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'Avoiding the Next Ferguson': Panel talks policing, community strategies

Downtown Grand Rapids photo
Wikimedia | Grguy2011

Is Grand Rapids the next Ferguson?

That's the question that packed hundreds of people into Wealthy Theatre last week to listen to and engage with the ACLU-assembled panel discussing some deeply-rooted issues.

Mark Fancher is the racial justice attorney for the ACLU.

He moderated the 'Avoiding the Next Ferguson' panel in Grand Rapids before a packed house and set the tone by framing the creation of America's police departments in a provocative historic context.

"If you were part of the community, it became your civic duty to participate in the slave patrols," Fancher said. "Your function, your role, was to go and track down runaways."

It was the very role that police play in communities of color that drove the night's discussion.

Darel Ross of LINC Community Revitalization was among panelist voices.

"As long as we have a culture of arrests and the criminal justice system mandates that when they show up they arrest, and that's the only tool they have, and prevention is in no way championed," Ross said, "we're gonna' be great people having this conversation for a while."

David Rahinski, the chief of the Grand Rapids Police Department, acknowledged that the past contributes to mistrust across the country - but said his department was quick to respond to community demands.

"We've literally flung open our doors," he said. "We've asked outside experts to come in and take a look at us, because we're confident in the knowledge that we represent the community, that we work hard, that we're a proud department and that we're here to serve."

Ross argued it is ordinary people, and not government agencies that are driving change.

"It wasn't the police officer's cameras that we saw with the Giddings Street Incident," Ross said. "It was a private citizen's cell phone that showed the excessive force and the posture of the police when they stepped out."

One solution offered to the department during the event was hiring more minority officers to serve in communities of color.

But Rahinski said the current climate is working against that goal.

"If law enforcement continues to be demonized on a national level it just makes our job that much harder to go into minority communities," he said, "and make ourselves an attractive career option." 

For now, it seems, Grand Rapids may not be the next Ferguson. But the panelists all referenced the need for conversations to be followed by government action. 

Mariano Avila is WGVU's inclusion reporter. He has made a career of bringing voices from the margins to those who need to hear them. Over the course of his career, Mariano has written for major papers in English and Spanish, published in magazines, worked in broadcast, and produced short films, commercials, and nonprofit campaigns. He also briefly served at a foreign consulate, organized for international human rights efforts and has done considerable work connecting marginalized people to religious, educational, and nonprofit institutions through the power of story.
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