GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Grand Rapids community groups are speaking out against the actions revealed in phone calls between police officers about how to handle a wrong-way crash involving a former Kent County assistant prosecutor.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and Senior Pastor Jerry Bishop of Lifequest Ministries say the recordings show the case wasn’t handled appropriately. Bishop was adamant the department publicly acknowledge its faults in the case. The ACLU took it one step further, demanding more disciplinary action.
Like leaders from urban outreach organization LINC UP, they agreed the tapes demonstrated what they already felt was true: that officers in the Grand Rapids Police Department aren’t always treating everyone the same. The question is whether the situation was an isolated incident — as city leaders claim — or an example of systemic behavior.
On Wednesday, the city released phone recordings from Nov. 19, 2016, in which three officers discussed how they could give former Assistant Prosecutor Josh Kuiper — who had admitted he was drinking before he drove the wrong way on a one-way street and hit a parked car, injuring its owner — a pass.
All three were suspended without pay and were going to be terminated — that is, until the police union got involved. In the end, the two lower-ranking officers involved received lighter punishments (both were suspended and one was demoted), while the lieutenant in charge was fired.
The Kalamazoo County prosecutor, who was brought in to avoid a conflict of interest, decided none of the officers would face criminal charges.
24 Hour News 8 asked the ACLU of Michigan if it was fair discipline.
“No. Frankly, no,” board member Joe Marogil said. “It’s clear that these guys are conspiring to hide a crime and they’re doing it to defend their friends.”
Marogil said all three should have been held accountable for their actions with stricter punishment.
“When you listen to their calls, you can clearly tell that this is standard operating procedure for them. They’re not panicking. I mean, it’s clear that they do this kind of thing often,” Marogil said.
Pastor Bishop echoed that sentiment.
“I have strong relationships with many people that represent our community that happen to be Grand Rapids police officers, but at the same time that was the old boy network at its finest,” Bishop said. “The challenge is that we’ll never know with 100 percent proof how deep that’s gone, how many incidents of this has been going on in the past and just how ingrained is it. You cannot paint with a really broad brush. This validates that this goes on — to what degree, we don’t know, but it’s probably a safe presumption that this is not the first.”
Marogil said there’s a systemic problem. He said the ACLU handles many cases of police bias, but they’re often difficult to prove because there’s a lack of evidence. This one, he said, is a different story.
The police union that fought to keep two of the officers employed declined to comment to 24 Hour News 8 Thursday, saying federal litigation is still pending in the case.>>Inside woodtv.com: Complete coverage of the fallout of the crash
When asked what he thought the police union should be saying about the content of the calls, Bishop replied, “The police union should be fully saying, ‘We agree there’s a problem.'”
Bishop said a few incidents this year have proved that dynamics between GRPD and the community need to change. In March, five unarmed African-American children were held at gunpoint — an action GRPD has said was warranted, though the police chief issued an apology to the kids involved. And in April, a city-driven traffic stop study found African-American drivers were twice as likely as others to be pulled over.
“So the union is 3-0 and the community is 0-3,” Bishop said. “What will it take? How drastic does this have to get?”
“We have to look at the entire criminal justice system in the Grand Rapids area and see about whether the prosecutor’s office is too close with the police,” Marogil said.
24 Hour News 8 also reached out to Cle Jackson, the president of the Greater Grand Rapids Branch of the NAACP, but he did not return calls Thursday. Roberto Torres, the president of the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan, was unavailable for an interview.