In a move to help correct a deep racial disparity in the demographics of Grand Rapids’ police force, a local Michigan chapter of the NAACP announced Monday that it will offer a $2,500 scholarship to assist African-American men and women cover the costs of police training.
The scholarship, however, would pay for only as little as 30 percent of the tuition for the college courses that Michigan requires to become a cop. The classes, according to the NAACP, can cost as much as $8,000 and can present a roadblock to Michiganders who want to earn badges.
The NAACP, the nation's oldest civil rights organization, will provide the money to one African-American a year, and it will start accepting applicants in January 2015. The organization said it might expand the scholarship to more places in western Michigan.
The NAACP’s decision to create the scholarship came after outcry after the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 9 and the tazing of a young black man by a white Grand Rapids police officer on Sept. 20.
According to local station WOOD TV, the man, Shalon King, said the tazing was unprovoked and that police “came out of nowhere” after a brief argument between his friends and a bar bouncer. The police allege that King was punching an officer. King faces charges of resisting arrest, the station reported.
Cle Jackson, interim president of the Grand Rapids chapter of the NAACP, said since the incident, the organization received calls demanding that it confront the issue of police abuse.
The chapter decided that one problem they could address was the lack of African-American police officers in the city.
“The demographic makeup of the local law enforcement in the city of Grand Rapids does not reflect the demographic of the black or Hispanic community,” said Jackson.
With over 190,000 people, Grand Rapids is the second-most-populous city in Michigan, after Detroit, according to census numbers. Fifty-nine percent of residents identify as white, 20 percent as black and 15 percent as Hispanic.
The composition of the Grand Rapids Police Department is far different. Eighty-seven percent of its 279 officers identify as white, with only 4 percent — 11 people — as black and 4 percent Hispanic, according to Capt. David Kiddle, head of the department’s support services division.
“Across the country, not just here with the GRPD, there is a serious deficit in terms of having these local law enforcement agencies have African-American or Latino officers,” said Jackson.
He noted a trust deficit and hopes that adding black police officers to the Grand Rapids police force will strengthen ties between police and the African-American community. He said the city’s police chief, David Rahinsky, supports the plan.
“Some of these males and females might actually have grown up in this community and know it and have strong roots and ties to the community,” said Jackson.
“It helps with the level of trust,” he said. But he admits it isn’t a foolproof plan, since African-American officers are capable of misusing their authority, just as white cops are.
Students can take the courses they need at Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids Community College or Ferris State University. Becoming a GRPD officer requires at least two years of college, and courses can last 10 to 17 months, Jackson said.
Kiddle said that years ago the GRPD used to provide police training for free but because of budget cuts candidates must now cover tuition themselves. “If you want to be a lawyer, you want to go through law school. If you want to become a cop, you go to police academy. I guess it would fit for any category of career,” he said.
“You’ve got to have the means to get through school. That’s why there are scholarships,” he said.