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Grand Rapids takes steps to improve community, police relations – critics say not fast enough

Groups brainstorming
Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio
Groups of people talk about Grand Rapids' 12-point plan to improving community relations with police.

Elected leaders in Grand Rapids are trying to satisfy critics who say they’re not doing enough to change police policies and outcomes critics say are racially biased.

It's part of a larger effort launched after violence in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014.

Since then, Grand Rapids got body cameras for all officers. The city also hired a consultant to study traffic stop data. The study found black drivers were twice as likely to be pulled over as white drivers.

But the police union has pushed back, saying the data is flawed.

That's no surprise to Sammy Publes, a long time Grand Rapidian with Cuban heritage.

“It’s not about fighting back whether or not the numbers are right or wrong. If enough people are saying there is a concern – why aren’t you being proactive in actually addressing that?” he said.

Publes and about 80 others sat in groups Tuesday night, brainstorming ways to force the city to make changes within the police department and to measure success.

Credit Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
People brainstorm in groups how they'd measure success in the effort to improve relationships between minority communities and the police department.

Cle Jackson, who heads the local branch of the NAACP, called the union’s assertions “ridiculous.” He says community groups like his are willing to work with the elected leaders, the police union and the chief, but added “it’s about the people and really creating a community that’s healthier from a holistic perspective.”

“If we effectively rally the residents that’s all we need," Jackson said.

A couple of miles away at city hall, locally elected leaders took a few more steps to improve relations; spending $15,000 on a “know your rights” public information campaign, and creating a new task force to review GRPD policies and procedures “to identify and eliminate racial bias.”

The task force will review promotions and recognitions to “eliminate perpetuating racial bias.” It’s expected to have recommendations to the commission by the end of the year.

Commissioners also voted to add six residents to the public safety committee, which makes recommendations on public safety issues. The “unprecedented step” was made “to maximize citizen input and involvement.”

But resident and restaurant owner Johnny Brann berated city commissioners for not giving police enough support.

“Can’t you just say one good thing about law enforcement? Can’t you just do that? I mean, even though it’s hard for you?” Brann asked.

Brann was outnumbered though, at this meeting and others in the recent past.

Next month the city will host its own a series of meetings to get feedback and provide a progress report. You can find more details about those meetings on the city’s website.

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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