“I do not want to die, bro.”
“Can you please put the gun down?”
Those were the words uttered by a group of unarmed Black teenagers in Grand Rapids, Mich., as they lay facedown on the ground in a March 24 incident in which they were stopped by police and held at gunpoint. Now their parents are angered and looking for answers as to why their sons were subject to that treatment. But Grand Rapids Police Department officials say the officers were simply following procedure.
The five teens were playing basketball at a recreation center and walking home. Police were called after a report of a fight at the center, but that incident had been dispersed by the time they arrived. Video evidence showed a brawl between a large group of people. Police were tipped off that one person had a revolver.
In bodycam video, which the Grand Rapids Press forced the department to release through a Freedom of Information Act request, a man whose identity is blurred is shown describing a group of youths, one of whom had dropped a firearm and pointed officers in their direction. In the next sequence, Officer Caleb Johnson spots a group of teenagers, gets out of his vehicle, pulls his service weapon and orders them to get on the ground. The boys are confused and asking what they did wrong. Before long one of them begins to sob loudly as another tries to calm him down.
They were each handcuffed and searched by the officers, who determined they were not the suspects they were looking for and made to wait in the back of police cruisers until their parents arrived. All of the youths were totally compliant with police orders.
The naturally upset parents arrived, demanding an explanation for what happened. Police said they fit the description given to them by the witness.
“I don’t mean no disrepect, but you have to understand that’s my baby right there,” said Shawndryka Moore one of the boys’ parents to Johnson as her son waited inside a police cruiser. We don’t deal with police. I don’t have charges. We don’t do this. All this stuff that goes on in this world – I worry about my kids every day. That’s why I don’t let them go nowhere.”
But the department is standing behind the officers actions. “The officers didn’t do anything wrong. They acted on articulate facts from a witness moments earlier who said he saw them hand a gun to each other,” said GRPD chief David Rahinsky told the Grand Rapids Press “I think when the community sees what we’ve seen — with the body worn camera footage; I think they’ll have a different opinion. I respect their emotion. I think what we’re hearing is a lot of grief and frustration to systemic issues.”
That wasn’t enough for parents who addressed the police at a later community meeting. “We can’t stop thinking of the fact that – what if one of our babies had made the wrong move?” said Moore, whose son is 14. “And they wouldn’t be here with us tonight – would you be OK? Would it be proper protocol then?” Residents say there is a distinct way African-American and Latino citizens are treated as opposed to Whites.
“I’ve lived this for 38 years,” said Bomesa Sims, the father of two of the boys involved in the incident, ages 14 and 12. “I’m angry – and I know a lot of people are angry. And we’re not going to take too much more of this – and I’m saying this to the police. Like, something has to change before you have a situation on your hands that you can’t handle.”