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Community discussion targeting police practices misses mark

The ACLU hosted a community panel discussion targeting police practices in Grand Rapids, but panelists failed to address the systematic problems in favor of accusatory bickering.

Additional Information

Grand Rapids Police Department:



Lifequest Ministries:

/Briana L. Urena-Ravelo

As I settled into my narrow seat, popcorn in hand, pencil poised and at the ready, I couldn’t help but notice the disconcerting feeling nestled in the pit of my stomach. All around me, community members both prestigious and not conversed and chattered on, waiting for the start of the discussion. I munched on my snack and watched the panelists meander up to the stage, pausing for interviews with local news stations and shaking hands along the way. I was at the Wealthy Theatre, which holds up to 400 people and was standing room only, waiting for the panel to start. As the designated start time came and went, my discontent grew.

The panel discussion, hosted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan, Western Michigan branch and entitled, “Is Grand Rapids the Next Ferguson: A Conversation on Police Practices” on Wednesday, October 28. The discussion was moderated by ACLU of Michigan's Racial Justice Attorney, Mark Fancher. The panel itself included David M. Rahinsky, Grand Rapids Chief of Police; Patrick Miles, Jr., U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan; Rev. Jerry Bishop, Founder and Pastor of LIFEQUEST and Darel Ross II, Co-Executive Director of LINC Community Revitalization.

As the panelists reached their seats and made themselves comfortable, an anticipatory hush fell over the audience. The ACLU started with introductions of the panelists and the discussion at hand and let Fancher take the stage. He made his anecdotal entrance, describing the rebel he hoped himself to be if he had been alive during the slave trade of the 1800s. He prefaced the conversation with a stirring statement: he believes the relationship between the police force and community is not broken, but instead functioning exactly the way it was first designed: the resulting police brutality we see being true to the original intent of the force.

I furiously took notes, doing my best to capture the essence of what he was saying. At this point, the disconcerting feeling in my stomach had escalated to a tense nervousness throughout the rest of my body. I’d come here hoping to hear a conversation about police practices in Grand Rapids; however, it was clear as Fancher turned the conversation over to Rahinsky, the conversation about police practices in Grand Rapids was over as soon as it had begun.

Let’s start with the chief of police, shall we? It is clear that Rahinsky’s first and foremost goal is community involvement. He quickly cited the proactive measures the GR police force had taken over the past year, mentioning 300 body cameras, a stricter weapons discharge investigatory process, conversations between the community and force and bringing in outside experts on implicit bias and mental health screenings.

The inherent problem in a response like this is how deftly it manages to sidestep the problem at hand; none of these “proactive” measures have manifested in any noticeable changes. In fact, I believe it to be an injustice to call such actions “proactive,” in that they only came about after the uprising in Ferguson called to attention the inordinate lack of accountability in police tactics. Additionally, Rahinksy utterly misunderstood his purpose in being there, the audience he was supposedly appealing to and the concept of intrinsic accountability.

His indefatigable attempts to label the Grand Rapids force as a “good police force” showed a blatant disregard for the discussion itself; the fact that almost 400 community members showed up to participate in a panel discussion about police practices in Grand Rapids clearly represents that something is not right, nor good, with the force the way it currently stands.

I should take this time to discuss the other law enforcement panelist, Miles, but alas, I couldn’t seem to find his purpose in the discussion as a whole. Beyond a few interesting statistics and some insight on the particular law enforcement regulations, Miles had no insight on the Grand Rapids community specifically and made more mention to the other areas of which he has legislation than our individual public landscape. As the event had the geographic location listed in the title, you’d think the panelists might have done a little investigatory work before showing up and citing statistics too broad to pertain to Grand Rapids.

This leads me to Bishop. I had especially high hopes for this panelist, considering he is the founder of a ministry for urban young men, and was especially let down by his presence. Bishop spent more time throwing accusations at the other panelists, including the moderator, and driving the topics irrevocably off course than not. His constant reference to data that he himself could not cite discredited his opinions exponentially throughout the course of the discussion; he verbally attacked Rahinsky the most, leading what should have been a dialogue into a convoluted finger-pointing bickering dispute about who is to blame for the lack of relationship, where the funding is, the lack of transparency and who shot who first.

The only panel member to maintain a common denominator based on the community was Ross. He mentioned the community needing to take a stand and work to improve itself; he called out the police chief for his mention of the Boys and Girls Club and the coffee and donuts conversations, saying that these types of engagement are nothing more than a photo opportunity for the police force. Even he, though, digressed later in the discussion, saying the community has the access to technology such as cell phones to hold the police accountable. Fancher stepped in here, stating that it is not the job of the citizens to monitor the police.

I could go on to report more of the misguided conversation, but it’s not worth it.

Ultimately, the conversation was antiquated and off-point. It’s entertaining, in a bad way, to listen to the panelists complain about the redundancy of the conversation and how no action is coming about, when the conversation itself suggested no action.

What I witnessed was a conversation that had been happening long before Ferguson; a talk of diversifying the police force, a lack of transparency in reporting, a blame-game of misguided scapegoats and an angry rant from those “involved” in the community but unaware overall of the actual happenings on the daily.

The insinuation that more discussions will take place in the future does not help quell the disconcerted feeling I have yet to excavate from the pit of my stomach. How many bickering arguments does it take for someone to stand up and take responsibility, to deviate the trajectory and to prevent any more unnecessary lives lost due to antediluvian police practices?

Apparently, it takes Ferguson.

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