I think this is a calling just like yours is a calling.
This is how Grand Rapids Police Chief David Rahinsky responded when asked about connections between his job and a pastor’s job. He continued, “I like to see people join the department who have the same spirit you do, to be of service to others ahead of service to yourself.”
On February 18, two dozen pastors and community leaders gathered at Sherman Street Christian Reformed Church to hear Chief Rahinsky speak with the Grand Rapids Association of Pastors about issues of policing in our city. There was a clear attitude of mutual respect, even during the most pointed and detailed discussions. The purpose of this meeting was for the chief to share his understanding of the challenges and strengths of the police department, for pastors to express their concerns regarding issues of justice in our city, and for all parties to get to know each other.
Rahinsky feels the burden of events that have happened in other cities. Twice, he said, “Ultimately, we’re going to face a crisis, and how we handle that will tell us a lot about how we’re doing.” Both parties want to establish a relationship before the “inevitable” crisis comes.
Policing and service are part of Rahinsky’s family culture: he is the son and father of police officers, and his youngest daughter started boot camp the week following this meeting. Michigan is the fourth state he’s served in, and he sees Grand Rapids as “the perfect size for law enforcement, as far as being able to affect change. You can come up with ideas, implement them, and see change in a relatively short amount of time.”
Before taking questions from the group, he outlined some of the challenges facing the department. He noted that, ten years ago, they had 400 officers; now there are 280, and the city hasn’t gotten any smaller. These 280 officers make 160,000 emergency calls and 190,000 non-emergency calls. He is requesting 10 community policing specialists who will not be “tied to the radio,” so they’ll be able to focus on building and maintaining relationships with the community. In the meeting, he quickly went through how they were doing on the 12 Community and Police Relations Recommendations (most of that discussion will be covered below, but you can follow the link above to access an article on the entire list from the February 2016 issue of We Are GR).
The remainder of the discussion fell into four broad categories: lack of diversity, communication, immigration, and technology.
LACK OF DIVERSITY
Rahinsky noted that it is an issue that the department is overwhelmingly male and white, that it does not look like the community it serves. While the city will address this through Implicit Bias Training, he knows that hiring is the key.
However, the department is hampered by a budgetary challenge: because of funding, they cannot go to job fairs and recruit likely African American, Hispanic, or female candidates from the community, because to do so would be to hire and pay them while sending them to school to become qualified to serve. There was a time when they could do this, but now they can only take applications from people who are already sworn in by the State of Michigan and fully certified to be police officers in the state – people who’ve already done their Associate’s Degree and graduated from the Michigan State Police Training Academy.
Although thirty officers retire every year, which gives them a great chance to change the make-up of the department through new hires, there is a limited pool of applicants who meet those criteria, so Grand Rapids winds up with police officers from less diverse areas of the state. As one pastor pointed out, this can lead to officers who act afraid of the people who need help from them.
There is related issue in the way law enforcement work is portrayed. Rahinsky said, “This job is stereotyped in the media as being action-packed.” He noted that they’re looking more for “relationship builders” than “action-oriented individuals.”
The chief confessed that they hadn’t been “transparent enough” about placing a rifle in every patrol car. There are factors affecting this issue: SWAT availability and active shooters with long guns of their own. He noted that SWAT only works weekday evenings, so in a school shooting situation, they’d have to be called in separately, with a resulting time delay. He said, “There have been 232 active shooter situations involving long guns and putting officers in harm’s way with hand guns is not as effective.”
He did a little communication experiment regarding the issue of drones. He asked the pastors to raise their hand if they were in favor of law enforcement drones; very few hands were raised. Then he asked whether, if a child from their congregation was missing, would they be in favor of sending a drone out to canvass the city faster than humans could, and to access more areas of the city than officers could get to; significantly more hands went up.
Rahinsky wanted to make clear that Grand Rapids police officers do not serve warrants against people because of their immigration status, they do not work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and they do not conduct checks on people’s immigration status.
However, once an undocumented person has been arrested, booked, and is in jail, they are out of Grand Rapids’ custody, and in the custody of Kent County. The Kent County Sheriff decides whether to investigate their immigration status, notify ICE, and pursue federal charges as a result of that investigation. At the present time, the Kent County Sheriff Lawrence A. Stelma chooses to do so.
One of the pastors noted that it is impossible for undocumented workers to get state identification, which means they can’t get driver’s licenses, and can’t get auto insurance or registration for their vehicles. This puts them in great jeopardy during even a routine traffic stop. He asked why an officer couldn’t choose to give someone a ticket for speeding and not arrest them for an expired license, if the license is expired because of immigration issues.
Chief Rahinsky said, “The last thing we want to do is arrest someone trying to make a living,” and for a traffic stop to result in a separated family, but that “the system is broken.” He noted that it’s a matter of officer discretion whether to write a ticket for a lower offense or to arrest a driver for a greater offense. His final word, “We’re trying.”
To address the problem of victims of domestic violence being afraid to report their abuser because of their own immigration status, Rahinsky pointed out that officers are trained to explain that there is a special visa that victims of domestic violence can apply for: a U Visa. Applying for this visa means that neither they nor their immediate family members will be deported if they help the police. Officers carry bilingual pamphlets about this program in their patrol cars.
Twenty body cameras are in use in the department right now, with another 180 coming by the end of the month.
There was a discussion of a program called CeaseFire, but it was a somewhat unclear conversation, so look for a future article talking about it in more detail than we got into during the meeting.
Grand Rapids is 45 square miles, and the department is looking to install this technology in 5 square miles of it – the 5 square miles that accounts for 80% of their shots-fired calls. This technology uses recorders spread throughout the area that are calibrated to respond to the sound of a gun shot, and automatically call it in to the police. This would enable the police to begin their response before people in the neighborhood have called it in; it also addresses the issue of unreported and under-reported crime.
One pastor pointed out after Indianapolis installed ShotSpotter, they found out how under-reported crimes were in their covered neighborhood. Before the system came online, they had 90 complaints of shots fired a month, but the first day it was installed, there were 140 shots fired captured by the system. He concluded that it is disingenuous of the police to say crime is down when they know that so much goes unreported.
Rahinsky’s response to this was to note that homicide is one crime that does not go unreported, and that it is down this year. The department is continuing to look into this technology, particularly into the issue of whether the communities are as pleased as the police with it.
Chief Rahinsky concluded his remarks by asking the pastors to continue inviting not only him, but also any of his officers, to meetings like this and to any other meeting or event: “We want to be known.”
The meeting ended with a time of prayer for the chief, personally and professionally, as well as for justice in our city.
Rev. Kate Kooyman, who helps plan and lead GRAP meetings, was pleased with the event:
I think Chief Rahinsky and the pastors here both have the same goal: a healthy, thriving, equitable, safe, flourishing city. This was a great conversation about the complexities of making that happen. I was really encouraged by the respectful dialogue as well as the heart-felt appreciation and mutual respect that was shown today.