson, who also saw the footage, said.

Jackson says it doesn’t appear the officers broke any rules, but he called the show of force “problematic” and perhaps biased.

“I don’t think anyone would want their kid to be in that situation. And as an adult I wouldn’t even want to be in that situation. And quite honestly, these kids handled themselves stellar,” Jackson said.

“These kids were ‘Yes sir, No sir.’ One kids tells his friend ‘You’re not going to die, the police are here to protect us,'” he said.

Jackson, Colberg and Jeremy DeRoo, co-director at LINC UP, issued a joint statement after the meeting with GRPD. It urged people to call the police chief and city manager Greg Sundstrom about the incident, and to address the issue at Tuesday’s city commission meeting.

Jackson acknowledges the need to protect the officers’ safety, reduce youth violence and to get guns off the streets, but “no one is safer if there’s a breakdown of trust.”

“When there was no longer a threat why were these kids still left in handcuffs? Why were they still in the patrol car?” he asked.

DeRoo says this is not an isolated incident.

“Right now, we have not found that right balance of protecting the needs of the community and protecting the needs of police officers. And it’s not that we want to chose one side or the other, we need ways as a community to do both effectively. And that’s going to take time, that’s going to take input from a lot of different perspectives, and I think that what happens is a start of the conversation where we can get to more effective ways of dealing with these issues,” DeRoo said.

Sgt. Terry Dixon called the incident “unfortunate."

“We don’t want our citizens to be subjected to that if they’re innocent, but the problem is we don’t know that. We’re trying to act on what we believe is credible information,” Dixon said. “We don’t know that these individuals are necessarily innocent until we actually investigate it.”

Dixon says police respond the way they do for two reasons, to protect the public and to protect themselves.

“If there’s a individual who may have a weapon it literally takes about a second, maybe even less, to draw a weapon from a person’s waistband and point it at someone,” he said.

Dixon says the officers on scene contacted the boys parents and talked to them about why they stopped them.

“We want to encourage and listen to the concerns because if there is a better way that does not compromise citizen or officer safety, than we’re listening,” Dixon said.

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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