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Recent police actions prompt citizens to press City officials to declare 'state of emergency'

At the City Commission meeting this week, 40 Black men stood in solidarity, citing 12-year-old boys held a gunpoint, the shooting of Malik Carey and research showing bias in the police department as examples of when officials failed to take necessary action to take care of its citizens.
Black men stand in solidarity over concerns with policing at City Commission meeting on Tuesday, May 9, 2017.

Black men stand in solidarity over concerns with policing at City Commission meeting on Tuesday, May 9, 2017. /Elizabeth Rogers Drouillard

During the final public comment period of Tuesday night’s City Commission meeting, forty people stood and spoke in solidarity about the need to declare a “state of emergency” around the racialized outcomes and systemic inequities facing communities of color in the city of Grand Rapids.

Most of these citizens were part of a gathering of 100 men that was held on Monday night at LifeQuest Ministries. The purpose of that meeting was to engage in a community discourse around the growing racial tensions that have been brought to the forefront as a result of recent events involving the GRPD.

It’s been nearly a month and a half since five unarmed African American youths, ages 12 – 14, were stopped and held at gun point by GRPD officers, while walking home from playing basketball at the Kroc Center. In that time community leaders, citizens, and indeed the national press have sought answers and action regarding that incident. Commission meetings have been packed full of citizens demanding the city put forth reforms and engage with the community before these tension boil over.

However, since that incident on March 24, 2017 there has been no investigation. There has been no proposal of reform. And in the eyes of many in the community, there has been no sense of urgency from elected officials. This despite even more issues involving the GRPD and the City recently coming to light.

A Traffic Stop Study found systemic problems in the GRPD around racial profiling of African American drivers. Currently the city is fighting a FOIA request for taped phone conversations involving fired GRPD Lt. Matt Janiskee’s involvement in allegedly covering up the drunk driving accident of former assistant County Prosecutor Joshua Kuiper. News broke two weeks ago that for the last decade Commissioners, the City Manager, the Mayor, and City Staff have been holding private meetings regarding policy before making that policy public. And just last week an 18 year old African American, Malik Carey, was shot by the GRPD and died in an incident that is currently under state police investigation.

All this coupled with the current housing crisis, gentrification, and the socioeconomic disparities facing communities of color brought many of the 100 men, who gathered at Lifequest Ministries on Monday, and others to the City Commission meeting saying that a 'state of emergency' must be called in Grand Rapids. And that the normal protocols of procedures need to be suspended and urgency of action must be taken by City leaders to address this crisis.

“It’s appalling that in light of the deluge of significant violence, mayhem, death, and economic failure of 16-25 year old (African American) males, as well as the stats that verify significant implicate bias by our police, that a state of emergency has not already been called...” Pastor Jerry Bishop of Lifequest Ministries stated at the last meeting.

Jacquetta Sims, the mother of one of the boys held at gun point by the police, asked why there hasn’t been anything done by the city or on the commission since the incident? “You all talk a good game, but you need action,” she said.

Toni Jolliffi, who moved here from Detroit in 2009, told the Commission “I didn’t think that I would move to a city where I would actually have to be concerned about the police” and that he doesn’t “…feel safe here anymore.” Tony went on to request the city take action and “jump on this now.” He also cautioned city officials to not make the same mistakes he witnessed in Detroit. “You can’t police the changes that are gonna happen to this city…” as it grows.

One after another, for over two hours, citizens went up to the microphone and spoke about the need for urgency and action, the need for engagement with the community and reform of policing practices. They cited the similarities between Grand Rapid's problems and those that faced Ferguson and Baltimore. They discussed the systemic racial inequities in our City and how they are leading to a powder keg of emotion and anxiety in the community. Some spoke of personal interactions and altercations with the GRPD and the City over the years.

Others spoke impassionedly about being fathers of young black men having to council their children on how to talk, act, and conduct themselves around police. Not out of the universal parenting principles of respect and courtesy, but rather out of concern for their children’s safety and wellbeing as Black people. And while the personal stories and advice given to the commission may have differed, an unwavering request never changed. They all stood united around the idea that the time for talk is over. Action is needed now not reaction once emotions boil over.

It’s protocol at City Commission meetings that officials not respond directly to questions or comments brought by the public. Instead at the end of the meeting they are given a chance to speak. With the acceptation of City Manager Greg Sundstrom, they all took advantage of that opportunity last night.

They all thanked the community for attending and for speaking to them about these issues. Commissioner Jones spoke about the “very serious opportunity” we have to shape and mold our city in overcoming these issues.

Commissioner Allen said that if the city doesn’t listen and start working with the community “…then shame on us.”

Commissioner O’Connor spoke about this being “…the speed of government” and that they will continue to work and create better outcomes around these issues.

However only Commissioner Lenear spoke directly to the communities request around the State of Emergency saying, “I don’t know whose job that is to call a state of emergency? But I agree with you that there is a state of emergency” later adding, “If I had the authority to call a state of emergency I would.” She also suggested to her colleagues that in the next few meetings they table some of the items on the proposed agenda and replace them with discussions on community and police relations.

The next City Commission Special meetings are scheduled for Tuesday, May 16th at 8:00 a.m. and Tuesday, May 23rd at 11 a.m. A full schedule of Commission Meetings and agenda packets can be found here on the City's website.

And video recordings of all previous meetings can be found on the City's website as well.

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