State agency charges Grand Rapids Police Department with discrimination

Kayla Ruble
The Detroit News

The state of Michigan has filed discrimination charges against the Grand Rapids Police Department in two separate cases while continuing to investigate more than two dozen other complaints against the department.

At a Monday press conference in downtown Grand Rapids, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights publicly presented the charges, which were first announced last week. The complaints will be heard by an administrative judge. 

The latest allegation of discrimination came as the city of Grand Rapids and its police force find themselves under fire over the police killing of 26-year-old Patrick Lyoya and years of community complaints of bias within the department of Michigan's second most populous city. 

Concrete barriers and fencing protect the main entrance to the Grand Rapids Police Department headquarters in downtown Grand Rapids on Wednesday, April 20, 2022.

"Filing formal charges in these two cases is a significant step in our ongoing investigations into alleged discriminatory actions by the Grand Rapids Police Department," Michigan Department of Civil Rights Executive Director John E. Johnson said at the Monday press conference.

“The community concern about bias and discriminatory actions on the part of the Grand Rapids Police Department did not begin with the killing of Patrick Lyoya this past April,” he added. 

Since the agency opened its overall investigation into the police department three years ago, dozens of individuals have reportedly filed discrimination complaints and the civil rights department has spoken with more than 80 members of the community about their experiences.

The state is “actively investigating” a total of 28 complaints against the Grand Rapids Police Department, Johnson said in a release.

The charges presented on Monday stem from a case where officers pointed their guns at a Black child and another involving a woman detained in front of her three children during a traffic stop.

In the first case, which took place in December 2017, Grand Rapids police were pursuing a middle-aged White woman suspected of attempted murder. When 11-year-old Honesty Hodges walked out of a house that was under surveillance, officers pointed their gun at the child, handcuffed her and placed her in a police cruiser. 

​​“Honesty at the time was an 11-year-old juvenile who did not fit the description of the subject, was compliant, visibly afraid and in tears,” said Johnson, who added that the police department provided no evidence that the officers treated individuals of other races in the same manner under similar circumstances.

“The Grand Rapids Police Department was unable to show evidence of White children who were held at gunpoint, handcuffed, searched, placed in a squad car and questioned … in the search of an adult suspect of an entirely different race,” he added.

Johnson told reporters that Hodges died in November 2020 from COVID-19. Hodges' mother Whitney Hodges was in the audience during the press conference, which was held at a Grand Rapids hotel. 

In the second case, city police pulled over Grand Rapids resident Melissa Mason for expired plates in January 2020. Mason’s three children were in the car with her when the African American resident was pulled over. Reports indicate that Mason complied with the orders of the officers, who handcuffed and held her in their police cruiser for 20 minutes.

The Grand Rapids department again couldn't demonstrate that people of another race in similar situations were treated the same as Mason, Johnson said.

The discrimination charges filed against the police department will now go before an administrative law judge, who will consider the evidence. The judge will make a recommendation about whether discrimination occurred and if any potential penalties should be levied. Then the Department of Civil Rights will hold its own public hearing and make its own ruling.

After the charges were announced Friday, the city of Grand Rapids put out a statement saying they have been fully cooperative with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights throughout the investigation.

"The city has been in constant communication with the department through their changes of leadership and transitions in staff handling cases," the statement said.

"The city intends to respond and attend all hearings as provided by the MDCR administrative rules."

Grand Rapids changed police chiefs earlier this year when Eric Winstrom took the leadership spot in March, less than a month before the Lyoya shooting and more than two years after the January 2020 complaint. Former Police Chief Eric Payne retired on March 4.

The discrimination charges came on the same day that the Michigan Supreme Court ruling that taking a person's fingerprints without a warrant is unconstitutional, rejecting a "photograph and print" policy previously used by the Grand Rapids Police Department.

Through the procedure, officers at the department were allowed to photograph and fingerprint someone at any time and at their own discretion, regardless of whether any charges had been levied.