“What we saw was horrific” — Groups demand protocol change after police hold innocent teens at gunpoint

Posted at 10:33 PM, Apr 06, 2017

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- A video allegedly showing teens being held at gunpoint by Grand Rapids Police is sparking outrage in the community.

The video taken two weeks ago shows the teens laying on the ground surrounded by police and later cuffed and put in the back of police vehicles. Police say a witness saw suspects matching their description with a gun.

Police are justifying their actions while local social justice groups are condemning the department's protocol, saying it was taken too far.

Five boys ages 12 to 14 were walking home after playing basketball when they were stopped by police. They allegedly matched a description given by a witness that had seen one of them with a gun.

Grand Rapids Police approached the teens with guns drawn, ordering them to the ground, searching them one by one and cuffing and apprehending two of the boys. Grand Rapids Police say the officers did nothing wrong and were following protocol.

The teens were walking home from the Kroc Center on Division Avenue when they were stopped. A witness told police they saw a large fight happening there and saw someone with a gun. Police spotted the boys matching the description of the suspects and attempted to make contact.

"He ordered them to the ground at gunpoint and then one by one as other officers converged and descended upon the area, each one of those individuals was called back to the officers and checked for weapons," said Sgt. Terry Dixon with Grand Rapids Police. "Shortly thereafter, their parents were called and they were released."

When no gun was found, the boys were released to their parents with a full explanation of what happened, but that wouldn't be the end of it.

"What we saw was horrific," said Cle Jackson, president of the Grand Rapids Chapter of the NAACP.

Cle Jackson is one local leader condemning the incident after reviewing body camera footage by one of the officers. He says police took it too far.

"The concern is the level of resistance or force if you want to say, that was used by GRPD in respect to these young men, even after they realized that there was no longer a threat," said Jackson. "These young men were still handcuffed, searched and two of the young men were detained and put into police vehicles."

In video taken by a witness, you can see one of the teens laying on the ground before walking backwards towards police with his hands behind his head while police surround him. Sgt. Dixon says the officers were following protocol used by police agencies all across the country.

"Once we have a report of a weapon or a firearm, it literally changes what could be the outcome," said Dixon. "They are acting within procedure to pull or draw their weapon and order the individual to the ground until they sort out what is actually taking place."

Jeremy Deroo with LINC UP wants this policy to change, saying it's harmful to building trust between youth and their police.

"I think there are opportunities for officers to approach the boys not with a gun drawn on them at first, but to first ask them to stop and not put themselves in harm's way," said Deroo. "Don't approach them immediately, but at least make some contact with them that's not overly guns pointed at them, but be able to ascertain whether these are individuals they are actually looking for."

Jackson says the conversation would be different if the five teens weren't African American.

"Our concern as an organization is if this would've happened if these were five young white youth, would it have played out the same way?" said Jackson. "Quite honestly, we don't think that it would have. These are youth. These are babies, and you're literally asking them to walk backwards with their hands in the air. Just imagine what was going through their heads."

Grand Rapids Police Chief David Rahinsky met with the teens and their parents last week to explain the policy and discuss any of their concerns.

"It's a serious situation, but at the same time in this particular case the officers did act with due diligence and acted appropriately," said Dixon. "There needs to be a discussion and that is currently taking place."

The parents of the teens asked the officers involved to sit down and meet with them to apologize for the incident, but Sgt. Dixon says that's likely not going to happen because the officers in question were following protocol.

Dixon says Chief Rahinsky sat down with the families and explained that it's upsetting and was apologetic. He plans on meeting with them in the future to do positive activities to restore trust with them.

The social justice organizations plan on attending the Grand Rapids City Commission meeting on Tuesday night and urge the public to attend to voice their opinions on the incident and share any stories of interactions they might have had, positive or negative.