Like all other groups, the Grand Rapids Association of Pastors now meets via Zoom. This fall we have met twice with Grand Rapids Police Chief Eric Payne to talk about what is happening in Grand Rapids. This summer and fall we have seen peaceful protests for justice for Black lives downtown but also a rate of gun violence that we haven't experienced since the 1990s.
In August, Chief Payne Zoomed with the pastors to talk about the GRPD's Strategic Plan. He emphasized that the department has listened to the community, and they are looking for ways to "do policing differently":
I don't want the only thing we're doing is enforcing law. We only exist because of the community. I want us to go out into the community, interacting and building relationships.
The strategic plan includes both things they are planning to do, and things they are hoping to do:
Payne noted that any plans they make, their vision and mission statements--everything--is built on trust: community trust in the police department and police trust in the community. This is baked into their vision: "In partnership with our community, we will become the safest mid-sized city and most trusted police department in the United States."
Several pastors asked how trust can be measured, so the GRPD and the community knows what is and isn't working to shift the current climate of lack of trust. After admitting that they are still working on metrics to measure their progress, the chief pointed to several different avenues and programs:
• Service – Through compassion, empathy and courage, we are driven to meet the public safety needs of our community.
The pastors at the meeting are passionate about the city we all live in, and had a lot of questions for Chief Payne. Pastor Nancy Boote wanted to know more about the neighborhood policing model. Payne said that they are looking for this, eventually: "All officers feeling responsible for their neighborhood and know the people in their neighborhood. Holding accountable the people who are terrorizing their neighborhood." Now, there are 15 community policing officers; Payne hopes to expand that.
Pastor Chase Stancle noted that it was very helpful to have a third party come in to do the investigation on racial profiling in traffic stops. Payne agreed. He said, "We're still working off that 2016 study. It wasn't just put on a bookshelf and forgotten about. We'll be looking at our data again on traffic stops and arrests--not this year, but we will."
Stancle also asked about how they can increase their recruiting of women and people of color. Payne noted that they are doing so well at recruiting women that they've had to expand the women's locker room. Half of the students in one of their classes at Grand Valley State University are female. He knows they are not doing as well with people of color, but they continue to work with Grand Rapids Community College and historically black colleges and universities to recruit people of color.
Pastor Bruce McCoy asked the chief to expand on the issue of diversity in the department. Payne spoke about two initiatives:
Pastor James Jones sought assurances that the CLEAR program would continue to be supported. CLEAR stands for Coalition, Leadership, Education, Advice, Rehabilitation. It is a program in which law enforcement, community resource partners, and returning citizens come together once a week to connect and to ease the citizens' transition to the community. Payne was unequivocal: "We have personnel assigned to this. Our support isn't changing."
Pastor Jack Kooreman asked about the violence after the May 30th peaceful protest. Chief Payne spoke to his belief that "A third element emerged, an organized effort by a few to turn it to what it became." He was grateful that nobody was seriously injured that night--in particular that "noone was seriously injured by our actions, that despite officers having bricks thrown at them, nobody had their sticks out chasing people and beating them."
Pastor Kate Kooyman asked about the two-day suspension for the officer who did injure a person at that protest when he fired a chemical round from his riot device directly at a man and injured his shoulder. Chief Payne said, "The officer made a mistake." He noted that he needs to seek input from their legal department, from labor relations, from the Police Advisory Board, and "determine what accountability can be." He noted that, "The two-day suspension could wind up before an arbitrator and my decision could be overturned for being either too tough or too lenient."
Payne also said, "I am uncomfortable with the statute that officers cannot be held criminally accountable for anything up to using deadly force. I want officers to be held accountable."
This came up again in our September meeting with the Chief. He noted that the reason that officers in departments around the country keep not being indicted for killing Black people while on duty is because of the Supreme Court decision, Graham v. Connor, regarding use of force by police officers. He said that there is a broader system that needs to be looked at--not just department by department.
We talked again in September about accountability decisions in the GRPD, in particular about the DATE INCIDENT. The Chief reiterated the process that they go through: "I have to bring in labor relations, the city attorney's staff. I talked with the officer, other officers, the man who was shot.... I have to make sure that I follow available laws. After reviewing everything we decided on two days' suspension without pay. The union disagreed and filed a grievance and now we're in arbitration. That's part of the process." He added, "Prosecutor Becker looked at all the things [the officer] could've been charged for and didn't find anything," so the officer was held accountable internally with the two days' unpaid leave.
The meeting last month was dominated by discussion about the Breonna Taylor case in Louisville, Kentucky. Chief Payne said, "Regardless of what happens [with indictments against the officers], a tragedy occurred. It will be part of law enforcement history forever." He wanted the pastors to know that the GRPD has policies against the specific behaviors of the officers who fired into Taylor's apartment, killing her:
"Grand Rapids has not done a no-knock warrant in 6 years. It's now our policy not to do them. Middle-of-the-night warrants are unusual, and we wouldn't do one for a narcotics case. One of the officers shot blindly into the residence and we aren't trained to do that and we don't do that. I don't believe that this type of thing would happen here.... Reform is taking place within our department. It should be an awakening for every law enforcement department: we make mistakes and we need to own up to them and be held accountable for them."
Besides mistakes, there are also opportunities missed. Pastor Jathan Austin spoke about one such opportunity: the Unity in the Community rally for young people ages 12 - 18, which drew predominantly African-American teenagers. Austin said that the police stayed around the perimeter and didn't engage with people, which sent a message of discomfort.
In both meetings, Chief Payne and Pastor Willie Gholston III spoke about ways that pastors can engage with the police department. COVID-19 has changed how the church gathers, so there are not as many events to invite officers to, but pastors can again sign up to go on ride-alongs. Gholston is on the Advisory Board, and they are looking at ways pastors can assist with regards to mental health capacity and de-escalation training. If you are interested in exploring ride-alongs or other ways of interacting with the police department, either personally, or with your congregation, please contact us and we will connect you.
This is an intense season for both pastoring and policing, so we spent the end of each meeting in prayer for each other.
We have fallen off our regular schedule of 3rd Thursday of the month, but we will continue to meet when there is something that can pierce through the Zoom fatigue so many people are feeling in these days. If you are a Grand Rapids-area pastor and are interested in issues of unity and justice and you do not receive our email newsletter, please contact us and we'll put you on the list so you can find out when the next meeting will be.