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City Commission passes resolutions regarding community, police relations

On Tuesday, July 25, 2017, at the Committee of the Whole meeting city officials discussed the Executive Summary for Community Talk Back Sessions and passed resolutions to hire PR and consulting firms.
Grand Rapids City Commission meeting on Tuesday, July 25, 2017.

Grand Rapids City Commission meeting on Tuesday, July 25, 2017. /Russell Olmsted

Summer can mean vacations and family time for many of us. This tends to have an effect on the turnout at the City Commission meetings. That was clearly the case Tuesday as citizen attendance was down compared to the last few months. However that didn’t stop the city from moving forward on critical issues and points of concern that have been voiced by the community for the well over a year now.

On Tuesday, July 25, 2017, at the Committee of the Whole meeting city officials discussed the Executive Summary for Community Talk Back Sessions. This summary was done by Shannon Cohen, Anita Jones, and Rebeca Velazquez-Publes, the same facilitators of the five listening sessions held in June. These sessions were intended to give the public an opportunity to voice their questions and concerns about the state of policing in Grand Rapids. Presented to the City on July 21st, the summary consists of a comprehensive review of each individual session, an overall analysis of citizen feedback, identifies common or overlapping themes from each meeting, and offers recommendations and action steps moving forward.

One of the key recommendations in the 52 page document is for the City to “engage in strategic sessions with communities of color.” The summary notes that attendance of the listening sessions “was not representative of the racial demographics of the city.” And that “residents continually commented that forums were not reflective of the voices of those most impacted by disparities [youth of color, Black men, Black women, communities of color].” The summary went on to state that “Without their voices, we run the risk of a skewed data picture from which actions by the City and GRPD will emerge.”

The summary also noted that citizens at these forums were not confident the City would take action on these issues. Because of this the facilitators recommended developing a timeline and “plan of action for following recommendations from the Lamberth study and other recent studies documenting arrest disparities” that should be implemented over the next 30 days.

The Commissioners and Mayor were all in agreement that City needs to do a better job on engaging with the public, specifically with communities of color. They also stated that all of questions from the Listening Sessions and the Traffic Stop Study meetings will be answered by the City and made available through multiple platforms and community groups like LINC Up.

However the only questions posed to the facilitators came from Commissioner Senita Lenear. She expressed concern that the City’s response may be too “text heavy” and asked for recommendations on how to communicate better with the public. The facilitating team reminded the commission that communication and community engagement is not just “about putting this online." They said the commission needs to “go to the community” and directly relay this information to the people. They also encouraged partnering with non-profits, neighborhood associations and other groups to help get this information out to the community.

The release of the Executive Summary also coincided with the discussion and passage of two other related resolutions. First was the authorization of a contract between the City of Grand Rapids and the PR firm Truscott Rossman.  And second, a resolution hiring the consulting firm 21st Century Policing Solutions LLC.

Truscott Rossman is a Michigan based PR firm who has worked with other municipalities in the state including the City of Detroit. The contract is for one year at $60,000 and is to help the city design a strategic communications and community relations plan. Although the resolution passed unanimously some of the Commissioners voiced concern at hiring the firm in what essentially will be a part time role.

Commissioner’s Jon O’Conner said “This seems like a Band-Aid approach to what needs to be a bigger, more comprehensive approach to communications.” He added later “I understand we need to make a change. I just want a firm commitment from the city manager, that if that involves a change in how we do business, that we make them.”

And Commissioner David Allen said he’d like to see a strategic communications plan that understands minority voices and perspectives of the city. “Too often we’re reacting to things instead of being proactive.” Adding later, “I’m going to hold this to a very high standard.”

21st Century Policing Solutions was hired to help review police policy and procedures. The firm’s principle consultant, Ronald L. Davis, was appointed by President Obama as executive director of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing in 2014.   

The contract with 21st Century Policing Solutions is for $181,000 and they will be consulting with a taskforce that is being established by the City.

The forming of this taskforce was a key recommendation from both the Lamberth Consulting Traffic Stop Study and the SAFE Report. According to the City's statement from May 23rd, “The taskforce will make recommendations to the City Commission, which could give direction to the city manager for policy and procedure changes. The Taskforce will review police department policies and procedures to identify and eliminate racial bias; and review staff rewards, recognition, and promotions to eliminate perpetuating racial bias.”

The taskforce will include two citizens from each of the City’s three wards, the police chief and police staff from every rank, including officer, sergeant, detective, lieutenant, captain, and deputy chief. It will also include the city attorney and deputy attorney, and two representatives from the police unions.

As of yet there has been no announcement from the city as to who the citizens are on the taskforce or when they will begin the process.

Committee of the Whole and City Commission Meetings are held at City Hall, 300 Monroe Ave. NW on the 9th floor. A schedule of dates for the meetings can be found here. All meetings are open to the public and parking is free if you validate.

For audio/video of both the Committee of the Whole and City Commission Meetings click here.

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