By Anthony Clark Jr.
On Tuesday, May 25, the Grand Rapids Community College Police Department and Grand Rapids Police Department held a public Zoom webinar to discuss how the departments are working towards bridging the gap through community policing.
The webinar consisted of three main panelists: Grand Rapids Police Chief Eric Payne, GRCC Police Chief Rebecca Whitman, and GRCC Police and Corrections Academy Director Jermaine Reese. This was an open discussion on how to foster respect between police officers and the communities they police.
The event’s moderator, Mansfield Matthewson, began the discussion by posing this question: what does community policing mean to you?
In short, community policing is how officers develop relationships with citizens in the community they protect and serve. Whether that is pulling into a neighborhood park and participating in a game of pick-up basketball with local kids, attending social events in a non-enforcement manner, making their presence a comforting feeling as opposed to threatening for civilians, and so forth.
“The lack of consistency in law enforcement, I believe, is the major contributor in the lack of community policing in its training,” Reese said during the webinar. “The sooner we (police academies) introduce officers to the concepts and the tenants of community policing, the better prepared they (police officers) are when they matriculate into their profession.”
However, police officers cannot carry out community policing on their own. The complication is that many citizens lack a clear understanding of how to assist police officers, and vice versa. That is why initiatives such as the Grand Rapids Citizen Police Academy, which is a free program offered to the community, are so vital. The citizens academy gives citizens a behind-the-scenes education of what police officers do.
As of 2019, the city of Grand Rapids had a population of just over 201,000 citizens. On average, the GRPD has 25 police officers on duty for every 12-hour shift according to Payne. Take a moment to reflect on that: that is 0.0001 officers per citizen patrolling 44 square miles.
“To do it (community policing) effectively, you need more officers on the streets to engage because this is a long-term approach,” Reese said. “So when we talk about defunding or reallocating resources, we have to be careful. If we take away from what officers are doing, we have to keep in mind that we are now taking away from the already limited services being provided.”
Whitman expanded on the comments in regards to defunding the police.
“Different people have a different definition of what that (police defunding) looks like,” Whitman said. “In the least offensive form, it would mean transferring the money that is allocated to the police departments to fund programs that will help at the core of the social economic issues.”
With or without reallocating funds, both departments are pushing for their officers and recruits to have a better understanding of how to deescalate situations that involve citizens suffering from mental health disparities, food and housing insecurities, and lack of education – according to Whitman and Payne.
The Collegiate staff posed the question as to how exactly GRPD and GRCCPD goes about building effective relationships with its community while decreasing the tension.
“We continuously try to bridge the gap to build a community relationship,” Payne said. “We at the department have created the community engagement unit to be out at every event they can think of… It’s being intentional on being visible in non-enforcement contact (with citizens).”
The panelists encouraged those in attendance to remember that police officers are humans as well. These are people risking their lives each and every day to protect and allow citizens to go about their public lives stress-free, while the officers leave their homes with the looming thought of whether or not it will be the last time. In order for the tension that reached a socially historic level in 2020, citizens have to realize that police officers cannot start, nor complete, the healing process on their own.
“People need to remember that law enforcement officers don’t live in a silo,” Whitman said. “We aren’t police officers all the time: we are members of our community, moms, brothers, coaches, neighbors, friends… we’re humans first.”
To find out more about how to assist Grand Rapids police officers in promoting more safety and security in the various communities, visit the city of Grand Rapids webpage that provides information regarding community policing.