White cops in black communities underscore tension in Michigan protests

There is a dramatic racial divide between police and many Michigan cities in which they serve, a divide community leaders say fosters distrust between residents and police and could spark the type of combustible confrontation that has broken out in cities across the country in the last week.

Sporadic violence, from looting stores and burning police cars, to police firing rubber bullets and tear gas at protesters, followed the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Floyd, an African-American man, died while being pinned to the street by Minneapolis police officers. A graphic video showed a white officer pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes as Floyd begged him to stop, saying he could not breathe. His death has been ruled a homicide, and the officer has been charged with murder.

Originally peaceful protests turned chaotic around the country and in several Michigan cities, including Detroit, Grand Rapids and Lansing over the weekend, spurred by Floyd’s death and violent police encounters with other African Americans in recent weeks. 

One common element in rallies in those cities: police departments that, by and large, look nothing like the people they arrest.

Despite efforts to recruit minorities, police departments in Detroit and across much of Michigan continue to be whiter than the cities they protect.


In Grand Rapids, for example, the population of African-American residents (20 percent of the city) was five times higher than the percent of black cops (4 percent) in 2013, the most recent year comprehensive data could be found on its racial makeup. 

In Lansing, the share of African-American police (10 percent) is half that of residents (20 percent).

And in Benton Harbor, where memories remain fresh of violent disturbances in 2003, after a police chase ended in a motorcycle crash that killed a young black man, the disparity is jarring: 86 percent of residents are black, but 80 percent of police officers are white, according to Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad.

“I wouldn’t have been shocked” if an incident similar to the Floyd death happened in Benton Harbor, said Gwen Swanigan, a community activist and founder of Society Harmonizing Against Racial Profiling in Benton Harbor. “There have been incidents that have come close.”

Years of turmoil in Grand Rapids 

What started as a peaceful protest in Grand Rapids on Saturday evening ended in flames, looting, shattered windows and extensive damage in the hours after midnight in the city’s downtown. Protesters set several parked police cruisers ablaze.

One advocate for overhaul of the Grand Rapids Police Department noted that the protest followed decades of friction between the department – still largely white ─ and its residents.“

Thousands gathered in downtown Grand Rapids over the weekend to protest the death of George Floyd. What started as a peaceful protest in Grand Rapids on Saturday evening ended in flames and vandalism. (Photo by Ayman Haykal / Shutterstock.com)

There is certainly a long history of concern by the African-American community around policing practices,” said Jeremy DeRoo, executive director of LINC UP, a Grand Rapids nonprofit development organization.

He said it doesn’t help that the department has a lack of minority officers.

In 2017, this city of 200,000 residents had but 12 black officers — 4 percent of the police force; another 12 officers were Latino.

Grand Rapids community activist G. Foster told Bridge Monday it’s hard for a minority community to trust a police force that looks nothing like them.

“The department doesn’t look at all like the community it represents. Is that the best people for the job?”

Foster said the department must find ways to broaden its minority membership.

“If it can be done, it should be done.”

But DeRoo said he’s unsure that early-morning damage done in downtown Grand Rapids can be strictly tied to racial tensions between the police and the city’s African-American community.

“I think we have to be careful how we characterize this because I don’t know that it was caused by African Americans. My understanding is that it was a racially diverse group, primarily white, that perpetrated it.”

Bridge was unable to reach Eric Payne, the city’s first African-American police chief, for comment Monday. 

DeRoo cited tensions between African-American residents and police stretching at least as far back as the 1967 rebellion that left burned buildings over several blocks, 44 people hurt and 350 arrested.

In 2017, frictions resurfaced as the city released a report that showed that black drivers were twice as likely to get pulled over as whites. That same year, community groups urged residents to contact the city manager and chief of police after officers held five unarmed blacks ages 12 to 14 at gunpoint, handcuffed and temporarily detained them as they responded to reports of fighting at a recreation center.

Later that year, Grand Rapids police held an 11-year-old black girl at gunpoint and handcuffed her while she screamed for her mother as they searched for a suspect in an attempted murder. The department later cleared the officer who handcuffed the girl.

Last year, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights opened an investigation into the Grand Rapids police force following 23 complaints of discrimination, including allegations from residents of police intimidation and racial profiling. In January, the department said the investigation remained ongoing, while the number of complaints grew to 28.

Seeking closer community ties in Lansing 

In Lansing Sunday, several dozen buildings were vandalized, including two state government buildings, during protests. 

That city’s police force has made efforts in recent years to hire more officers of color after facing backlash from a round of hiring in the Lansing Fire Department that didn’t include a single African American or woman. 

Derrell Slaughter, Ingham County Commissioner representing southwest Lansing, said members of his community have told him the Lansing Police Department isn’t perfect but that they appreciate the efforts the department has made to build relationships with “grasstop leaders to grassroots folks.” 

In 2019, after a police officer came under fire for punching a 16-year-old girl’s leg while attempting to get her into a patrol car, the department quickly reached out to Slaughter and other leaders to update them on the investigation into the incident, he said. The department also recently hired a social worker to work with the homeless and mentally ill. 

“In general, I think our law enforcement officers are more sensitive and actually do care about what the public feels,” Slaughter said. “And when things do happen that are wrong, they try to be transparent.”

Still, Slaughter said police could invest more in training on how to work with people who have mental health issues, anti-bias training and in screening officers. 

Diversifying organizations is always a good thing, Slaughter said, but he said he recently participated in a local focus group of young men of color in their early 20s who were asked how they would feel if there was more diversity in the police force. 

“They said that wasn’t as important, but [what] was important was being treated right and treated fairly.”

The Lansing Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.

Benton Harbor’s violent history 

Benton Harbor has its own long, troubled history of tension between police and residents.

“Police relations have not been great,” said Benton Harbor’s Swanigan, the community activist. She pointed to the racial disparity between the police department and residents. 

“The Benton Harbor Police Department, we have some issues with some of the white officers attacking and harassing our young black men in our city.”

In December, a Benton Harbor officer was accused of using excessive force on a young African-American male, who the officer tased and punched in the head to, as the officer said later, “try to get control of him and help him reset his thought process.”

The racial makeup of the Benton Harbor police force “has been an issue for years,” said Ron Singleton, a former police officer in the city who is African American. “It’s pretty much similar to most urban communities. It’s a sense of mistrust, a lack of communications. There’s a concern that the police department is out of touch with the community.”

A national 2015 Gallup poll found 70 percent of whites had a “favorable” view of police in their communities; only 43 percent of blacks looked at police favorably.

In Detroit, the police department is majority African American. But despite efforts to recruit more blacks, Detroit’s police force has become whiter, going from 62 percent black in 2013 to 55 percent in 2018, according to data available on the Detroit Police website. The city is 80 percent African American.

Sheriff Benny Napoleon of Wayne County, which includes Detroit, told Bridge it takes extra effort to recruit enough people of color to create a police force that reflects the community, but that it’s imperative.

“I strongly believe a police agency that reflects a pluralistic makeup of that community is better able to earn the support and respect of the community that it is serving,” he said. 

It can be hard to persuade people in a community with a history of unfair treatment at the hands of the police to join their ranks, Napoleon said. But there are ways departments can increase diversity, beginning with recruiting from African-American and Latino sororities and fraternities, labor organizations, churches and the military.

Other policies, such as requiring police officers to live in the community that they work in and eliminating college degree requirements for new recruits, can also help boost demographic representation, he said.

Distrust isn’t the only barrier. 

Entry-level police jobs in some places can come with low salaries — around $32,000 at the Wayne County Sheriff’s department — and poor benefits, Napoleon said. 

“Trying to recruit people, anybody, but especially young African Americans into a job where you have a tough job with low pay” and a lot of risk can be a tough sell, he said.

Police brutality and racism in policing has grown as a part of the national conversation since the Black Lives Matter movement sprung up in 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder charges for killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. 

But asked whether policing in Michigan has changed much in the subsequent years, Napoleon said: “Not at all.”

While some police chiefs have grand plans for making policing more equitable, chiefs typically stay in their posts for only about three years as local city leadership or politics change, Napoleon said. “In that short period of time, you can't change the culture of agencies.” 

Continuity of leadership, better training, focused recruiting and intentional community policing will be necessary to foster more trust between police and the community, he said.

“Everybody should be indoctrinated to understand that we serve at the pleasure of the citizens and not the other way around,” Napoleon said.

An Obama-era federal report found numerous barriers to minority hiring: strained relationships between police and minority populations and a lack of knowledge about opportunities within law enforcement. But that report also said that screening tests may be inadequate and selection standards may be too rigid.

The police department in Wichita, Kansas, changed its application process to review an "applicant's life experience and skill set" after finding its old policy of entrance tests were knocking out many minority candidates. In Colorado, applicants for police work are now able to ask for exemptions for past criminal convictions, including, in some cases, felonies.

Benton Harbor had its own protest Sunday. It was attended by residents and police. It ended peacefully, Singleton, the former Benton Harbor police officer, said he worries the city won’t stay peaceful forever unless relations between cops and residents improve.

“There’s so much fuel on the fire,” Singleton said. The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis “was like pouring a gallon of gasoline on smoldering wood, it blew up.”

That could happen in an urban Michigan community, too.

“We’re basically a powder keg,” Singleton said. “I believe we’re one incident away from something like that happening here.”

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Kevin Grand
Tue, 06/02/2020 - 6:31am

"One common element in rallies in those cities: police departments that, by and large, look nothing like the people they arrest."

I remember someone from not that long ago who recommended that we judge people by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin.

Obviously, the authors of this piece couldn't be bothered to remember him, or deliberately chose not to, because it messed up the narrative they were attempting to promote so much that he couldn't be acknowledged without undermining the whole thing.

Where is Love
Tue, 06/02/2020 - 4:44pm

I take it you are white. MLK, Jr. had a dream white people would do that, but it was "just" a dream because people like you live in denial. Our country in 2016 elected an Archie Bunker reality TV president with the simple question "What have you got to lose?". Now the answer is clear: EVERYTHING.

Kevin Grand
Wed, 06/03/2020 - 11:24pm

No, you can take it that I am an American.

And second, my compliments to The Bridge for ignoring its own criteria:

"Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. "

Cheers, mate!

Tue, 06/02/2020 - 10:02am

Nary an honest word about prior drug usage and drug test failures.

Tue, 06/02/2020 - 10:23am

Benton Harbor's population win 2018 was 9,826. It is ranked the least safe city in Michigan of 102 evaluated by Movato. Flint is ranked 101, and Detroit 100. Part of the law enforcement in Benton Harbor comes from the State Police. It is 86% black. it has 11 Public Safety Officers, 4 Sergeants, 2 detectives, 2 deputy directors, and a director. There are 6 part time / reserve officers, a fire marshall, a chaplain, and an administrative assistant. To meet the "quota" of this article, 5 of every 6 positions should be black. To achieve this goal, should the non-black officers just be fired?

Tue, 06/02/2020 - 5:26pm

Tear gas for peaceful protesters, yes, also for those rioting, but clearly instances where people are completely peaceful and getting hit with tear gas, even ordered by Trump. Yet Owosso barber keeps cutting hair despite court order, with no consequences, no tear gas, no jail time. He's a folk hero of the GOP because he fights for his freedom. The difference is that he is an old white man, like Trump. That guy is blatantly disregarding two branches of government and had due process.


It's going to be a long hot summer of violence. Curfews at night, encouraging protests during the day when it's already blisteringly hot. What does everyone think things will be like in July/August. God help us all.

It's time for everyone to take a knee and pray for empathy.

Tue, 06/02/2020 - 7:55pm

A saying I heard that makes a lot of sense goes something like the least capable people look for problems, the most capable people look for explanations and solutions. What do we have here?

Wed, 06/03/2020 - 1:20am

There are three questions that need to be answered [without being asked, they will never be answered.]
“One common element in rallies in those cities: police departments that, by and large, look nothing like the people they arrest.” Do we want a segregated society? If people will only trust those that ‘look like them’ then we are on a path to ‘separate but equal’. [We known that the US Supreme Court in 1950 ruled that that violated the equal protection clause in14th Amendment.] But as the authors suggest, it is that difference in appearance [or ethnicity] that is a significant contributor to the current violence and the protests, so it would seem those that the SCOTUS declared equals and have the right to go to the schools of their choice want to forgo that equality for ‘separate but equal.’ Do we want a segregated society?
Do we want government agencies and non-government agencies and those people who staff them held accountable for their actions? Do we want local police departments and the officers who enforce our laws held accountable, do we want state regulatory agencies held accountable for their performance in protecting public agencies, do we want federal agencies and the individuals taking actions in the name of those agencies held to a standard of practice and performance that treats all citizens consistently independent of ethnicity, social/economic status, political leanings or Party affiliation, of religious beliefs, and other such distinguishing factors?
Do we believe individuals should have a role with responsibilities for their actions and should they be accountable for such actions?
We need to hear the answers to each of these three questions, and those answers will tell us if we will continue to help the American society and our country evolve and improve the lives of all Americans and we will start the conversations to establish the standards we want people and their organization held accountable to.

frank robinson
Sat, 06/06/2020 - 1:00pm

Lets see, if i read this right. the solution to increased minority representation on the police force is to reduce standards such as college degree requirements, overlook felony convictions, and greater outreach to the already skilled to get them to take on a thankless job. Wow, sounds like a great way to increase an already skilled lacking police force. I wonder how these urban police agencies are able to fill their hiring needs at all at those ridiculous low salaries. Oh yeah, they are great training grounds, providing an academy and a few years experience allowing many, including the minority trained to get the heck out of there and go to one of the many suburban agencies more than happy to pay them more and provide a less dangerous existence.