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GRCC leaders, public safety officers discuss social issues

Panel addresses, ‘How did we get here?’

Grand Rapids – Over the last year, public confidence in police officers in the United States has significantly declined, to 48% from a high of 64% in 2004, according to a Gallup study.  

Reflecting on recent acts of police brutality against people of color and a growing distrust of law enforcement, GRCC Police and Corrections Academy Director Jermaine Reese wonders, “How did we get here?”

In support of National Criminal Justice Month, the Grand Rapids Community College Criminal Justice Department/Police Academy hosted a two-day virtual panel discussion focused on Criminal Justice Reform to discuss that and other questions.

City of Grand Rapids Commissioner Joe Jones (courtesy)

Established by the United States Congress in March 2009, National Criminal Justice Month promotes awareness of causes and consequences of crime, as well as strategies for preventing and responding to crime. GRCC Police and Corrections Academy Director Jermaine Reese moderated the conversation between City of Grand Rapids Commissioner Joe Jones (president and CEO at The Hekima Group LLC, a consulting firm focused on diversity, equity and inclusion strategies and other social justice advocacy) and GRCC Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer Dr. B. Afeni McNeely Cobham over a live Zoom webinar. 

The focus included the history of the criminal justice system in America and its influence on systemic racism. 

“I’ve been thinking about the 13th Amendment (the abolishment of slavery), and the institution of slavery in this country,” McNeely Cobham said. “I don’t think you can have a conversation about a system in America without talking about the dehumanization of people within those systems. After the Civil War, Black codes were used to disenfranchise emancipated former slaves; these were the precursor to Jim Crow laws.

“When you draw the connection between the criminal justice system and the 13th Amendment, there was not a way that the system could develop with equity, fairness and justice in mind; instead, the system developed to maintain the status quo in society.” 

Acknowledgement of the past is necessary to move forward, she said, and committing to reform involves spending time learning history.

“History is ugly and uncomfortable,” Jones added. “You don’t know what you don’t know, but the moment you find out, you become complicit if you don’t make the effort to change the outcome.”

Narratives We Hear

“The power of the media impacts the narrative of how we see black folks. We are so far away, unfortunately, from getting to a better place and we need to hold the media accountable,” Jones said.

“Of all the Black Lives Matter protests last year, 93% were non-violent. Watching the news you don’t see that, and it influences the narrative,” McNeely Cobham said. “Producers in the media only show where there is smoke and fire instead of those who are organized and articulate in their fight for civil rights.” 

She added, “Policing and criminal justice shows in pop culture have played a role in how we are led to believe the criminal justice system exists.”

GRCC Police and Corrections Academy Director Jermaine Reese (courtesy)

The pandemic provided a new climate for social justice issues. “May 25, 2020 hit different,” Reese said of the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. “What is it about the recent killings, Floyd being just one of many, (that) sparked the sense of urgency for reform?” Reese asked the panelists. 

McNeely Cobham responded, “George Floyd is a tipping point. As a whole in America, we started talking about equity on several fronts and more people came into a consciousness around inequity. It’s not uncommon for people of color to be (mistreated) by police, but this time everyone was watching.”

“Part of the pandemic was keeping us at home, and more people were forced to watch (Floyd’s death) because we didn’t have anything else to do but be glued to our screens,” Jones added.

It’s become even more apparent that criminal justice reform needs to be intentional, unapologetic and strategic. “I want to see folks who have been marginalized have the opportunity to take a bite at the apple,” Jones said.

“We’re trying to reform centuries of a system that never started out right. Lawmakers cannot be so afraid of losing their job that they’re not willing to be brave and do the right thing. There also has to be a human rights element to a capitalist-centered reform,” McNeely Cobham said.

Kent County Sheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young (courtesy)

Where to Go From Here?

Public safety officials Kent County Sheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young and Grand Rapids Police Chief Eric Payne reflected on George Floyd’s death as panelists for the second day of the discussion.

“I was sad, his death is tragic, but unfortunately, I was not able to get a good look at the incident itself, as shortly after, we had our own issues in Grand Rapids with riots,” Payne said. “His death was an opportunity for law enforcement to look in the mirror and do better. We’re serving the community at the end of the day.”

“My first response was that of a human; I cried and was horrified that the people that were there to help ended his life. Not only did one awful human kneel on his throat, other officers did nothing to intervene,” LaJoye-Young said. 

She touched on the importance of doing the work to pick the right people for the job that you can support and trust to serve the people.

“Everyone we come in contact with is a human being that we are there to serve, regardless of what they’ve done,” she said. “At no time can we lose sight of the fact or we lose our own humanity.” 

LaJoye-Young stated there is no such thing as a perfect police call. 

“We go into the worst possible situations and we have to make the best possible call and have faith that your government and chief will back you up given you made the best decision you were trained to make,” LaJoye-Young.  

Grand Rapids Police Chief Eric Payne (courtesy)

“We need reform and to support human beings doing the best we can, we need to reform constructively, so it doesn’t inhibit our ability to serve the community,” Payne said. “Reform as an opportunity, not an obstacle.” 

“Racism in our American history has always been a factor, so it’s always been a factor in policing,” LaJoye-Young said. “It’s important we do everything we can to equip our officers and prepare them, and give proper oversight when someone steps out of line.”

Law enforcement officers have to see themselves as part of the community, not above it, to successfully engage, Reese said.

“When people say ‘defund the police,’ we have been defunded. It’s been a struggle with limited resources and officers to effectively engage with the community,” Payne added. 

As part of the community, eroding funds means decreasing the quality and quantitative of services in the community, according to LaJoye-Young. “We’re a visible form of government, but we’re not responsible for making a lot of the rules. That happens on the federal level. This country is facing an awakening and it was long overdue.”

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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter covering Byron Center, Caledonia, Godfrey-Lee, Kenowa Hills and Thornapple Kellogg. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News, covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry, before finding her calling in education reporting and landing at SNN. Alexis is also the author of a poetry chapbook, “Learning to Sleep in the Middle of the Bed.”


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