Bliss on GRPD race concerns: ‘We need to make changes’

Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss speaking to 24 Hour News 8 on Tuesday, April 25, 2017.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The Grand Rapids mayor is talking in an interview for the first time about police and perceived racial bias.

Mayor Rosalynn Bliss responded to concerns from the community on a recent study’s findings that black drivers are twice as likely as others to be pulled over in the city.

“I think with the study clearly shows is that there is a disparity and I think that is where we need to focus. I consistently talk about the racial disparities that exist in our city and what I know is that it’s based on generations of structural racism and structurally we need to make changes,” Bliss told 24 Hour News 8.

Bliss says the important thing is that the city works to correct the problems. She says it’s all about building trust and repairing trust when it’s broken.

“We are not getting everything right, no one ever does. We are absolutely committed to working with the community, both on keeping our neighborhoods safe but also on improving police community relations,” said Bliss. “We want our officers to be safe, but we also want our community members to be safe and I personally don’t think those are mutually exclusive.

“The police department is full of men and women who care deeply about their work and they get up everyday and do a really difficult job. I want to honor their public service because that’s what it is. Now, are their areas that we need to improve? Absolutely, but that’s true in every department.”

The city is actively working on a long-term plan to continue to improve relations between the community and police. The police chief says he stands by his opinion that policies and procedures don’t need to change.

“I think what I would modify is that we need to be more transparent in terms of how we arrive at those policy and procedures,” said Police Chief David Rahinsky. “Our policies and procedures are well vetted.”

Rahinsky says GRPD’s procedures follow national best practices.

A traffic study that looked at three years of data from GRPD found that black drivers are twice as likely to be pulled over compared to other drivers, but the chief says he’s not taking the results at face value.

“When our outcomes don’t meet what our objectives are, it’s an opportunity for us to look at why they don’t — whether it’s cultural, it’s systemic, whether that’s because there is a correlation between poverty and equipment, violations and poverty is more concentrated in minority communities remains to be seen.”

This isn’t the only perceived racism the police department has been dealing with recently. A video of black male teens being held at gunpoint was made public after a passerby caught it on camera.

A still image from a Grand Rapids Police Department body camera shows an officer pointing a gun at a group of boys as part of a search for an armed suspect. (March 24, 2017)

Police were responding to a report of someone with a gun. Police say they stopped the boys because they matched the suspect description.

The chief said as a father it was gut wrenching to watch the recently released police body camera video.

“There is no easy solution for these issues,” said the chief. “We’ve got work to do and we are undertaking these difficult conversations.”