WMU-Cooley Law holds panel on minority/law enforcement trust



Photo 1: Shown in the front row, left to right, are panelists Joseph Jones, President of the Urban League; Jonathan Paasch, WMU-Cooley student and a law enforcement officer with the City of Walker; Captain Vincent Reilly with the Grand Rapids Police Department; WMU-Cooley Professor Tonya Krause-Phelan; Grand Rapids Chief of Police David Rahinsky; and Paris McMurray, a local youth pastor and Grand Rapids Public Schools employee. In the back row, Black Law Students Association President Te Smith moderates.

Photo 2: Left to right, Tonya Krause-Phelan, Jonathan Paasch, Te Smith, David Rahinsky, Gwyne Thomas, Vice-President of the Black Law Students Association, and Paris McMurray.

by Cynthia Price, Legal News, and from WMU-Cooley Law School

The Black Law Students Association (BLSA) at WMU-Cooley Law School’s Grand Rapids campus is putting a lot of work into fostering dialogue about racial tensions and civil rights issues.

The latest manifestation was a panel discussion held Monday concerning relations between law enforcement and communities of color, which BLSA?referred to as a “breach in trust.”

Students and members of the community attended the discussion, which featured Joseph Jones, President of the Urban League and CEO of E.E. Milestone + Associates; WMU-Cooley student Jonathan Paasch, also a police officer with the City of Walker (but not officially representing the city); Captain Vincent Reilly of the Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD), who was earlier this year assigned to command the South Service Unit, formerly commander of the GRPD Internal Affairs Unit; WMU-Cooley Professor Tonya Krause-Phelan, who teaches Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure and other subjects, and was both a private and a public defense attorney before coming to Cooley;  Chief David Rahinsky of GRPD, who started in mid-2014.; and Paris McMurray, the youth pastor at a local church and employee of Grand Rapids Public Schools.

BLSA President Te Smith moderated; Vice-President Gwyne Thomas was instrumental in organizing the event.

The impetus was, of course, the deaths of people such as Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, which spawned the “Black Lives Matter” movement, and which by most reports appear to have been viewed very differently by the policing community and by people of color.

Commented Tracey Brame, WMU-Cooley Assistant Dean and Associate Professor, and the BLSA advisor, “In recent months there have been several instances that actions by police officers have called into question the state of relations between minorities and police. From the police shootings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, to last week’s shooting of a Mexican native in Pasco, Washington, this issue has come to the forefront of discussions in many communities.  It is important to have an open dialogue between minority leaders and police agencies to prevent these types of tragedies from happening
in the future.”

Panelists emphasized just that. “The fact that we’re together in the room is a compliment to this community, and the only way to get to the next level,” said Chief Rahinsky.

A recurring issue at such discussions is whether GRPD officers will wear body cameras. Rahinsky said that is being explored, but with very careful consideration for privacy issues. “Officers are already monitored by in-car systems and through audio, so they don’t mind the additional accountability,” Rahinsky said. “But we need to have a discussion about what’s recorded, where it’s kept, and who can see it.”

Krause-Phelan agreed. “From a legal perspective that’s the important issue: how can we be transparent and also respectful of everyone’s rights?”

Smith pledged that BLSA will continue to focus on that dialogue.

BLSA not only organizes public events, but also offers “a support network of students, who will share in your success, as well as your struggles,” according to its brochure. The group, whose officers are Smith and Thomas; Kiera Pierce, Secretary; and Demar Sheffey, Treasurer, participates in campaigns and initiatives in the local Grand Rapids community as well.

Event sponsors were: National BLSA, Bates Place Ministries, Bar Divani, and West Michigan Legal Group and its attorneys Matthew Herman, Callista Gloss and Jason VanElderen.