Outraged community leaders in Grand Rapids are demanding reform after five African American youths aged between 12 and 14 years were held at gunpoint — for no justifiable reason — as they walked home from playing basketball.
Video of the incident shows a number of Grand Rapids Police Department patrol cars descended on the scene, as officers point loaded weapons at the youths, order them to the ground, and eventually place them each in handcuffs — after a vague call to dispatch suggested a large fight in the area, and the possibility a teen was in possession of a gun.
None of the young teens in question were armed.
“Now they’re saying they don’t like the police,” Ikeshia Quinn, mother of two of the teens, told WOOD-TV — intimating the boys did not feel ambivalent toward law enforcement until this traumatic incident. “They don’t want to be involved with the police. They should’ve been approached differently because they are young boys. They had basketballs in their hands.”
Although Grand Rapids Police Chief David Rahinsky and Mayor Rosalynn Bliss have since apologized for officers’ handling of the situation, fallout from the March 24 incident continues.
A statement released Wednesday by local police union leaders further exacerbated tensions between community leaders — who feel that if this incident represents standard protocol, change is imperative — and officers who see nothing of concern.
Local NAACP president Cle Jackson told local NBC News affiliate, WOOD-TV, “If this is protocol, in terms of how you detain and treat teens and youth, then there probably needs to be a change in that protocol.”
The Grand Rapids Police Officers Association and Grand Rapids Police Command Officers Association beg to differ, explaining in their joint statement, as cited by WOOD-TV,
“When we get a 911 call that says there is a group of people acting suspiciously and that there may be weapons involved we respond immediately, prepared to keep innocent citizens from being harmed. Our training kicks in and we follow the law and our experience to face down any possible situation. Sometimes that includes the take down of people, and tragically, it may include drawing and discharging our weapons. That is what police do, at our own risk, so that we can all live in a place that is relatively safe and secure.”
Dispatch received a call about a group of around 100 youths involved in a fight in the area — one of whom had cleaved from the melee with a smaller group was alleged to be carrying a firearm. But the description given of a teen ‘dressed all in black’ — vague to the point of uselessness — left a dearth of critical information which could have prevented five unarmed kids from the shock of police training loaded guns directly at them.
“We have to exercise due diligence if we come across someone matching that description,” Grand Rapids Police Sgt. Terry Dixon told WOOD-TV last week. “In this case, it appears they matched the description but the gun, they didn’t have one. That’s unfortunate. That is something that should be in dialogue, but as far as the actions of the police officer — they did nothing wrong.”
Community leaders accuse Grand Rapids police of systemic racism and startlingly different treatment by law enforcement in encounters with white and black civilians. Police unions and officials say issues of racism and equality “go beyond control of police.”
“We are in the unenviable position of having to encounter people in the worst of situations, which gets attention from the public on various levels,” the union statement continues. “We cannot crawl into the hearts of minds of people. If we could, in an effort to make things equal and safe for everyone, we would make every effort to do so. In reality, that’s not our job.”
What constitutes policing in America seems up for debate, as the State has for years bestowed surplus and used military equipment to virtually any department in the country who asks nicely — the result of which is an unofficial military in small town U.S.A., and decimated relations between law enforcement and civilians.
And incidents like this one, in which a tiny group of black teenagers were treated as if they’d committed murder. In fact, for police to respond as they did for a report of mere possession of a firearm evinces perhaps the most significant contributor to the issue of police violence — boot camp-style training instills in officers’ minds that everyone is the enemy until proven otherwise.
Thousands have been killed by police under highly questionable circumstances — and it is that approach which is arguably at the root of blame.
Police, however, have attempted to shirk responsibility for their actions, blaming their acts of violence on increased public scrutiny of misconduct — often proffering the tiresome excuse you have to be an officer to understand the occupation — and harpooning the widespread movement to film even benign encounters to hold officers accountable.
Rather than taking responsibility for their wrongdoing, offering compromise, or alleviating community relations through understanding and outreach, the two unions blasted the public for distrust — and instead pompously lamented police officers are the actual victims.
“Those videos, which typically only capture the last few minutes of an incident between an individual or individuals and police, have been used to create a cop hating segment of the public,” the two ostensively professional organizations stated. “The result has been a constant barrage of complaints and demonstrations that question the professionalism, intent and integrity of our police command staff and our line officers. We say enough.”
This petulance and perpetual victimhood, so common in departments nationwide, forgets officers could just walk away and choose an occupation better suited to the sensitive and easily-offended.
Were police unions more intent on actual palliatives to civilian-police hostilities — which, incidentally, would vastly improve officer safety — they would examine training options and work toward combating bigotry in their departments, rather than dismissing such problems as too societally embedded to even bother the attempt.
LINC UP, a local leadership organization, issued a statement in response to the unions, reading in part,
“LINC UP maintains that the current policies and procedures of the police department are the fundamental cause of the incident on March 24; that they highlight a structure that increases mistrust and fear between the community and police officers; that such a structure hurts both the police and the community; and, as such, there need to be changes to that structure. The community’s willingness to articulate how the structure is failing large segments of our community and contributing to the racial disparities in our city does not threaten the safety of police officers; silence on this structure does.”
To wit, despite the chief’s apology for the incident, itself, officers involved have yet to apologize to the five innocent teenagers — further evidence, to leaders like Jackson, of the civilian-law enforcement rift, and failure to bridge it.
“That’s just, to us, the humane thing to do,” Jackson said of individual apologies. “It’s simple.”
“The issue is not about having bad police officers,” LINC UP executive director Jeremy DeRoo explained. “The issue is there’s a protocol in place that is causing significant damage to the relationship between the people and the police department.”
He added, “No community can be safe and be effective for all people without strong relationships between both the police and the community and that’s what we really want to make sure happens from this incident.”