Detroiters split on calls to 'defund the police'

George Hunter
The Detroit News
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Editor's note: The annual budget for the Los Angeles police department has been corrected to $1.9 billion.

Detroit — With “defund the police” banners ubiquitous during protests in the city, some residents and local officials say cutting funding from the Detroit Police Department is a bad idea that would make the nation's most violent city even more dangerous, while others believe it's worth considering.

"It would be like 'The Purge,'" said westside resident Lavonn Robinson, 50, referring to a horror movie franchise about a dystopian future in which the government allows a 12-hour period each year when all crimes, including murder, are legal.

"There are good people in Detroit, but there are some really bad ones, too, and you'd have people running around doing whatever they want. I think it would be another thing that would hurt the community."

Detroit resident Lavonn Robinson fears that reducing funding for the city's police department "would hurt the community."

Others think defunding police — reallocating or redirecting funding away from the police department — should be explored in Detroit, at least partially. Among them is Detroit Mayor Pro Tem Mary Sheffield, who said she'd consider moving a portion of DPD's $330 million budget, or the budgets of other city agencies, into "programs that address the root causes of crime."

"It doesn't necessarily have to all come out of the police budget, although we need to start having the conversation, because there's a greater desire now more than ever to talk about how we can re-imagine policing," Sheffield said.

Sheffield said she wants to explore moving funds from the police department's surveillance operations that include its oft-criticized facial recognition program. Other city officials and the police chief say such a move would lead to fewer crimes solved.

Councilwoman Mary Sheffield gives her remarks on black empowerment, peaceful protesting and protecting the city during the rally, Monday, June 1, 2020, at the Detroit Association of Black Organizations.

At least 11 cities nationwide recently cut police budgets and manpower, and diverted some of those funds to social programs. Affected police and union officials have criticized the cuts, insisting they compromise public safety.

The movement to defund police grew out of the May 25 death of George Floyd. Floyd died after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd's neck for several minutes while Floyd was handcuffed.

Two weeks after the incident, the Minneapolis City Council announced plans to dismantle the city's police department and replace it with a new agency that would focus on a “holistic, public health-oriented approach” to public safety, although the city's Charter Commission voted last week to delay a decision on the issue.

Police departments in the nation's two largest cities underwent significant budget cuts after the protests over Floyd's death began.

New York in June cut $1 billion from its 2021 budget of about $88 billion, diverting $354 million to mental health, homelessness and education, while Los Angeles officials last month approved cutting $150 million from next year's proposed $1.9 billion police budget, with a reduction in manpower.

Other cities to cut police budgets recently include San Francisco (a $120 million reduction to the police and sheriff’s office, to be reallocated to investments in the city's African American community), and Washington, D.C., which in June cut $15 million from its police budget and used some of the funds to boost social work programs.

Would such measures work in Detroit?

Paul Jackson of the protest group Detroit Will Breathe thinks so. When asked during a recent press conference if he wanted to defund Detroit police, Jackson replied, "do you want to re-fund education? Do you want to re-fund welfare? Do you want to re-fund housing?"

But westside resident Ethan Williams, 21, said he doesn't want to cut the police budget for such programs; in fact, he said he wants to see more funding for police, particularly in training.

"It takes a lawyer years before he can practice the law, but police can go out and enforce the law after six months in the Police Academy," Williams said. "That shouldn't be; they need more training, but you can't do that if you're defunding the police."  

Mayor Mike Duggan said the "loudest voices" calling to defund Detroit police wouldn't have to deal with the fallout because they don't live in the city.

"You've got people who are largely from outside the city coming into Detroit and saying 'defund police,' before going back home to the suburbs," Duggan said. "We need more officers on the street, not fewer."

Duggan said the police department has 33 recruits in the Police Academy, and he's continuing to add to the force of about 2,500 officers, which is down from about 3,000 in 2007, but up from 2,370 in 2013.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan speaks during a press conference on protests in the city.

"Instead of defund police, I come back to the question: If you have $600 million in the Wayne County Community Mental Health Board budget, and $300 million in the police budget, we should be demanding accountability from the mental health system, not talking about cutting the police budget."

The mayor said the mental health system's problems are illustrated by the recent case of Darrien Walker, an alleged barricaded gunman who was arrested July 4 and referred to Detroit Receiving Hospital for mental health treatment, only to be released the next day. Walker was killed weeks later by police officers after he reportedly attacked them with a sword and dagger.

"The mental health system is absolutely failing the community, and the police end up on the front lines dealing with it," Duggan said. "Defunding the police doesn't help fix this."

Mark Reinstein, who spent 38 years in the mental health field, including serving as director of the Mental Health Association in Michigan, an Okemos policy analysis and advocacy group for the mentally ill, said police are too often forced to deal with people suffering from mental illness.

"Police come into contact too often with people with severe, untreated mental illness, and they have to sometimes make on-the-spot decisions of what to do next," he said. "If they do try to get treatment, it's very difficult in some cases to get the mental health system to step in and do something, in large part because of lack of funding."

Andrea Wade, 68, said she doesn't want to see Detroit police defunded, but she wants more investment in community programs.

"I've heard two different versions of what 'defund the police' means," said Wade, a northwest Detroit resident who moderates the Detroit Crime and Homicide Facebook page, which has more than 62,000 followers.

"I think most people think it means get rid of the police department and not pay them any money," Wade said. "I know that's not what it means. I do think we need to have more in terms of community policing." 

Andrea Wade says she doesn’t want to see Detroit police defunded, but she wants more investment in community programs.

Sheffield said she wants social programs to be funded and will start exploring where to find the money.

"Even before this recent uprising, I've always been an advocate of investing as much as we can in social programs that address the root causes of violence," she said.

"Whether that means shifting money from police, or using tax abatements, or looking at other departments' budgets, we need to look at the overall budget and invest in addressing these issues."

City Councilman Scott Benson said he's all for investing in social programs — "but you can't do that by defunding the police," he said. "I know that's not what the residents of my district tell me they want."

Detroit Councilman Scott Benson

Benson represents the 3rd District, which includes the violent area known as the Red Zone, and one of the nation's most dangerous ZIP codes, 48205. "I was just knocking on doors the other day," Benson said. "The 3rd District has major challenges in terms of crime.

"I can tell you, residents aren't asking to defund police — they want police accountability for sure, but what they're asking for is actually more police. Historically, crime is what drove people away from the city ... we need to take a long, hard look at this before we start talking about defunding a police department that's already underfunded."

Police Chief James Craig said Detroiters have already seen what happens when police budgets are cut, as in 2012, when police precincts were closed after 4 p.m. 

"We already went through 'defund the police' when they closed precincts," Craig said. "That was highly unpopular with the police officers and the residents. Do they want to go through that again? I don't think so."

Sheffield said she'd like to explore reallocating some of the money that's used to run the police department's facial recognition program and other "surveillance technology."

"Often, that’s the reactive approach (to law enforcement), using that technology to lock up individuals instead of predicting (crimes)," Sheffield said. "So maybe we could look at moving some of that money to other programs."

The department's Real Time Crime Center, which handles the Project Green Light program along with the facial recognition operation, falls under Administrative Operations, which saw its budget jump from $2 million in 2018 to $8 million last year, when the City Council approved a $4 million expansion of the crime center. 

The department's use of facial recognition technology has been roundly criticized, and the decision whether to renew a $1 million software maintenance contract with DataWorks Plus of Greenville, South Carolina, which expired July 17, has been put on hold while public hearings are planned.

Craig said the technology has helped capture wanted murderers. He added the main criticism of facial recognition — that it mistakenly flags a high number of darker-skinned people — has been addressed by having a "rigorous process" in place that requires several technicians to sign off on a photo hit before the investigation moves forward.

City Councilman Roy McCalister, a former Detroit cop, said he doesn't want to see funding taken from the department's facial recognition or other surveillance programs.

Councilman Roy McCalister Jr.

"I used to do surveillance in the police department and in the military, and you can't just spy on people; you have to have reasons for surveillance," he said. "Detroit has good rules in place to guard against any abuses; if you do away with Detroit's program, the state and the feds are still going to be doing surveillance, and their rules may not be as strong as ours."

Craig said cutting from any area of his budget would compromise public safety.

"If you're saying we should invest more in programs for youth, or mental health, I 100% agree, but it shouldn't be on the back of the police department," Craig said.

"Anyone who understands a police budget knows that 75-85% is staffing costs, so if you're talking about defunding police, you're talking about layoffs," he said.

Some have called for police departments to move money allocated for sworn officers into paying social workers to respond to domestic calls. Craig said that's a mistake.

"I agree, a social worker can intervene early on, and give a family assistance," he said. "But you just can't take police out of the equation when someone has displayed violence."

Police say domestic violence calls are among the most dangerous, with a high number of officers getting shot, including Detroit police Cpl. Waldace Johnson, who died after being shot in the head while responding to a 2017 domestic violence call. 

Craig added some police departments might be able to absorb funds being diverted from them and into social programs — but not Detroit, he said.

"It's not a one-size-fits-all thing," he said. "Maybe there are some cities where they're able to move some money from the police department to mental health programs; I can't speak to other departments, but we just can't afford to do it here."

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