By Samuel Tucker
The deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor highlighted the systemic racism that exists in America and it’s justice system, inspiring people and cities across the country to consider defunding their police departments.
According to Defundpolice.org, the movement is pushing to “cut funding and resources from police departments and other law enforcement and invest in things that actually make our communities safer: quality, affordable, and accessible housing, universal quality health care, including community-based mental health services, income support to stay safe during the pandemic and safe, living wage employment, and education, youth programming and employment.”
Defundpolice.org is an online web resource that provides information on campaigning for defunding the police. Defundpolice.org is made up of national advocacy groups across the country including Movement for Black Lives, Critical Resistance, and Interrupting Criminalization, to name a few.
Here in Grand Rapids, local advocates calling for defunding, such as Justice For Black Lives, are calling for the GRPD to be defunded down to the absolute minimum charter budget of 32%. The JFBL would ask that these funds be dispersed to what they and Defundpolice.org agree is “real crime prevention.”
Real affordable housing, mental health rehabilitation, public school education, and making the Rapid bus system free to use, are the social systems that they want investment in after defunding the police department.
“Rather than focusing on the root causes of increased violence — an unprecedented global pandemic and economic crisis, skyrocketing gun sales, and increased pressure on communities already pushed to the brink of survival, the symptoms are being used to justify pouring more and more resources into policing instead of into community-based safety strategies and ensuring a just recovery,” states Defundpolice.org.
This year Grand Rapids has seen a surge in gun violence. With the global pandemic halting employment and more importantly schooling, the youth lack the school structure they are normally used to.
Grand Rapids Urban League Housing and Economic Security Director, Darius Mitchell, stated in an interview last June, “They looked forward to that 8-10 hours a day of getting out of the house, because their home situation isn’t the greatest. The only deterrent, or refuge, was going to school.”
“Take away school, and the structure is gone. Food insecurity increases, families become more stressed and more free time means more time to learn bad habits,” stated Mitchell.
Local and national defund advocates alike believe that investing in the root of violence: poverty, is the way forward. Cure Violence is a non-profit organization that treats violence as a disease, using methods to treat and cure violence in a systematic and supportive way.
This is one tool that cities are adopting across the country to combat violence and Grand Rapids Police Chief Eric Payne, is behind the idea, but when it comes to defunding, the Chief doesn’t see that as a realistic answer to the problems that exist in policing.
“The one thing that I would say to those calling for defunding, I’d like to know what their alternative is,” Payne said. “We still need police. To not have police, I can’t imagine society without it. Now there is a need for reform? Absolutely.”.
Payne said he believes that co-operating with community policing groups such as the current Cure Violence program that is starting here in Grand Rapids, and improvement in officer training will yield better results in situations regarding the homeless community, mental health crises, and substance abuse issues.
“We’re looking at a co-response team for mental health, similar to our HOT (Homeless Outreach Team) team. As part of our strategic plan, we also call for civilians, non-sworn people, to do some of the things that we do,” said Payne. “Whether we’re able to do that or not, we’ll have to see, but we have it in the plan.”
Payne explained that there is room for reform like this, and that there should be reform, but defunding the department means less officers and even less training for officers.
“To reduce our budget even further, training would be impacted by that,” he said. “Think about the consequences of what you’re asking for and understand what you’re asking for. Reducing our training is not a road I would want to go down.”
The Chief worries that the reduction of funds would put even more pressure on the mere 25 officers that are on patrol and are held responsible for the whole city of Grand Rapids.
“When it gets down to it… we’re lucky to have 20-25 – 25 would be a high number of uniformed officers patrolling the streets of Grand Rapids, answering 911 calls for one shift,” said Payne.
The Chief has seen a reduction in funding, and along with that, personnel and resources since the financial crisis of 2008. Regardless of the department’s resources, they still have a job to do, and the Chief believes that to accomplish that job takes community trust and engagement, but this too has felt the pressure of the lack of resources.
“It goes both ways, it’s not just the community trusting the police, but police trusting the community, because we are out in those communities,” Payne said.
When asked if he thinks that it’s harder to have that community engagement with such a limited number of officers patrolling at one time, Chief Payne responded with, “Yes, absolutely. When we had 400 officers authorized for that, we were able to put officers out on foot patrol, bike patrol and it didn’t impact our ability for patrol. With that reduced number, it’s impacted it.”
The chief said that to do their job better, they need to engage, and to engage better with the community, they need more resources. Whether it’s just having more uniforms on the street or supporting officers with competent training, the chief said that defunding is not the answer to our policing issues.
Payne said the majority of their budget, like any organization, is spent on personnel.
“It’s probably 80 to 85% of our budget, and again we’re at barebones right now. We used to have 400, now we have 297 sworn and we’re putting out 25 on patrol,” said Payne. “To cut that any further it would be significant on what we do, and how we’re able to do it.”
Some U.S. cities are trying to change what police actually do. Minneapolis for example, is seeing a budget proposal that will take funds from their police department and invest them into a community de-escalation program that responds to certain 911 calls along with taking non-emergency 311 calls instead of the police having to do so.
Time will tell if the police’s responsibilities in Michigan will ever see broad shifts to civilian staffed programs, but so far, defunding police departments in Michigan has yet to catch on.
“I do believe, 9-1-1 is the easiest way for people to solve problems, and we just don’t have the resources to do that anymore, in an effective way,” said Payne, adding that, “last year was a challenging year, but out of that I see an opportunity to be able to build those relationships with those that are willing to sit-down and have meaningful, honest, tough, sometimes tough conversations.”
The Collegiate reached out to Justice for Black Lives in Grand Rapids, however they weren’t available for comment.