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As Grand Rapids debates future of policing, official focuses on underlying issues

dumpster on fire with protesters gathered around it
Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio
On May 30 protests in Grand Rapids turned destructive. Director of Oversight and Public Accountability, Brandon Davis, urges the city to focus on the reasons behind the destruction in order to address the root causes of the problems with policing.

The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis prompted large protests in Grand Rapids. But Grand Rapids has its own history of troubling interactions between police and residents. Now the city is having tough conversations about the future of policing there.

Michigan Radio's Morning Edition spoke to Brandon Davis. He’s the director of Oversight and Public Accountability for Grand Rapids. He’s also an attorney and a former prosecutor.

"The why"

Davis has been urging people to look past individual incidents in the city - from questionable police interactions with the public to looting during protests - in order to focus on root causes of the problems in policing.

Close-up shot of Brandon Davis
Credit City of Grand Rapids
Brandon Davis

"We have to understand that riot is the voice of the unheard. It isn't the first time we've had a riot about police brutality [in America]." Davis says. "It impacts people, especially black people and people of color, because it's very difficult to watch people like George Floyd be murdered."

Davis says the moment requires deeper conversation

"It's very easy for us to talk about a broken store window and point out how that's a bad thing. And I will submit to you that I believe that's a bad thing. But it's easy to talk about that part," he says. "It's difficult to talk about America's racist history and the inception of police departments and how they were used to try to capture escaped slaves or protect property from freed slaves. And that's 'the why.' That's the history."

Seeing all sides of criminal justice

Before moving to Grand Rapids, Davis worked as a prosecutor in both Muskegon and Wayne counties. He's also a former defense attorney. He grew up in Detroit.

"It's very easy for us to talk about a broken store window and point out how that's a bad thing. ... It's difficult to talk about America's racist history." -Brandon Davis

"As a black man growing up in America ... I've experienced being pulled out of cars by police officers after doing nothing wrong and being told that I fit the description of a bank robber. I remember that very, very well - at around 17 years old - and being roughed up by those officers and the traumatic feeling. And I am not unique. There are so many black and brown people who have experienced those type of interactions and that stays with you," he says. 

Davis always wanted to be a laywer, but decided to become a prosecutor after an internship in the Wayne County Prosecutor's office. After seeing the discretion prosecutors can apply to cases, Davis came to believe his experiences as a person of color were underrepresented in that part of the criminal justice system. After working in that system, he sees key areas for change.

"We need to look at sentencing disparities across the country. Why is it that we see some people and black people, in particular, that have higher rates of sentencing than white people with the same crime? Sometimes it's just injustice," Davis says.

"We need to also talk about things like the criminalization of poverty. It's like a broken tail light, which we understand can lead to interaction with a police officer. Well, most people don't want a broken tail light on their car. But when you live in poverty, fixing your tail light is not as important as feeding your children. And then that [can eventually lead] to a criminal interaction. It can lead to so many other things." 

On defunding and union support for systemic change  

Davis has worked on labor negotiations for the city. Asked if the police unions are helping with systemic change or impeding it, he chose not to commit. 

"I am hopeful that our unions will come along and be a part of this process of moving forward towards change. I truly believe that there are union members who feel very strongly it's best for the country. And like with any type of organization, I'm sure there's individuals who don't feel the same way."

Many residents have called for the defunding of the Grand Rapids Police Department. Some city commissioners support cutting the department's funding to 32% of the city's general budget. That's the minimum allowed by the city charter, a cut that would amount to more than $9 million of the department's budget.

"I do believe that it's important that we keep our country safe. And I support the idea of reimagining what safety looks like. I'm not in a place where I want to say what that number should be, whether the number now is what it is, or whether it's a different number," Davis says. "But I do support evaluating every [possible] action as we move forward."

Editor's note: Quotes in this story have been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to more of the interview at the top of this page.

Doug Tribou joined the Michigan Radio staff as the host of Morning Edition in 2016. Doug first moved to Michigan in 2015 when he was awarded a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
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