NAACP, GRPD work to avoid community mistrust, conflict




By Cynthia Price
Legal News


It comes as no surprise to anyone paying attention to what is happening in Ferguson, Missouri, and now New York, that there is an atmosphere of mistrust between communities of color and the police.

The grand juries in two high-profile cases, both involving a police officer killing an African-American male, one a teenager, declined to bring charges against law enforcement. Though the intensity of the reaction caused by the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson means that it has grabbed more of the headlines, the grand jury decision in Eric Garner’s Staten Island death is just now starting to set off protests.

The deaths — and others which have gained notoriety across the country — are very different cases, but the outcry about injustice has been much the same. The disparity statistics about percentages of black Americans arrested, the greater severity of sentences they face when convicted, and the number of instances their potentially innocent actions are  met with suspicion and violence, are felt every day by people on the streets.

Can the Grand Rapids community come together to do something about this situation before it escalates and another tragedy occurs?

Cle Jackson, the Interim Director of the Greater Grand Rapids Branch of the NAACP, and the Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD) Chief David Rahinsky seem to think so.

As part of its initiative, “Journey for Justice: Rights Responsibilities and Reform.” announced Nov. 25, the NAACP invited people to Baxter Com-

munity Center Thursday night for information and to ask questions of Rahinsky, Jackson, and the other panelist - Emmett Harris, pastor of Oakdale Park CRC, representing Congregations Organizing for Racial Reconciliation.

Whether the 150 to 200 people at that meeting agree that those significant changes are possible is not clear, but many of them were optimistic enough to attend.

After introducing the Journey for Justice program and stating, “There has to be systemic change, and policy change not only at the local level but at the state level and the federal level, and we will not stand down until justice is served for all,” Jackson introduced board member and attorney Stephen Drew, of Drew Cooper and Anding.

Drew first noted, in regard to the grand jury decisions, “There are ways of taking a decision to a grand jury and controlling that so that it never comes before a regular jury.” Based on conversations he had with officilas while visiting St. Louis, he went on to contrast Ferguson with a nearby Missouri city, University City.?He said he was told that city had taken measures to be sure their police force had more people of color on the force, used community policing, conflict resolution and other non-violent tactics. “And my colleague said the police there are not necessarily seen as an occupational force, as they are elsewhere,” Drew said.

“So it can be done. We don’t have as many police brutality cases here as other places, and we may be able to keep it that way, so I commend you all for coming out tonight,” he added.

Police Chief Rahinsky said he would skip opening remarks and had instead come to listen. As Jackson opened the meeting up to questions and people lined up, the chief came out from behind the table and stood in front of the line.

People expressed a sense that, not only were community members in fear of the police, but it appeared the opposite was also true. They described officers sitting in their cars and never getting out to talk, as well as responding to infractions with more violence than they thought was necessary.

Many brought up the issue of police officers wearing body cameras, which was urged by residents at the City of Grand Rapids Commission meeting earlier in the week. Rahinsky said that it is a possibility, but there are privacy rights issues that have to be considered as well. He said the GRPD is in the process of reviewing that.

Jackson listed the policy recommendations that NAACP-GR and the national NAACP support. They included the use of body cameras; giving the subpoena power to a civilian review board; increasing the number of African-Americans on the police force (which the NAACP?has been working on for a while); and that GRPD use the assessment and training offered by the Partnership for a Racism-Free Community, about which Director Lisa Mitchell had spoken earlier.

He also asked that people go to and sign the petitions there, and noted that the NAACP will be holding more community meetings on the subject throughout 2015.

There will also be a city commission public hearing on the body camera issue Dec. 16. Before the NAACP meeting, City Manager Greg Sundstrom said that the city is currently engaged in a lot of activity to explore the body camera and other proposals.