GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The city of Grand Rapids has settled a civil rights case that prompted a formal discrimination charge against its police department.
It’s been one year since the Michigan Department of Civil Rights filed the charge over a January 2020 traffic stop in which Grand Rapids police handcuffed and detained a woman over an expired driver’s license.
At its July 25, 2023, meeting, the Grand Rapids City Commission approved a settlement with Melissa Hughes, the driver who was pulled over on Eastern Avenue SE as she drove her teenage son and his friends home from a pizza place.
Under the settlement agreement, the city will pay Hughes $45,000.
In exchange, the former Grand Rapids resident has withdrawn the complaint she filed with the state’s civil rights watchdog.
“I settled because it’s been a three-and-a-half-year battle, and not knowing how much longer this was going to drag out,” Hughes told Target 8 in a Thursday interview via Zoom. “I just wanted it to stop, you know? I just want it to end.”
As a result of Hughes’ withdrawal, the administrative law judge overseeing the case against GRPD dismissed the charge levied by the state.
“I felt like what (the city) was willing to compensate was sufficient enough,” explained Hughes, noting she had rejected two initial offers for $5,000 and $10,000.
Hughes said it wasn’t initially clear to her that the settlement would require the withdrawal of her complaint.
Still, she believes her case, though settled, will have a positive impact on the battle for equal treatment by police. That, she said, was the sole reason she reported the traffic stop to internal affairs and then, the state’s civil rights watchdog.
“I just knew I needed to stand up for the level of treatment I received,” said Hughes. “I didn’t understand why (the stop) warranted so many police officers,” explained Hughes. “I felt like I was targeted because of me being an African American woman with three Black males in the car with me.”
In body camera video released by the Grand Rapids Police Department after the case’s resolution, an officer approached Hughes’ car and explained the stop was due to an expired license plate.
“Yes, I’m going to deal with that on Monday,” Hughes told the officer, explaining she thought there was a 10-day grace period beyond the expiration date.
While the officer checked Hughes’s driver’s license in his cruiser, other officers watched her vehicle.
In turn, Hughes, who wore a Black Lives Matter hoodie, observed the police.
“I’m gonna keep my eyes on you just like you all keep your eyes on me,” Hughes told an officer.
“That’s fine, ma’am,” the officer responded.
“Yes, it is,” replied Hughes. “Black Lives Matter.”
When an officer asked one of the teenagers for his name, Hughes stepped in, declaring that the young men did not have to answer.
“All three of them are minors. They’re all minors. All under my care,” said Hughes, who told Target 8 all three teens have clean records.
When police determined Hughes’ driver’s license was expired, they told her to exit her vehicle.
But first, an officer repeated an earlier instruction to roll down her back windows.
“For what?” Hughes asked.
“Just to make sure I can see back there,” the officer explained.
“Ain’t nobody got no weapons or nothing,” Hughes said.
“OK,” said the officer.
“So, why do I gotta keep rolling my windows down?” asked Hughes.
“Like I said, so I can see back there,” the officer replied.
When Hughes was instructed to exit the vehicle, she repeatedly asked why before complying. The officer explained that her driver’s license was expired.
“Ma’am, put your phone down and step out of the car,” said the officer, placing his hand on Hughes’ arm.
Hughes was handcuffed and placed in the backseat of a cruiser for around 20 minutes.
“All of this for my license being expired?” asked Hughes.
“Yes,” said the officer.
“I’ve never been put in cuffs a day in my life,” Hughes remarked.
In her complaint to the department of civil rights, Hughes reported that an officer told her, “Since you stopped running your mouth, we’ll let you go.”
The bodycam video did not show that.
“What’s going to happen is because you calmed down and you were cooperative, you’re just going to receive a citation today,” explained the officer. “You’ll have 10 days to take care of it.”
During her interview via Zoom with Target 8, Hughes reiterated that she recalled an officer talking about her “running her mouth.”
“That’s what I recall him saying, and that was recorded in my deposition as well,” Hughes said. “I’ve never wavered in what I said he said. But there are multiple officers so maybe the officer who said it, maybe it’s just not on the tape.”
In its July 2022 release announcing the discrimination charge against GRPD, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights explained the basis for its decision.
“Even though (Hughes) was compliant with the officers, she was removed from her car, handcuffed and placed under arrest in a police cruiser for approximately 20 minutes,” MDCR said. “In response to the (MDCR) investigation, GRPD was unable to demonstrate that people of another race in similar situations were treated the same as Melissa (Hughes).”
In an email to Grand Rapids police, Target 8 asked if the Hughes case had prompted any changes in protocol. A city spokesperson replied with a one sentence statement:
“The city is pleased that the parties were able to resolve the matter.”
In a statement to Target 8, MDCR Executive Director John E. Johnson Jr. reacted to the withdrawal and dismissal of the case against Grand Rapids police.
“There are any number of reasons a claimant may decide to withdraw a complaint. We aren’t in the business of second guessing a family’s decision about such personal and painful experiences. In each of the four cases against the Grand Rapids Police Department, our investigations found that discrimination did take place and we brought these cases to charge. Following a charge, it is our obligation to continue to work toward a resolution that brings some measure of justice to the claimant. The claimant’s decisions to withdraw these complaints has no impact on our ongoing investigation of other complaints against the GRPD. If we find evidence of discrimination and the parties cannot come to a resolution, we will not hesitate to bring the complaint to charge.”John E. Johnson Jr., MDCR executive director