Andrew Trzaska | January 14, 2011
“It has to be a very frustrating situation but they have every right to hold the police and government accountable.”
Muskegon city commissioner Steven Wisneski expressed this sentiment after the city’s public meeting Tuesday night in reference to a group of Muskegon Heights High School students who questioned the city government about safety in the city of Muskegon.
If the meeting’s outcome is any indication, the group appears to have made progress towards improving community-police cooperation by opening up a new avenue of communication with the city.
The students refer to themselves as “Quiet Whisper”, and they describe their group as a grassroots initiative to find answers to violence in the greater Muskegon community.
The group was formed in reaction to several recent violent incidents that touched members of the group, including the abduction and assault of a 9-year-old Muskegon girl in early October 2010. Quiet Whisper members also wore T-shirts on Tuesday that bear the police sketch of the suspect in the incident. The investigation of the assault was the focus of several of the students’ questions. The girl’s mother, Joy Allen of Muskegon, also questioned the board and police chief at Tuesday’s meeting about her daughter’s assault and her .
Mayor Steve Warmington, multiple commissioners and Director of Public Safety Chief Anthony Kliebecker all fielded questions concerning the investigation, but declined to comment too deeply on the matters of the still-active investigation.
Both officials, along with commissioner Chris Carter, explained that sharing too many details surrounding the open investigation in a public forum could taint the investigation, especially since the meeting was televised. Warmington invited Allen to speak further with the police department at a later date.
Quiet Whisper members also pushed the board firmly to comment on their satisfaction with the abduction investigation and the general status quo of safety in the community. Warmington stated that he would not be satisfied until those committing crimes were caught, but urged the students to understand the police department operates with help from the community:
“You’ll find in most communities there’s been a reduction of services, including in the area of public safety… We need John Q Citizen to help us.”
Warmington repeatedly stressed that the community needed to be in touch with law enforcement:
“We need assistance. If you’re anxious speaking to the police department, that’s why we have silent observer to call.”
Commissioner Wisneski added to Warmington’s comments:
“We need to look to our police officers as resources.”
In an act that may have moved the conversation to a higher level of cooperation, Quiet Whisper members followed Wisneski and Warmington’s comments by offering up a list of community organizing suggestions that could help the city get a hold on the violence. The list included some simple, low-cost ideas like developing community contact lists and having adults stand outside at key times of day.
Quiet Whisper also publicly urged the board to keep lines of communication open with them and the rest of the community. Commissioner Clara Shepherd offered to act as a contact for the group to stay in touch with the board of commissioners.
Muskegon Heights U.S. history teacher Zeke Ohan, who has helped guide the group’s development, joined Quiet Whisper at Tuesday’s meeting.
The students and Ohan also attended Monday night’s Muskegon Heights City Council meeting, which included several heated moments including the sudden departure of City Manager Natasha Henderson. Ohan saw both meetings as part of a learning process for his students, who had little experience with these types of meetings before:
“Monday was the scrimmage. Today was game day… Both sides were more polished, and it was a mutual exchange, not one of conflict.”
Brianna Skiver, one of the students who leads Quiet Whisper, found the outcome of the two meetings to be positive.
“The polite approach works about as well as the our approach yesterday. We still need to speak out as kids or we won’t be heard.”
UPDATE: Later in the week, Quiet Whisper attended more meetings with key players in Muskegon, including the local NAACP on Thursday. The group also spoke at a forum held Wednesday at Muskegon Community College with Robert Woodson, Jr. during his multi-day assessment of Muskegon County .