KENTWOOD, Mich. (WOOD) — The Michigan Department of Civil Rights has filed formal charges against the Grand Rapids Police Department, including in the case in which officers held an 11-year-old Black girl at gunpoint that prompted the creation of a new GRPD youth policy.
The case of Honestie Hodges is among two discrimination complaints that prompted the charges of unequal treatment in public service, the MDCR said at a Monday morning press conference in metro Grand Rapids.
On Dec. 6, 2017, police were looking for a stabbing suspect, Honestie’s aunt, a middle-aged white woman. Officers came to Honestie’s home on the West Side, where they found her and her mother. Body camera video shows Honestie was held at gunpoint and instructed to walk backward toward officers, who handcuffed her and placed her in the back of a cruiser. In the video, Honestie can be heard screaming in panic. She was soon released.
“It made me feel scared and it made me feel like I did something wrong,” Honestie told News 8 shortly after it happened. “I’m afraid to open or go near my back door … because of what happened.”
The MDCR said GRPD was unable to show examples of any white children who were placed in handcuffs and questioned under similar circumstances.
Honestie’s family and their attorney attended the news conference, calling the charges a first step in holding police accountable.
“I’m thankful and so grateful … that steps are being taken to change a broken department,” Honestie’s grandmother Alisa Niemeyer said.
The officers involved were not disciplined, with GRPD saying an internal investigation found they did not violate departmental policy. The public outcry over what happened to Honestie led to the creation of GRPD’s Youth Interaction Policy that includes guidelines for handcuffing youths and when arrests should be made. Officers were instructed to use the “most reasonable, and least restrictive” methods when dealing with children.
Honestie died in November 2020 after contracting COVID-19. She was 14. A few months earlier, Honestie told Target 8 she still struggled with what happened.
Her mother filed the civil rights complaint. Her family views this as her legacy.
“The only way you make change is to have accountability,” said attorney Stephen Drew, who is representing Honestie’s family.
A second complaint was filed by Grand Rapids resident Melissa Mason. On Jan. 25, 2020, Mason, a Black woman, was driving with three children and was pulled over on Hall Street SE near Eastern Avenue for an expired plate.
The MDCR’s charging document says Mason was cooperative. It says she was wearing a “Black Lives Matter” shirt at the time and that she said to the officers, “Black Lives Matter.”
During the traffic stop, the complaint says, one officer “had his hand on his gun even though (Mason) was compliant with all … requests.”
Officers said Mason’s driver’s license was also expired. She was handcuffed and placed in a cruiser, the charging document says, where she remained for about 20 minutes. Eventually, the document says, an officer told her, “Well, since you stopped running your mouth, we’ll let you go.”
She was not arrested but was cited for driving with an expired driver’s license, which is a misdemeanor, and expired registration, a civil infraction.
GRPD was also unable to show that people of a different race were treated the same way in similar situations, the MDCR said.
In April 2017, a study found Black drivers were more than twice as likely to be pulled over by GRPD as other drivers.
The cases will next go before an administrative law judge. After a hearing, that judge will make a recommendation to the Michigan Civil Rights Commission. The commission will review the findings and then either dismiss the charges or take corrective action, which may include a fine.
The city of Grand Rapids released a statement Monday afternoon saying it is committed to equal treatment. It said it has been cooperating with MDCR and will continue to do so.
“The City of Grand Rapids is committed to ensuring all people are treated equally under the law and has been fully cooperative and engaged with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR) since at least May 2019 when investigations began. The City has been in constant communication with the department through their changes of leadership and transitions in staff handling cases. The City has received two matters from MDCR and a hearing has been requested for each matter. The City intends to respond and attend all hearings as provided by the MDCR administrative rules and looks forward to presenting relevant facts to the Commission.”City of Grand Rapids
In 2019, over 80 people shared their experiences of bias and discrimination involving GRPD in two public listening sessions. Since then, 28 people have filed complaints against the police department, John E. Johnson, Jr., the executive director of MDCR, said.
A MDCR spokesperson said the number of complaints appears to be higher than most Michigan law enforcement departments.
MDCR has been investigating the complaints, a process that can take months or years to complete, Johnson said. He said additional charges may be filed.
“We remain committed to conducting a thorough and impartial examination of the evidence in every complaint brought against the GRPD, working with the parties to reach settlements where we can, and taking complaints to charge when necessary,” Johnson said in a statement.
Community leaders and activists say they’re hoping the civil rights charges will help push the needle forward on change.
“This is huge that they’ve been charged with civil rights violations. They have to answer to that. The city has to answer to that,” said Kent County Commissioner Robert S. Womack. “It’s sad that it’s going to cost the taxpayers money when it comes to lawsuits left and right, that these officials could have stopped because they could have put the policies in place to stop this.”
Womack says he’d like to see the police department acknowledge the civil rights department data as correct and to lay out how officers will be held accountable in the future outside of GRPD’s internal affairs department, which he says is ineffective. He went on to say he’d like to see the department hire more minority officers from the community.
“I hope that the police begin to understand that when we’re telling them there’s a problem, it’s not to put them down. It’s to let them know, ‘If you want better police relations, we have to solve these problems,'” Womack said.
The NAACP of greater Grand Rapids says after years of communication with the department in the wake of the Honestie Hodges case, they were pleased to see the charges Monday.
“The community was enraged. We were as well beyond concern. Here was a little girl. Honestie was 11 years old and she was of color and they were looking for someone who was white and an adult,” said Gayle Harvey, the NAACP executive officer of external affairs. “We had been waiting quite some time. There were a lot of formal complaints and so these things take time, which we understand. So we were patient, but we never went away.”
GRPD Police Chief Eric Winstrom is set to reveal his 90-day review of the department and identify any potential policy changes to come on Tuesday. Harvey said the NAACP has been communicating with Winstrom on changes they think would make for better policing in Grand Rapids. She said they are hopeful his plan will include some of the action items.
“Policing is important. We do not take that away. We understand that but it is also important to understand you are policing people. We are all the same,” Harvey said.
— News 8’s Jacqueline Francis and Whitney Burney contributed to this report.