#GRTalksBack, city listens; what’s next?

Six main themes emerged in series of listening sessions with residents

An image shows the ideas generated during Grand Rapids city listening sessions.


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Early results show a series of listening sessions between Grand Rapids city leaders and residents were a success — that’s the word from the people in charge of the sessions.

“We can’t move fast enough. There’s a need for us to move with a tremendous amount of urgency,” 2nd Ward City Commissioner Joe Jones said of the #GRTalksBack sessions. “I believe that part of this really has to do with each side seeing each other’s humanity and really operating with a greater sense of empathy.”

The five listening session held in June were designed to let residents weigh in on issues and ways to improve communication between residents and city officials — especially when it comes to the Grand Rapids Police Department.

“To again, more than anything, express how they felt about these areas instead of us taking the opportunity to kind of share what our thoughts were,” Jones said.

The sessions produced six themes. The first was communications and community engagement: Session participants expressed a desire for better communications between the city and GRPD.

A review of policies and procedures was another topic of discussion. Specifically, residents want more accountability written into the city’s union contracts with police.

The study on racial disparity in traffic stops released in April was also brought up. Residents want a closer look at the study and for leaders to address the criticism by a consultant group headed by a former police chief before additional studies are ordered.

Police officer training is another issue. Members of the public want more transparency when it comes to the way GRPD officers are trained, from the trainers’ backgrounds to the curriculum they follow.

Officer hiring is also on the list, with residents asking what the city can do to hire officers that better reflect the community they serve.

Body cameras are also an issue. The community clamored for them. The city bought them. Now, citizens want to know more on when they’re used, who has access to the video and how the city is measuring their effectiveness.

City leaders say attendance at the listening sessions represented a good cross section of the city. But there was criticism that they still weren’t reflective of the people most impacted by disparity, which the preliminary report calls the communities of color, so the city will look at more ways to reach out to those communities.

“We see an opportunity to go deeper within the African-American community, because historically, the African-American community has not had the best relationship with law enforcement,” Jones said.

This isn’t the first time the city has tried to better relations between police and communities of color. Fifty years ago, there was Eye to Eye. Target 8’s report on the 1967 race riots referenced the effort in which members of the black community and GRPD officers met face to face to get to know each other long before the violence broke out that summer.

One criticism from residents who took part in the recent listening sessions was a low level of confidence that the new effort will produce tangible results.

So what sets this effort apart from the past?

“It’s me, it’s my colleagues, it’s the city manager, it’s the police chief recognizing that we have to be diligent,” Jones said. “We have to be intentional because of what’s happening throughout our country.”