GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The Michigan Department of Civil Rights says there is enough evidence to launch a formal investigation into whether there is systemic discrimination by the Grand Rapids Police Department.
The investigation, which is expected to take months to complete, could result in state sanctions against the department.
The MDCR’s Tuesday morning announcement is different from the police investigations the agency has conducted before. In this case, the question is not whether there are a few bad apples at GRPD but rather whether the metaphorical barrel is the problem.
It started with cases of GRPD interactions with residents caught on video that created outrage among many in the city’s minority communities. Those led to March 28 gatherings at the Grand Rapids NAACP office, where for nearly seven hours, people shared some 80 stories of alleged bias by and mistreatment at the hands of GRPD.
“The number of complaints since March 28 represents nearly twice the number of complaints received prior to the listening sessions,” MDCR Director Agustin Arbulu said during the announcement of the investigation in downtown Grand Rapids.
Arbulu said the inquiry would involve 23 of the 80 complaints, including the case from March 11 in which two Latino teens were held at gunpoint after an officer spotted them walking in the street and the GRPD call to federal immigration officials that led to the wrongful detention of an American citizen and U.S. Marine veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“While the number of complaints alone does not indicate discriminatory patterns or practices at play, we do believe — and I mean this — we do believe they warrant thorough investigation,” Arbulu said.
If the investigation moves forward, it would mean that the MDCR has determined that not only one officer is at fault and that there are practices and policies in place that repeatedly result in discrimination.
“When discrimination’s ongoing in way that resolving one case will not address the state’s objective to prevent future instances of discriminatory practices,” Arbulu explained. “Today’s actions do not amount to a conclusion that anyway wrongdoing has taken place.”
Arbulu says the investigation will be conducted by the neutral investigative arm of the department. That group is separate from the prosecutorial arm that would bring its case before the Civil Rights Commission, which is made up of eight members appointed by the governor.
“Our investigators will interview not only the complainant but the respondent,” he said.
The civil rights department has subpoena powers to compel cooperation from police officers and administrators.
GRPD will have an opportunity to address each complaint the state investigates. If the civil rights department determines discrimination happened, the police department will have a chance to address the problem and prevent it from happening again.
If the GRPD fails to fix an issue, the case could be prosecuted before the appointed Michigan Civil Rights Commission. That commission could then mandate ongoing training, changes in policy or even state oversight of the department.
GRPD could appeal the commission’s ruling in circuit court.
In a Tuesday statement, Interim Police Chief David Kiddle said the department welcomes the investigation and promised cooperation:
“Our police department is committed to transparency and we welcome a review by the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. Our doors are always open for anyone who wants to see how we are doing our job and offer ideas for how we can better serve our community. We take all concerns brought forward by community members very seriously – whether it’s through our Internal Affairs process or an outside agency. We have clear expectations for how our officers conduct themselves and interact with community members. We take our impartial policing policy very seriously and, as such, we do not tolerate discrimination of any kind in our department. We look forward to continuing to work with our community to build and strengthen relationships. We want to be a trusted community partner for everyone who calls Grand Rapids home.”
For some, the investigation is long overdue.
“It’s history now being revealed where people have been screaming and crying and talking about it for years and they haven’t been heard,” Pastor David May of the NAACP said. “I’m glad we have this moment in time to hear the voices of those who are most wounded, most broken who every time they see a police light, have fear that it might be their last time.”
He said he hopes that the investigation results in consequences.
“They have almost always been exonerated and in some way defined as following protocol and even in the most egregious visual pieces that we’ve seen,” May said
While as with any investigation, exoneration is a real possibility, May said he hopes for a different message.
“Prosecution would certainly give the community a sense of faith that the system is changing,” May said.
The MDCR is still gathering information from citizens. You can call 1.800.482.3604 or go online to submit a complaint.