Attorney hopes civil rights charges will change how Grand Rapids police interact with Black people

GRAND RAPIDS, MI – An attorney representing the family of Honestie Hodges hopes civil rights discrimination charges against the Grand Rapids Police Department changes the way officers interact with Black people.

Stephen Drew, speaking to reporters flanked by Honestie’s mother and grandmother, said the Hodges family is hopeful the formal charges filed by the Michigan Department of Civil Rights will prompt serious and significant change — “not just policy, but the implementation of actions on the street.”

“I would like to see some serious, real community policing, where police become a real part of the community and not an occupation force, where they have relationships with people, where they do, honestly, investigate crime and help with that, but as persons and people,” Drew said.

Drew spoke with reporters Monday, July 25, after a press conference in which officials with Michigan’s civil rights watchdog department announced discrimination charges against the Grand Rapids Police Department stemming from two complaints.

MDCR issued charges of unequal treatment in public service on the basis of race against the GRPD in the December 2017 gunpoint handcuffing of 11-year-old Honestie and the January 2020 detainment of a compliant Black motorist.

Related: Grand Rapids police discriminated against 11-year-old and Black motorist, civil rights watchdog says

MDCR Executive Director John E. Johnson Jr. said Monday that Grand Rapids police were unable to show that people of another race in similar situations would have been treated the same.

In addition to Honestie’s family, Drew is representing the family of two boys who in August 2018 were 11 years old when Grand Rapids police ordered them, along with a 17-year-old male, to walk backward at gunpoint before they were handcuffed and searched for weapons. No weapons were found.

Police had responded to reports of two Black teens with a handgun when they stopped and detained the teen and two children, all of whom are also Black.

MDCR is investigating whether Grand Rapids police discriminated against them.

“We hope that charges are brought in that (incident) so we can deal with this bigger picture of the difference in treatment between persons of African American descent and the fear they seem to have of us to want to pull guns on children, to pull guns on members of the community and working people and things of that nature,” Drew said.

MDCR is investigating a total of 28 discrimination complaints against the GRPD. Additional charges against GRPD could be brought depending on the findings in those remaining complaints investigations, MCDR officials said Monday.

“There are a number of other complaints going on regarding African Americans that were stopped, guns pulled on them for traffic stops – one person for not having their license – things of that nature,” Drew said. “So the disparity in how the African American community is handled for relatively minor events is a part of this.”

The MDCR in May 2019 announced it had opened an investigation into the GRPD pertaining to individual discrimination complaints against the department as well as whether police has engaged in a pattern of racial discrimination.

That investigation into possible systemic civil rights violations at the GRPD was shelved due to a lack of resources. But, after a now-former Grand Rapids police officer on April 4 killed Patrick Lyoya during a traffic stop, MDCR officials asked the Michigan Attorney General’s Office and US Department of Justice for assistance in seeing that wider investigation through.

Johnson said Monday the request for additional resources remains at the level of continued discussions.

Honestie was 11 years old in December 2017 when she was handcuffed at gunpoint by Grand Rapids officers and placed in a police cruiser as they searched for a suspect in an attempted murder. She and her mother and another family member had just left their home when they encountered the officers. Police were searching for a middle-aged white woman.

Honestie, who died from COVID in November 2020, was Black. Her mother, Whitney Hodges, filed the complaint with the MDCR on behalf of her daughter.

The handcuffing and detainment of Honestie at gunpoint sparked community outrage, and Grand Rapids city leaders later adopted a policy for how officers should interact with juveniles. However, no officers were disciplined.

“We’re so grateful and thankful that steps are being taken to change a broken department,” Alisa Niemeyer, Honestie’s grandmother, said of the MDCR discrimination charge against the GRPD. “No one should be treated the way that Honestie and the twins and all the other people that have been involved in this investigation, in these charges, none of them deserved it.”

An MDCR spokesperson previously told MLive/The Grand Rapids Press that the new “charges” are not criminal charges, but start an administrative process. There’s first an opportunity for mediation between Grand Rapids police and the complaint-maker, but with no resolution it could go to an administrative law judge.

That judge would then make a recommendation to the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, which would make a final determination. The determination could include monetary penalties and procedure changes to prevent discrimination.

Hearing dates on the two charges against GRPD have not yet been set.

Grand Rapids city leaders issued the following statement Friday, when MDCR announced charges were being filed:

“The city of Grand Rapids has been fully cooperative and engaged with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR) since at least May 2019 when investigations began. The city has been in constant communication with the department through their changes of leadership and transitions in staff handling cases.

“The city has received two matters this week from MDCR and a hearing has been requested for each matter. The city intends to respond and attend all hearings as provided by the MDCR administrative rules,” according to the statement.

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