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City Commission holds public hearing on police, community relations

Most citizens in favor of body cameras spoke of transparency as a big issue with police, but others also noted privacy concerns.

/Elizabeth Rogers Drouillard

/Elizabeth Drouillard

/Elizabeth Rogers Drouillard

Last night’s City Commissioners Meeting included a public hearing on police and community relations. In light of the national events surrounding the deaths of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO, Eric Garner in Staten Island, Tamir Rice in Cleveland and many others, there’s great concern in the local community about how neighborhoods are policed.

The City Commission chambers on the 9th floor of City Hall was packed. After roll call and a brief discussion on water and sewer taxes in the city and how this may impact those struggling to pay their bills, the public hearing was called. Police and Community Relations was third on the agenda.

Public comments were kicked off by Darel Ross II, Co-Executive Director of LINC Community Revitalization, following up on the proposal he submitted two weeks ago. He again strongly called for body cameras for the police saying.

“Body cameras open up transparency and through that build trust,” says Ross. He also acknowledges that body cameras are not the only tool to be used and notes that the heart of the issue needs to be addressed through various types of trainings. In particular, he mentioned racial profile testing.

“It’s been 10 years since we did that,” says Ross, who says that an overview of all city hiring practices to increase diversity across all types of government jobs, and a citizen review board that would have subpoena power in cases where police used force or there were citizen complaints, are needed.

Miriam Aukerman of the The ACLU of Michigan Western Branch also got up to speak, calling for body cameras, but also clear rules for their use. The ACLU cited the privacy concerns of citizens, especially those suffering from domestic violence, incest and other types of abuse. The ACLU called for clear rules about when the cameras are on and off, and strict rules and punishments for when police violate those.

More than 25 people got up to speak at the hearing, most voicing approval for the idea of body cameras, with the need for transparency and accountability between the police and the community cited as a major theme. People told stories of being unnecessarily harassed by the police.

"I'm 43 years old," said one gentleman. "I'm too old to plan my day so that I don't become the next Michael Brown. It's ridiculous that I even need to stand here and ask for this."

Another citizen, Misty Pruitt, asked that we look at every aspect of police training.

“Even in target practice, the silhouette is a black body," she said. "Maybe we need to change that, too?”

Some thanked Grand Rapids police for doing a better job than other cities, while others spoke of a large discrepancy. A juvenile probation officer noted that there’s a disproportionate number of young black males brought into the detention center, whereas he said the East Grand Rapids police are more likely to take young people to be driven home to their parents. Aukerman from the ACLU brought the strongest criticism, quoting a study from USA Today that said Grand Rapids is one of the worst cities for racial disparity. The study found that for every 1000 residents, 35 non-blacks are arrested versus 206 blacks. This nearly 1 to 6 ratio of arrests is a higher rate than Ferguson, MO, who in the same study found 66 non-blacks were arrested versus 186.1 blacks per 1000 residents, for a 1 to 2.6 ratio.

The City Commission concluded the evening with a decision to move quickly at exploring the possibilities of a pilot program for body cameras, and expect to hear recommendations mid-January. 

"We’ve committed ourselves to a very aggressive timeline for developing policy and researching technology and cost," says Mayor George Heartwell.

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