Grand Rapids claims it has a problem.
Grand Rapids could soon have an ordinance that would make it a criminal misdemeanor to racially profile people of color for “participating in their lives.”
The “bias crime reporting prohibition” is one of a handful of adjustments that would be made to the city code as part of the proposed human rights ordinance.
A phrase like “participating in their lives” is one of those dubiously vague explanations that can be read entirely differently based on perspective. If it means “walking while black,” then it smacks of racism. If it means engaging in a life of crime, then it means something quite different. How does one know the difference?
“We in the community have had various conversations over the last few years about disparities that exist in Grand Rapids,” said Jeremy DeRoo, executive director of the non-profit advocacy group LINC Up.
“The human rights ordinance provides the infrastructure so that all these issues have a backbone supporting and addressing them. It creates a way to address a broad range of problems and to correct them.”
There have been numerous complaints to police made against people that lacked basis in fact and were predicated on assumptions of wrongful conduct based, presumably, on race. They’ve often been leveled by white women who felt “uncomfortable” about a black person and, because of the woke but conflicting belief that they’re entitled to a world where nothing makes any individual woman uncomfortable, called the cops.
If the discomfort is caused by a person of the same race or gender, then it’s all fair. If they are of a different race of gender, then it’s chalked up to racism or sexism, and isn’t fine at all. In fairness, many of these calls have reflected a baseless hypersensitivity toward discomfort. In other words, the caller’s complaint was objectively baseless, sometimes irrational, and influenced largely by racial fears and assumptions.
Is this a big problem in Grand Rapids?
In recent years, DeRoo said Grand Rapids police have been unnecessarily dispatched to situations due to 911 calls that were perhaps made due to implicit bias or discrimination. He cited a summer 2017 gathering in Mulick Park in which police were called to break up a large gathering of African American community members. Multiple patrol vehicles were sent to the park before it was determined that it was a graduation party.
One instance isn’t much by way of proof, but assuming it’s merely an example, it serves its purpose*. There may be no epidemic of racist 911 calls against black people for “participating in their lives,” but then, if they’re doing nothing wrong, they’re every bit as entitled to go about their lives, enjoy a party, as anyone else. On the bright side, the Grand Rapids police didn’t shoot anyone before figuring out it was a graduation party.
But cops being “unnecessarily dispatched” is part of the job. When someone calls 911, it’s not because they’ve run through the checklist of elements of offenses and determined that a crime has been committed. It’s because they believe so and call for the nice folks whose job it is to figure it out. The caller isn’t required to wait for a gun to be drawn, bullets to fly, before calling 911 for fear that something bad is about to happen. Well, they weren’t before, at least.
Diversity and Inclusion Manager Patti Caudill said the ordinance is a new concept in Michigan. It isn’t meant to discourage 911 calls, she said. Rather, it’s meant to make people “check their biases” before calling the police.
That there is a Grand Rapids “diversity and inclusion manager” is, in itself, curious. Is the job to manage the citizens of Grand Rapids so as to use government to compel people to “check their biases” or get arrested? The job would appear to be a bit more “thought police” if that’s the case.
“Call the police, but if you’re calling because your neighbors are having a barbecue and you’re calling because of some implicit bias because they’re people of color, we don’t want to see that,” she said.
That’s not “implicit bias.” If your black neighbors are having a barbecue and you call the cops, that’s plain old racism. There’s nothing implicit about it. Black people get to have barbecues, and there’s nothing about a barbecue that suggests anything wrong. And if someone calls 911 and alerts the operator to the complaint of “black people having a barbecue,” one would hope for the 911 operator to have the wherewithal to reply, “That’s not a crime. Get your head out of your butt.” If they send out cars because of black people barbecuing, then the problem isn’t only with some racist citizenry.
But this doesn’t mean there’s an epidemic of racist 911 calls in Grand Rapids, as much as it means that the cops are put in a position for which they don’t want to be held accountable.
“Often times, the Grand Rapids Police Department ends up being caught in the middle of what is a bigger community problem,” DeRoo said. “They look bad because they approach individuals who are people of color, and it appears the police department is biased when really they’re responding to phone calls made by the community and it appears that a number of those are motivated by people in a discriminatory way.”
It’s a fair complaint from the police perspective. They get the 911 call and respond to it. If the call turns out to be nonsense, and the object of the call is black, they come off looking racist when they are merely responding to some biased person’s hyped-up fear of black people having a good time or behaving normally.
A typical 911 call might involve a resident in a predominantly white neighborhood** who sees an unfamiliar black man walking around. Of course, walking in a white neighborhood isn’t a crime, but the fear is that he might be a burglar. The basis for the fear is that he doesn’t “belong” there. Is this a reason to call 911? If it turns out that the black guy is a thief, sure. If he’s just a guy going for a walk, of course not. Does the caller know? She better or she would be committing a crime if this new ordinance is enacted.
Using criminal law to legislate against bias is becoming an accepted notion, as racism is bad and something must be done to stop it. But is criminalizing people mistakenly calling 911 the way to accomplish it? At least it takes the cops off the hook when they arrive to find black people participating in their lives.
*A second story is included, but it’s not exactly a comparable situation.
DeRoo also pointed to an Oct. 9 incident in which police received a call from a woman who claimed she witnessed a shooting at her neighbor’s house. Police investigated the call, and in the process handcuffed a 12-year-old girl at gunpoint, before determining that there were no weapons or shooting victims on scene.
Either the person who called in a shooting was lying or nuts, either of which raises its own problems. Would they not want people who witness a shooting to call 911, just in case?
**That there remain such things as a “predominantly white neighborhood” is itself disturbing, but it can also be a matter of demographics. Like it or not, African-Americans comprise slightly less than 13% of the population in general. There will be neighborhoods that are predominantly white as a product of numbers, if nothing else.