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Black motorists twice as likely to be pulled over, searched by Grand Rapids police

Discussion of traffic stop study brought representatives of the City, the Grand Rapids Police Department and community members together for five town hall meetings Tuesday and Wednesday, April 18-19, 2017.
Traffic stop meeting at Rockford Construction

Traffic stop meeting at Rockford Construction /Russell Olmsted

Traffic stop meeting at Rockford Construction

Traffic stop meeting at Rockford Construction /Russell Olmsted

Traffic stop meeting in Grand Rapids

Traffic stop meeting in Grand Rapids /Russell Olmsted

According to the City’s Traffic Stop Data Analysis study, Black drivers in the city of Grand Rapids are twice as likely to be pulled over by police as white drivers. The discussion of these results and the study's recommendations brought representatives of the City, Grand Rapids Police Department and community members together for five town hall meetings Tuesday and Wednesday, April 18-19, 2017.

The study, done by Lamberth Consulting as part of the City’s 12 Point Plan, looked at traffic stop data from 20 separate intersections in Grand Rapids from the years 2013, ‘14 and ‘15. Lamberth Consulting then compared that information to the “motorist race/ethnicity benchmark” data they compiled on the same intersections at the end of 2016.

The analysis was conclusive. Sixteen of the 20 intersections evaluated showed a significantly higher rate of traffic stops for Black motorists compared to white motorists. At 5 of the 20 intersections, Hispanic motorists were more likely to be pulled over. The study also found that after being stopped Black motorists were twice as likely to be searched for “contraband." This is despite the fact that the “hit rate” of finding contraband on a motorist is the same regardless of race.

Lamberth Consulting has performed more than 60 studies of this kind around the United States. According to Dr. John Lambeth, founder of the consulting group, the results of this report put Grand Rapids in the “bottom third” of those studies.  

“The city accepts all of these findings and does not debate them. We own this,” said City Manager Greg Sundstrom. He went on in these meetings to discuss that while these findings are very troubling and show a “systemic problem," he also feels it’s an opportunity. Giving the city a “mandate to change.”

While many of the community in attendance were encouraged by the City’s direct and open response, very few were surprised at the results of the study. Citizens repeatedly voiced frustration that it’s taken this long for the City and Police to realize a problem that’s been apparent to so many. Especially to Communities of Color. “No. I’m not surprised at all,” Sarah Doherty said after Wednesday’s meeting at the Michigan First Credit Union. She continued, “Trends nationwide have shown the nature of policing.”

Most of the citizens I spoke with echoed this type of response. They indicated that recent national articles have pointed out the socioeconomic and racial disparities engrained in our City. Because of this, as well as life experiences and interactions with the police, many people saw these results as more vindicating than surprising.

The Grand Rapids Police Department also appeared to be respecting the seriousness of this report. Chief Rahinsky repeatedly stated at these meetings that although he “doesn’t believe” members of the GRPD have “anything less than the best intentions," the data shows that “inequities and biased” policing are a reality. And that these practices are leading to the wrong outcomes and must change.

The Chief also announced that he will be holding “open office hours” this Friday, April 21st  from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. He encourages citizens to come in, sit down, and talk to him about their concerns and suggestions.

To help eliminate the disparities found in the study, Lamberth Consulting issued a list of 12 recommendations the City and GRPD should use going forward:

  1. Analyze the GRPD’s stop and search data for 2016 traffic stops

  2. Publicize the stop and search data over the next four years

  3. Begin a comprehensive review of policies and procedures

  4. Review data collection efforts to ensure recording of all relevant data

  5. Evaluate training to ensure staff is trained in bias-free policing

  6. Assess staff reward and recognition and promotion programs

  7. Evaluate Field training Officers to ensure correct training practices

  8. Evaluate Field Training Officers to ensure they are aware of the need to protect against bias based policing

  9. Assess and evaluate the GRPD’s early warning system to determine which officers may be stopping and/or searching minority motorists at a higher rate than their peers

  10. Continue to bring officers and the community together to discuss the reports and community and police relations

  11. GRPD should begin to survey the community on a regular basis to obtain citizen feedback on how they should be policed

  12. Within six months, report to the community on action taken as a result of the Traffic Stop Study.

Jerry Clayton, Vice President of Training at Lamberth Consulting, cautioned everyone, “Don’t be surprised if the numbers in these studies go up or flat line in the first year” even after implementing these recommendations. He stated “It can take 5-8 years” to change the culture that has led to this problem. Lamberth Consulting also noted that these guidelines are meant as a starting point and that further reforms may be needed.

Discussions of race, bias, and policing can be contentious and emotional and especially uncomfortable. And while emotions at these meetings did flare, the one thing everyone seemed to agree on is that community input and leadership will be vital to solving this problem.

“It’s very clear that the way policing should be done is that it should be citizen-driven,” City Manager Sundstom said. He followed this statement up by committing to meetings in the coming months that will give the community that opportunity.

The full 108 page Traffic Stop Data Analysis study can be found here.

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