Tension between Grand Rapids residents and the city’s police department spurred officials last year to create an Office of Oversight and Public Accountability. Earlier this month, Brandon Davis — the office’s interim director since August — was appointed to the job on a permanent basis. The position is meant to strengthen the relationship between the community and the Grand Rapids Police and Fire departments. In particular, the GRPD has faced backlash in recent years over alleged discrimination toward the African American community, and from immigration advocates because of the department’s cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In March 2019, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights took hours of testimony from residents about their encounters with the police. Davis previously worked for the city as a senior labor relations specialist, and is a former senior assistant prosecutor who handled high-profile felony cases in Muskegon County. He began his law career in his hometown of Detroit, where he served as a defense attorney and prosecutor. He spoke with MiBiz about the new role.
What made you want to pursue this position?
I bring experience to this role that I think is unique. I grew up in an urban area where relationships with police weren’t the strongest. Then, I worked for multiple prosecutors’ offices in senior roles where I tried high-profile cases and worked with police on a daily basis. I saw the work they did day in and day out. My personal experience showed me some of those other parts of it, but my work experience gave me a different view, and my education brought all those things together. When this position came up, it really was the perfect merger between those two worlds. It was my opportunity to serve Grand Rapids that made me a unique candidate for this role.
Even though you were just appointed to this position, you were still performing the duties on an interim basis. What have you learned so far?
One thing I have learned is the people of Grand Rapids have resilience, and you don’t see this level of citizen engagement in every community. It also has been apparent to me that the community wants to see results. A recurring theme I hear is, ‘We’re sick of talking about it, we want to see results,’ and I think that’s a fair critique. Compared to the rest of the country, Grand Rapids is doing an amazing job, but there is still room for growth and I’m excited to lead that growth and see results.
What will the city and community gain from having this new oversight office?
It helps protect people’s civil rights. It increases confidence in police when the community knows there is someone holding them accountable; it makes them more credible. A big part of feeling safe is trusting those in power.
Sometimes people think of oversight agencies as anti-police, and I don’t see that as my job at all. I see it as when a police officer or fire department does a good job, I say that, and when they need improvement, I say that as well.
It also helps to manage risks. Any area of public service when there are mistakes or incidents being made that can result in financial loss, we have a strong accountability that can help reduce that. It builds bridges between police and community, or fire and community. When we talk about the history of police and community over the years, there has been a significant breakdown, and those relationships are not as strong as they should be. This office will help us get to a better place.
What is the first goal you hope to accomplish in this new role?
My first goal is to make sure we have a plan for how we’re going to operate. It would not be smart to jump out and just start doing stuff. We created a plan collaboratively with other stakeholders. We’re in the communication engagement stage of our strategic launch plan.
The first part was research. I looked at models from across the country to see how this is done in other places, and how this can be done in Grand Rapids, which is a unique place. We need to decide how things will work here, but it’s good to look at other models.
After that … we did a collaborative design phase with police leaders and community leaders and talked about community-police relations and the need for oversight. We got a preliminary plan for how that would work.
The next part of the plan was engagement — take the plan to the community and stakeholders, and that’s the phase we’re in right now. We thought we would be past that by now, but that’s where we’re at; COVID-19 slowed things down.
Do you see your role differently during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Being in the middle of a pandemic did make me have to adjust the way we plan to engage. Instead of focusing on in-person engagement, it will have to be more digital. I developed a model of going into the community instead of saying, ‘Hey, find me to engage.’ The pandemic changed that. We weren’t able to do things the way we had planned. But engagement can’t stop because of the pandemic, we just have to pivot. I’m grateful for technology and the mayor and commissioners who have been setting the example and working and holding meetings remotely, and for our helpful communications staff.
What do you want the community to know about your job?
I want the community to know the office is here to serve them, and here to do justice. … We would love to continue to build relationships in any way we can. We’re not here to check a box, we are here to make change.