Local Crime Coverage in the Media May through June 2006

The Grand Rapids Instituted for Information Democracy (GRIID) has released results of it monitoring of crime coverage on the local broadcast channels for May 1 through June 22. The period, coinciding with the recent increase in violent crime in Grand Rapids, shows that the media focused heavily on the increase in crime but did so in a way that highlighted “negative” stories that reported on shootings but only ran a few stories that focused on efforts to prevent crime or portrayed southeast Grand Rapids in a positive light. GRIID writes that:

Crime coverage was the overwhelming category of news stories during this time period, crime stories that included national, local and stories specific to the southeast part of Grand Rapids. You can see from the chart the amount of crime stories and compare that to the amount of election stories (88) relevant to viewers in West Michigan. That is a ratio of about 4 crimes stories for every election story. We also documented just six stories during that same time period that could be considered positive stories, or crime prevention stories for the southeast part of Grand Rapids. You can see from chart #3 that each of the 6 positive stories are based upon responses to the violence. In other words, the local TV news did not report on positive activity that was unrelated to the incidents of violence in the southeast area of Grand Rapids.

The last point worth pointing out is that the voices heard in these stories, the people who were interviewed, were primarily law enforcement and residents. The stories are reported as crime stories, but what if they were reported as a public health issue? When reporters begin to ask questions about what the causes of violence are, how weapons are accessed, etc. the story becomes a public health issue and not just a law enforcement issue.

Residents Discuss Solutions to Recent Violent Crime in Grand Rapids

Yesterday in Grand Rapids, citizens gathered at the New Hope Baptist church to discuss recent violence in the city and to examine ways in which citizens can organize to end violence in their communities.

Over the past month and a half, the Grand Rapids has seen an increase in violent crime, with police recording 31 shootings and 12 homicides so far this year. The increase in violent crime has brought considerable attention from the local corporate media, city officials, the religious community, and the police, all of whom have weighed in with solutions to the problem. Unfortunately, much of this dialog has been shaped by the media’s sensationalized coverage of the violence, coverage that largely portrays African-Americans in Grand Rapids as “out of control” and ignores the more systemic issues—poverty, broken public education system, and racism in Grand Rapids—and instead has chosen to simply emphasize the violence without discussing solutions. Similarly, the Grand Rapids Police Department, represented through media reports, has advocated for tougher policing as a solution to the crime, announcing that they will add a second mobile police station in the inner-city (Baxter and Diamond) and launching “Operation ALL-OUT” to increase the presence of police officers as a deterrent to crime. As the GRPD has increased its resolve to quash the violence through law enforcement, it has occasionally recognized that there are more systemic issues at hand, with Chief of Police Harry Dolan blaming the 52% dropout rate from high school or stating that “we can’t arrest our way out of this,” yet the GRPD has offered little beyond increased patrols and promises that they will be in the southeast side of Grand Rapids “indefinitely.”

As a counter to the discussion taking place in the media and by the police, a meeting was held Thursday night at the New Hope Baptist Church on Delaware to bring the Grand Rapids community together to address the root causes and solutions to the recent violence, which New Hope’s pastor said has put the city in a “state of crisis” over the past month. The meeting was setup as a free flowing dialog with small group sessions to discuss the problem, and in order to promote and honest and frank discussion of the situation in Grand Rapids, the media and police were barred from attending in order to encourage people to participate without fear of reprisal. In his opening remarks, Reverend Dean explained that the media was not allowed in order to prevent it from becoming a “dog and pony show” and to instead have a discussion that would lead to concrete results as “lives are in balance.” The meeting was attended by several elected officials including Grand Rapids City Commissioners Elias Lumpkins, Jim White, and Rosalyn Bliss, Kent County Commissioners Paul Mayhue and James Vaughn, along with Joan Bowman from the governor’s office. By way of a show of hands, several ministers were in attendance representing a variety of Christian and Muslim churches.

Following a brief outline of the meeting’s format, the audience was split into groups for small group discussion. The groups were given twenty minutes to discuss each of four questions pertaining to recent violence in Grand Rapids—what are the problems, what are the causes, what are the solutions, and how are we going to know when elected officials adequately responded to the concerns raised during the meeting. During these discussions, residents of the southeast side brought up a variety of reasons for the violence ranging from the influence of popular entertainment that glorifies violence to the absence of religion in the public schools. There was a general consensus that the violence was rooted in systemic causes, with many raising concerns about the realities of economic inequality in Grand Rapids, lack of equitable funding of public schools, a high incarceration rate that is a product of a punitive and biased judicial system that prevents felons from attaining jobs or voting and deprives families of their fathers. Other causes were also raised including a lack of discipline by parents, lack of respect of elders in the community, and a lack of respect towards the community. Among the solutions favored by attendees were incorporation of black history into school curriculum to foster a sense of pride in one’s community and culture, job programs, reform of the both the local judicial system and the national system, more community involvement in schools, the neighborhoods, and in the churches, and more activities for youth. It is also worth noting that while the meeting was predominately middle-aged or older, several youth did express the need for youth to included as part of the solution.

After the small group sessions, people developed a list of recommendations that will be included along with a summary of the meeting in a report to be presented at the next City Commission meeting. Among the ideas that the group agreed to present were:

  • A unified approach by the religious community to address the problem
  • The implementation of black history as a means of fostering a sense of empowerment and pride as part of the public education system

  • Rehabilitation programs in the prisons and jails
  • Apprenticeships and other programs in the inner-city aimed at youth

  • An end to separation by race and an effort to work towards a solution as a united community

Violence, Abuse Common in United States Prisons

A new report by the bipartisan Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons has found that violence and abuse are common for prisoners confined in the United States’ prisons. As the prison population has surpassed 2.2 million in the United States, approximately 13.5 million people spend some time in jail or prison each year. It is not just “violent” murderers and rapists that are subjected to dehumanizing conditions and physical abuse, but people guilty of other minor crimes as well. The 128 page report released earlier this month documented several disturbing aspects of confinement:

  • Violence remains a serious problem in the country’s prisons and jails with both corrections officers and prisoners describing to the Commission how they feared being assaulted and witnessed gang violence, rape, and beatings by officers.
  • High rates of disease and illness among prisoners and insufficient funds for health care within prisons is a public safety risk. Due to poverty, substance abuse, and years of poor health care that are common for prisoners in the United States, more than 1.5 million people are released from prison or jail each year carrying life-threatening contagious diseases. Additionally, 350,000 prisoners suffer from serious mental illness.

  • Segregation of “violent” prisoners from the general population has created a situation where some prisoners are kept in their cells 23 hours per day with no opportunity to prepare for release. In some prisons, these prisoners are also subjected to constantly bright or dim light and eventually suffer from mental deterioration. Between 1995 and 2000, the number of people housed in segregation grew by 40%.

  • Due to high turnover and an institutional culture that centers on the idea that prison guards have absolute power over prisoners, there is an “us verses them” attitude where guards see prisoners as their enemy rather than people that need assistance to improve their lives.

The report also offers a number of solutions to these problems:

  • Despite the frequency of violence within prisons, there are numerous ways to reduce the violence within yet these measures have been largely ignored by the prison system. Overcrowding brought on by budget cuts and idleness caused by reducing funding for educational and other programs within prisons can be solved in part by increasing funding. Training to reduce use of force by prison guards, easing of restrictions governing contact between prisoners and their families, use of video surveillance to monitor guards and prisoners, and better grouping of prisoners can all reduce violence.
  • Health care in prisons could be improved through better partnerships with medical facilities outside of the prison system and Medicare and Medicaid dollars could improve funding as many prisoners would qualify for such assistance if they were outside of the prison system.

  • To combat the mental deterioration that comes with isolation, the Commission recommends that segregation be made a last resort and that isolation be ended and that prisoners be allowed meaningful human contact.

  • Better training programs designed to foster a culture of mutual respect could improve relations between guards and prisoners and reduce violence.

  • Improved government oversight is drastically needed. The report recommends that each state create an independent agency to monitor prisons and jails, that a national non-governmental organization be setup to inspect conditions, that there be increased transparency within the prison system, that meaningful complaint processes are developed, and that practice, not just policy, are monitored within prisons.