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GRAND RAPIDS — After hiring a California-based search firm to bring in top-tier candidates from across the country, the city of Grand Rapids announced earlier this month that Lansing Police Chief Michael Yankowski and two other candidates had been named finalists in its search for its next police chief.
Yankowski seemed to solidify his bid at a community forum in Grand Rapids last week.
“I would not look for any other police chief position in the country,” Yankowski said to a crowded elementary school gym in Grand Rapids on Thursday. “The city of Grand Rapids is a wonderful city, a diverse city. It’s arguably the most desirable place to live and raise a family in the midwest.”
Yankowski is up against a retired assistant chief from the Pittsburgh Police Department and the deputy chief of the Grand Rapids Police Department. At times, Yankowski seemed to be a crowd favorite — rattling off the word “community” more than 30 times in his seven-minute introduction.
His next most frequently used words were “diverse” and “accountable.”
“We’ve kind of gotten away from what policing was all about,” Yankowski added, receiving a muffled round of applause. “It’s about service. It’s about helping our community with solutions to problems. It’s about getting out of the police car and engaging our citizens, our businesses, our schools and our youth in positive ways.”
But why does Yankowski want to leave Lansing?
He declined to directly answer that question Tuesday, instead only sending a press release that offered his thanks to the city of Lansing and ambiguously pointed to “much consideration” given to “another career opportunity.” But Yankowski’s remarks in Grand Rapids helped provide some more insight into his potential departure.
“Why Grand Rapids? Twenty-five years ago, I identified two communities in the state of Michigan where I could see the career path that I wanted to be a part of. One was Lansing. The other was Grand Rapids,” Yankowski told the crowd.
Yankowski said he has been able to “restore the public trust” in Lansing over the last six years, reducing violent crime, increasing minority hiring within the department and policing in a way that makes local residents proud. He wants to bring those “lessons learned” to Grand Rapids, largely through community policing techniques.
Public confidence in the Lansing Police was tested after he made those remarks. On Friday, a teenage black girl was repeatedly punched by a Lansing police officer. Within 24 hours, Yankowski, addressing a crowd of protesters, declared himself disappointed by the behavior of two officers, whom he suspended while an investigation continues.
“We get our legitimacy from our community,” Yankowski told the Grand Rapids crowd. “We get our authority from our community. We get our powers from our community. We need input from our community. And if we’re going to be successful as a community, to keep ourselves safe, we have to work together as one.”
Many citizen-submitted questions for Yankowski were tailored toward potentially discriminatory police tactics being used in Grand Rapids and a perceived bias against the Latinx community — namely involving police cooperation with federal immigration enforcement. Yankowski said he has never reported someone to the feds.
He also stressed the importance of diversity in hiring and defending a constitutional right to assembly, noting that he once let a group of protesters in Lansing clog up an intersection for hours without any intervention.
“Everything we do, we bring back down to the very principles of serving our community,” Yankowski added.
Grand Rapids City Manager Mark Washington is looking for a “decisive leader” who focuses on proactive safety measures and can be “tough on crime, culturally competent and an innovative leader,” according to reports published in the Grand Rapids Press. And he wants to lock someone in for the job by the end of the month.
Lansing Mayor Andy Schor, in the meantime, is determined to bring in highly qualified candidates for Yankowski’s possible replacement and has since renewed a commitment to thoroughly search for a diverse group of applicants.
“I’d like to see if there’s some kind of recruiter,” Schor said, pointing to Grand Rapids’ approach. “We can look at what more we can do to make sure we have the best choice nationally. But we haven’t gotten there yet because we don’t have a vacancy yet.”