The Grand Rapids Association of Pastors has come full-circle: we formed in 2015 after the events at Ferguson, and on April 20, 2017 we gathered to learn about and talk through our concerns surrounding a recent local policing event. As Rev. Kate Kooyman said,
"We wanted to have a conversation with each other so we could have a united voice for justice. Since then, we've talked about injustice in education and immigration. These recent events have gotten us back to the heart of why we started coming together. What is the role for faith leaders in this moment?"
The meeting at Brown Hutcherson Ministries drew members of GRAP, as well as independent citizens, local media, denominational representatives, Calvin College professors, City Commissioner Joe Jones, NAACP Grand Rapids President Cle Jackson, LINC UP Executive Director Jeremy DeRoo, and The Micah Center Executive Director Allison Colberg. The leaders of the three justice organizations formed an expert panel that presented to the group, with clarifications coming from Commissioner Jones. We ended the meeting with a time of open comments.
Events of March 24, 2017
First, NAACP Grand Rapids President Cle Jackson walked us through the events of March 24, 2017, when a group of five 12- and 14-year old boys were subject to a military-style police stop.
After an alleged call to Grand Rapids police about a large fight involving African-American teens on the basketball courts of the Kroc Center, a patrol car in the area was flagged down by a resident of that neighborhood. The resident told the officer that he'd seen a group of five African-American teenage boys with a gun, and that a couple of those young men were dressed all in black.
Shortly after leaving that conversation, the officer saw a group of five African-American boys, one of whom was dressed all in black. He pulled over, drew his gun on the boys, and ordered them to get down. The boys complied, although the 12-year-old "melted down, screaming, 'I don't want to die,' and 'They're going to kill me!'" Jackson added, "I'm in public health and we call this social trauma."
Then one of the 14-year-olds tried to calm the 12-year-old down, and another of the boys melted down. Neighbors came out and were saying, "They're just kids." The officers kept the kids laying on the ground, and tried to get the neighbors to go back into their houses.
Jackson praised the boys: "The five young boys were stellar. They followed orders. They said 'sir' the entire time."
Soon, an additional half-dozen officers arrive at the scene, and all point guns and tasers at the boys on the ground. They are each ordered to get up, put their hands up, and walk backwards towards one of the officers.
The NAACP Grand Rapids President paused. "As an African-American man, I've lived this story. When you're walking backwards, hands up ... what if one of these officers says, 'I saw him running'?" He let the audience imagine the rest.
The twelve-year-old was the first to reach an officer and be searched; no weapon was found. When the officer learned his age, he told his colleagues, and then put the boy into the back of one police car. One of the 14-year-olds, who was dressed all in black, reached an officer; he was ordered onto his knees, handcuffed, and searched. No weapon was found. He was put into the back of another police car. This was repeated three more times, until all the boys were in the back of police cars.
Jackson asked, "Why did you handcuff those babies? Why, if there's no threat, did you keep them in the car as long as you did? They knew the kids ages. They searched them and knew there was no threat. Why would you have handcuffed them and put them in the car?"
After all the boys were in the cars, held for some time, one of their mothers arrived at the scene. Jackson said, "She fell on the ground, screaming, 'I just need to see him and know he's okay.'" The officers would not let her see her son, and she continued to be upset. Her son heard this, and asked whether the officer would let him just stick his head out of the car so his mom could see him. His request was denied. Eventually, the boy said, "I don't want my mom to get hurt." At that point, the officer let him step out of the car for a moment to reassure his mother.
Jackson was blunt: "There's a glaring disparity in terms of how black and brown youth is treated by law enforcement. All of us are aware of the racial profiling report that just came out. All of you in this room should be outraged. And they are related."
The Twelve-Point Plan
The remainder of Jackson's comments, and many of Jeremy DeRoo's and Allison Colberg's statements referenced the 12-point plan to improve community and police relations that was accepted by the City Commission in January of 2015. (Here is an article from the city about that plan.)
Jackson, DeRoo, and Colberg were all concerned about the narrative about this plan that the city is promoting. Jackson said, "The narrative of the city is that they were on board with this voluntarily, and with no pressure. No. The plan was co-authored by LINC UP, the Urban League, and the NAACP. We had community forums, media about the reforms, and multiple meetings with city leadership to even get it to a vote to the city commission. It was forced by community pressure."
The Micah Center's Director, Allison Colberg, also countered how the city presents its part in the process: "The City Commission presents a narrative of them noticing a problem and going to the community for input, when the pressure came from others. There is a narrative that the police department should be praised for addressing a systemic issue that shouldn't have been there in the first place."
Colberg spoke about one aspect of the plan: "Recommendation 3 — Calls for enhancing Police Officer training to provide mandatory cultural competence training and mandatory Implicit Bias Training for all Police Officers to improve citizen interactions through departmental performance metrics." She noted that the original recommendations from the community called for police bias testing, as well as bias training, but that was removed before it went to the Commission for a vote. The issue for her is that, "bias testing doesn't provide data" that could make the training more effective.
LINC UP Director Jeremy DeRoo spoke about Recommendation 8, that called for the city to conduct a survey on racial disparities in traffic stops, the results of which were released two days before GRAP's meeting. DeRoo outlined the study's findings:
"African Americans are stopped twice as much and searched twice as often when stopped, but criminality is found at the same rate [as other racial groups stopped]. The report shows that there is not increased criminality. African Americans are stopped disproportionally in areas where there are more African Americans. The same is true of Hispanics in Hispanic communities. There is something going on with how the GRPD is training its officers."
Colberg ended with a plea to the gathered pastors: "One role for GRAP and for pastors is in pushing back on the narrative that the work is almost done. Faith leaders in Grand Rapids can be really effective in not letting the attention go away."
Voices of the Community
The public portion of the meeting ended and we had a time of discussion and sharing of concerns. People in attendance were concerned that we spend so much time training kids how to respond to the police, but not much training the police in how to respond to African-American kids. Some people told stories of times they were roughed up by police in Grand Rapids when they were teenagers. One person spoke about training for officers to know how to deal with people who are traumatized, that their passion is not the same as aggression. One attendee noted that the company that consulted on the bias training had recommended that the police do scenario training, which would put officers in a simulated situation, but that the GRPD is not including scenario training. Another person noted that the talk in Grand Rapids centers around training, but not of outcomes and accountability. It was brought up that the Grand Rapids Public Schools do bias assessment testing, so there is precedence for that in our community.
Grand Rapids Public Schools
Speaking of GRPS, John Helmholdt was our final speaker of the afternoon, there to talk about the millage vote on May 2. After listening to our conversation, he quoted Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal:
"The greatest equalizer is a good quality education."
Grand Rapids Public Schools have seen serious improvements. Graduation rates are up 50%. It's seen it's first enrollment raise in 20 years. But Helmholdt said, "There is uncertainty in funds from the state. There is huge uncertainty with federal funds; it looks like funds for after-school programs and teacher training could be eliminated. These cuts could set up back and we could lose our momentum." This millage could alleviate that uncertainty but providing "local, stable, reliable funds. It would cost the average homeowner $3.75 per month." He encouraged the pastors to vote for the millage and to educate their congregations.
Day Without Immigrants
The Micah Center is part of Un Dia Sin Inmigrantes / 1 Day Without Immigrants. They invite everyone to march with them at noon on May 1, starting at Garfield Park, at 398 Burton Street SE, or to express solidarity through not buying goods and not working. See the Facebook page for more details.
Next meeting: Thursday, May 18, 11:30am - 1:00pm (place to be determined)