Grand Rapids Police Department promises change

Can the police department’s new strategic plan really transform policing in a meaningful way?
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Grand Rapids Police Chief Eric Payne, back right, monitors one of the protests for racial justice this summer. Photo by Bryan Esler/Downtown Grand Rapids Inc.

Saturday, May 30, 2020, is the day everything boiled over in Grand Rapids. It was five days after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and Rosa Parks Circle was packed with thousands of people waving signs.

As night fell, some people went home — but others stayed. The evening grew violent, and protesters clashed with police. Up and down Monroe Center, the sun rose on smashed windows and burned-out cars and a sense of frustration lingered that things hadn’t gone right.

Especially for organizers — ready to turn the page on police reform — it wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. In the days afterward, those behind the peaceful, early-evening protest condemned the late-night violence, as did leaders elsewhere throughout Grand Rapids.

But the same tensions were breaking all over the country. In cities around the U.S. — Detroit to Chicago to Los Angeles — protesters and police clashed. George Floyd, a Black man who died under the knee of Minneapolis police, had touched off a movement that let out years of Black frustration with racism in America. The country seemed to decide it couldn’t take it anymore.

The rest of the year has seen Grand Rapids leaders respond to that crisis of sudden, explosive refusal to stand by the status quo, spelled out both in unrest and in peaceful protest all around the country. Grand Rapids leaders have a plan — unrolling now over the course of the next two years — to reshape how the city’s Police Department does its job.

“Really what we want to focus on is that problem-oriented policing,” said Sgt. Dan Adams, a spokesperson for the Grand Rapids Police Department, “saying ‘Hey, what concerns you in your neighborhood, and how can I help?’”

Alyssa Bates is a 19-year-old Grand Rapids activist. Photo by Bryan Esler

The Grand Rapids Police Department Strategic Plan — a roughly two-dozen-page document awash in bullet points and goals and methods and statistics — is a document that city leaders say will transform how local police do their work. By January, when you read this, it will already be in the process of implementation, barring a sudden change of political course, and set to run through 2023.

The plan calls for being “a positive presence in our neighborhoods” — assigning officers so they build better relationships with the people on their beat. It calls for considering non-sworn personnel writing parking tickets, for more community meetings with police and for boosting department diversity. It is essentially a long list of steps aimed at making sure the community feels more protected than policed.

Many members of the community are skeptical. Local police have earned a share of negative headlines in recent years — notably handcuffing or holding Black youth at gunpoint multiple times. And in an August meeting a stream of residents called in to demand the city reduce its funding for the local police by millions of dollars, down to the required 32% minimum of the general fund. Alyssa Bates, a 19-year-old Grand Rapids activist, knows how they feel.

“I admit, the term is a bit vague. When we say defund the police, we say reallocating funds,” she said. She said she’s not sure why that funding for the police can’t be reallocated to building up the community — especially in Black neighborhoods. “I feel like the whole entire policing system needs a reform, all across the board.”

LaDonna Norman is a community advocate who hopes to see improvement for people of color throughout the city. Photo by Bryan Esler

LaDonna Norman, a community advocate who grew up in Grand Rapids and now lives just outside it, has her doubts, too.

“I can tell you that it’s been stressful and a year of uncertainty. And I think that’s not just for Black and brown people. It’s for people in general,” Norman said. “It’s a year of teachable moments. But I can’t say that this has been a year of growth for the Black and brown community, especially when it comes to the police department.”

Race and policing

And at the heart of the conversation about the future of the Grand Rapids Police Department is the question of race in America. For activists like Bates, especially in the Black community, there is an extraordinary distrust of the police.

City Manager Mark Washington — the first Black man to hold his office — said he understands. He doesn’t go into details, but yes, there were times in his youth where he’d felt unfairly treated by the police because of who he is.

But that hasn’t happened in Grand Rapids, he adds. And throughout much of his discussion of the local police, he makes this kind of careful distinction: police protests have been fed by incidents with officers, like lethal shootings, he said, that have happened far more recently elsewhere. And sure, the city could slash police funding — even though it’s recently made small adjustments downward — but to what end?

“I think we know that it will help another investment,” Washington said. “But how do we know that that dollar will result in a safer community?”

And Adams said old policing models are set to fade away as the department continues to change.

“Back in the day, it was ‘Hey, there’s a spike in crime here. Throw more officers at it, send more officers, send more patrols, zero tolerance. Making more traffic stops, making more stops of people on the street,’” Adams said. “… Essentially, you’re fishing with a net. You may catch one of the fish that you’re looking for, but you’re also catching a lot of fish who are getting swept up in it who don’t have anything to do with the problem. What we want to do is be much more strategic, be much more surgical.”

Alison Sutter is the city’s sustainability and performance management officer — a long way of saying that she’s involved with the system of metrics that track the plan’s progress. Already, there’s an online dashboard counting police metrics like its budget, its racial makeup and the number of internal versus external complaints filed, she points out.

It’s going to be years before the plan is finished. For many Grand Rapids residents, they’ll believe the results when they see them.

“Stopping the violence in the city goes back to what I said about defunding the GRPD,” Bates said.

Important stats

  • 63% of residents rated their overall feeling of safety in Grand Rapids as excellent or good (46% for Black/African American and 49% for Latinx respondents).
  • There are 297 authorized sworn officers on the GRPD for FY 2021.
  • 11% of police employees and 17% of new hires were Black/Indigenous/People of Color in
    FY 2020.
  • 10.67% turnover rate for police personnel, the highest in five years.
  • 37.4% of general fund for adjusted police budget in FY 2021 ($55 million adjusted budget, 79.7% for personnel; general fund portion reduced from 38.6%).

*These stats are provided as part of the Police Strategic Plan FY 21-23. View the strategic plan here.

This story can be found in the January 2021 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox each month, subscribe here

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