Grand Rapids City Commission moves ahead with police body cameras and independent investigations

Posted at 5:30 PM, Jan 27, 2015
and last updated 2015-01-27 17:30:04-05

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – The Grand Rapids City Commission, voting as a committee of the whole, unanimously voted Tuesday morning to phase in police body cameras and begin independent investigations of future officer-involved shootings.

Both are key elements and part of the amended timeline for the city’s community and police relations recommendations report.

“We will not deploy body cameras until you have seen a policy on how we will use them,” said Grand Rapids City Manager Greg Sundstrom.

The $1.5 million plan of action phases in GRPD body cameras in a pilot program beginning March 10. The plan supports issues that Sundstrom said advocated by the public, citing fair and equal treatment.

“There's no doubt about it, in Grand Rapids we have not had the difficulties that they have had in other cities that we`ve seen in national stories,” said Sundstrom.

“But, I would also not say that we are without problems. The point is, we have a highly trained, dedicated police force that I think every day does a great job, but if we even unintentionally are not providing equal and fair treatment to all citizens, that is at the very core of what we in city government need to address.”

Overall, this is a fluid plan. For instance, Concerned city commissioners had language changed from the term "deadlines" to "report dates."

However, the president of the Grand Rapids Police Command Officers Association (GRPCOA), Capt. Peter McWatters told FOX 17 the GRPCOA feels the plan is rushed and addresses problems that don't exist in the GRPD. In a statement he released to FOX 17, he said as much:

“The GRPCOA feels this plan is 'rushed.' very expensive and attempts to address problems GRPD does not have.

“We have significant concerns regarding video evidence storage, retrieval, retention, FOIA and privacy issues which are all issues yet undetermined.  The city is rushing into this plan based on arbitrary dates being set with no policy or solid plan in place for implementation.

“The plan to have an outside agency investigate our officer involved shootings is not based on any objective facts about how we investigate shootings or how we have investigated shootings in the past.  This proposal is based solely on what some think would be perceived better.  This proposal totally disrupts our model for internal investigations that have been completely professional and objective in the past.

"Lastly, the rushed nature of this program and the extent of issues it tries to address would lead some to think the GRPD has major issues which we do not.   The document reflects unfavorably upon GRPD employees which is a shame.”

Similarly, the president of the Grand Rapids Police Officers Association (GRPOA) Andrew Bingel addressed body cameras and outside agency investigations in the following statement he released to FOX 17:

“Body Cameras:  Although the GRPOA does not feel body cameras are necessary we are not opposed to the idea.  The larger issue is the initial cost of the equipment and the reoccurring cost which will come out of the police budget. The GRPOA has helped the city become more sustainable by giving back pay and benefits over the last 10+ years.  One contract alone, we gave back 8.2% out of pay and benefits. The city is listening to a small group reference issues that are not present in Grand Rapids.  We have a very professional and tightly run police department.  There are no indicators that there are any problems; however these recommendations make it appear GRPD is overridden with problems. It is very disheartening to see city leaders agree to spend so much money at the drop of a hat on issues that don’t exist when they go to the tax payers time and time again asking for money such as to repair roads or improve city parks.  The money spent on the proposed recommendations could put 10-15 police officer back on the street.  We are currently down 100 officers from where we were 10-15 years ago.

“Body cameras are a fairly new technology and they are far from being perfected.  The police department has been given a short timeline to draw up policy / procedure, run a pilot program, and implement the program throughout the department.

“Outside Agency Investigations:  The GRPOA disagrees with the proposal to have an outside agency investigate officer involved shootings.  We have the best forensics and detectives in the area, if not in the entire state.   If we have to rely on outside agencies to respond to shooting scenes, evidence could be lost or destroyed.   We currently have our forensics on scene within minutes and detectives on scene shortly thereafter. Outside agencies could take well over an hour to respond.   A better idea would be to have an outside agency review or work along with our investigation.

“In closing, I believe these recommendations are a knee jerk reaction to the events that happened in Ferguson.  Shame on city leadership for wasting tax payer’s dollars so needlessly.”

Despite aforementioned concerns, Sundstrom complimented GRPD and said this is only to ensure fair and equal treatment.

“In Grand Rapids, our history is that our internal affairs does investigations of officer-involved shootings, primarily because we believe we have the best investigatory unit we probably believe in the world, at least in the area,” said Sundstrom. “But the notion of being independent, impartial, particularly for the most serious, that is, officer-involved shooting, we thought it important to have an independent investigation."

Other elements in a pre-approved but changing timeline include developing a surveillance policy that protects citizen privacy and forming a citizens' committee to improve GRPD’s minority hiring practices.

Also, the city must hire consultants at different points in the process, including conducting a study of whether or not arrests show any evidence of racial profiling; as well as following up on a 2004 racial profiling traffic stop study.