Grand Rapids mayor addresses police problems

Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss
Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss. (Sept. 20, 2017)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — It has been a rough week or so for the Grand Rapids Police Department as every few days seemed to bring a new and embarrassing disclosure.

While police officials say the problems are isolated and the overall culture of the department is one of integrity and professionalism, the scandals have proved an unwelcome distraction from the duty to protect and serve.

The department was still recovering from a spring where they had to react to a study that found black drivers are twice as likely as others to be pulled over in the city. Then came the public release of recordings of officers and supervisors discussing how to avoid giving a breathalyzer test to an assistant prosecutor they believed was drunk after a crash. Then 24 Hour News 8 learned that Officer Kevin Penn resigned after allegedly getting in trouble for holding his gun to the head of a man who was handcuffed. On Tuesday, word came of a settlement between GRPD and a teen who claimed he was the victim of excessive force after a police officer struck him repeatedly with a flashlight. The city paid him $95,000.

Police say the actions of a few should not taint the good work of the vast majority.

“We recognize as a department how this is a huge step backwards in the eyes of the community in terms of what we preach,” GRPD Chief David Rahinsky said Sept. 13. “We preach transparency, accountability and this flies in the face of everything we’re about.”

He said he hoped the public recognized the department’s efforts.

“What has come out has been addressed and that was the exception, not the rule,” he said. “And that’s what people need to hear and that’s what we need to ensure.”

Through much of this, Mayor Rosalynn Bliss has not spoken publicly. But she did address the issue Wednesday in an interview with 24 Hour News 8.

“I think we do need to be very mindful of not to cast this overgeneralization about the entire department. We also know we have things we need to improve and that’s true of every department,” Bliss said.

As the city met with residents about the allegations of racial bias, the mayor and city commission decided to hire a consulting firm, 21st Century Policing Solutions, to assess the police department’s policies and procedures. The move was not met with open arms by the department and officers’ unions.

Bliss said the consultant has pulled together a task force over the last few weeks.

“It’s really diverse, it has community members and individuals from the police department and the work we’re doing with them is a commitment to improve,” Bliss said. “The chief and our officers are actively going out, listening to the community and we’ve brought the community in to work with us through this task force.”

But Bliss does not believe sweeping changes are necessary.

“I believe that the work that we’re doing right now and the work that we’ve already started is exactly what we need to be doing,” she said.

It remains to be seen if the mayor and the department leadership’s measured and incremental approach to change stems the recent flow of critical issues.