GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — As the investigation into the shooting of Patrick Lyoya continues, the head of the Grand Rapids public safety committee is speaking out.
Joe Jones joined the Grand Rapids City Commission back in 2016 when Mayor Rosalynn Bliss vacated her seat for the mayoral role. Prior to that, Jones served as the President and CEO of the Grand Rapids Urban League.
“I’m hurting, not just for the family that’s impacted, but I’m hurting for my community. This is a city that I love, and we are now a part of a national fraternity that nobody wants to be a part of,” said Jones of the April 4 shooting.
Jones says police reform has been one of the most important issues to him.
“We have to recognize the complexity and the need for this to be very much an all-hands-on deck approach,” said Jones.
The 2nd Ward commissioner said as Grand Rapids and many other cities across the nation have tried to implement big changes to policing throughout the years, they’ve been met with resistance.
“We’re talking about an institution in policing that’s been in its organized form since 1838. 1838, the first police department formed in Boston. Then you put on top of that the impact of the police union which has been in place since 1919, first being established in Knoxville, Tennessee. You’re talking about systems and structures that have been in place for a long, long time,” said Jones. “I have no doubt that any ongoing progressive change in policing has been hindered by leadership within the police union. Not just here but throughout the country.”
In the last few years, the city has implemented several policies in an attempt to change policing in Grand Rapids. After police wrongfully handcuffed and held an 11-year-old at gun point, they introduced the Honestie Policy in 2018. The policy outlined specific guidelines for handcuffing youths and putting them in cruisers. In 2019, the city established the Office of Oversight and Public Accountability to serve as an additional layer of checks on the police department. Then in 2021, the city adopted Cure Violence, a program that works to prevent crime before it happens by using a public health model.
“There are a lot of people who will say, ‘OK, you’ve done all this but (violent interactions with police are) still happening. Do you think it’s enough what you’ve done so far?” News 8’s Whitney Burney asked the commissioner during the interview.
“No, no, no. There’s so much more work to do and for those in community who are quick to remind us of the work that needs to be done, or the lack of work, I can receive that but I can also respond by saying we are working,” said Jones.
“Do you feel like there was something that could have been done in the last two years that maybe could have prevented April 4? Or is it one of those things where there’s so much work that has to be done before you completely eradicate the possibility of something happening like that?” News 8’s Whitney Burney later asked.
“I think the critical incidents that we’ve seen throughout the country, where you have unarmed people of color who are killed by law enforcement, is something that can happen anywhere in the country where you have the dynamics that are in play,” Jones responded.
“Do you as a city commissioner feel any responsibility for what happened? I know a lot of people have said, it’s on (city leaders) as well,” asked Burney.
“We’ve heard the (opinion) of this being on us and I think ultimately it comes with the role of being in a position where you are a policy maker and when something terrible happens, the expectation is you receive the brunt of that criticism, the blame,” said Jones. “I would suspect that part of that narrative will continue, that it’s in some way our fault and yet I realize it’s a lot more complex than that, but I respect and give license to anyone who feels the need to be angry and to place blame at our feet.”
Jones noted that because he has spent a significant part of his time on the city commission trying to prevent something like this from happening, he doesn’t feel personally responsible for Lyoya’s death.
While the investigation into the Lyoya shooting is still ongoing and GRPD said it’s too early to say how it will impact their policies in the future, Chief Eric Winstrom has repeatedly said he’s “reform minded.”
“My goal is to have the Grand Rapids Police Department be the gold standard in policing, for people to look to us, our policies and procedures and training and say that’s what we aspire to,” said Chief Winstrom.
Winstrom agreed that cooperation from all moving parts is essential to moving police reform forward but says he hasn’t sensed resistance from GRPD officers or the local police union.
“We had a saying in my old agency, the Chicago Police Department, there’s only two things police officers hate: It’s the way things are and change. I don’t see that here. I don’t have that feeling. In fact, in meeting with the union here, they actually embrace strong accountability. They want to be seen as legitimate by the community,” Winstrom said.
Since being sworn into the department in March of 2022, Winstrom said he has started looking at ways to transform policing, including emphasizing the importance of sanctity of life in future GRPD policies and increasing transparency. He said right now he’s focusing on listening to what the community says they want out of their department.
The chief said so far, many have expressed their desire to see changes in use of force policies and the way traffic stops are conducted.
“I thought there was going to be more of this grassroots movement from a couple years ago, this defund the police call that was going on, abolish the police, and I thought maybe that was going to come back in my time here. I haven’t heard that at all. What I’ve heard from the community, and since Mr. Lyoya was tragically killed I’ve been to dozens of community meetings, and I would say everyone has said they want better policing. They want to see the police officers. They want to know the police officers by name, that neighborhood policing initiative in effect,” said Winstrom. “I already have some ideas, some policy changes in training, I want to implement here but that’s not the end game for me. It’s always (been), because the world is changing, technology is changing, I just want to position the police department to be able to evolve with the times.”
Commissioner Jones said he doesn’t know what lies ahead following the conclusion of the Lyoya investigation but he’s committed to working toward a better tomorrow every day.
“There is only so much that the city of Grand Rapids can do in terms of reform. There are some things that require a change in state law. There are some things that require movement at the federal level and I think quite often there’s this assumption that we can push this button down at 300 Monroe when in fact, we’ve been pushing buttons because we want a city in which everyone feels safe,” said Jones.
News 8 reached out to the Grand Rapids Police Union for comment on this story but they declined our request for an interview.
The Kent County Prosecutor said Tuesday afternoon that there was still no timeline on when the Lyoya investigation would be complete.