Whitmer supports 'spirit' of efforts to 'defund the police'

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Tuesday she supported the “spirit” of efforts to defund the police in the wake of George Floyd’s death last month at the hands of Minneapolis police, a statement that her office later clarified did not indicate support for eliminating funding for law enforcement.  

The conversation surrounding the “defund the police” movement is really about reprioritizing resources, the Democratic governor told The Root in a Tuesday interview broadcast on Instagram. 

“The spirit as you just articulated is really just about reprioritizing and rebuilding communities, not just policing,” Whitmer said. 

State budgets are overwhelmingly focused on law enforcement and criminal justice, the governor told the African-American-oriented online publication, but they should be focused on education, health care, skills training, public transit and “leveling the playing field,” she said. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks with Terrell J. Starr, a senior reporter for The Root, during an interview on Instagram Tuesday, June 9, 2020.

“If you do all those other things, you don’t need all the money going to the police departments,” Whitmer said. “So yeah, the spirit of it, I do support that spirit.”

Whitmer added at the end of the 33-minute interview that “we’re not going to defund all the police but we’re going to make the investments in people. And that’s what this is all about.” 

When asked Wednesday about the comments, Whitmer's spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said the governor does not mean law enforcement should be defunded. 

"The governor believes we need greater investment in people and communities, which means leveling the playing field through better schools, transportation, and access to health care," Brown said. "That's why the governor has proposed real reforms in policing, and will continue to advance a policy agenda that promotes racial equity here in our state."

Whitmer's Tuesday comments brought swift condemnation from Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Laura Cox, a former state House Appropriations Committee chairwoman who said the plan was in keeping with Whitmer’s line-item vetoes last year of millions of dollars for secondary road patrols in rural communities. 

“Today’s statement by the governor is just another attempt to grab national headlines and attract Joe Biden’s attention in her quest for the vice presidential nomination,” Cox said in a statement. "While we need to ensure the proper steps are taken with our police departments to protect all citizens equally, we must never forget the important job that the men and women of law enforcement do to safeguard our communities.”

While the "defund the police" phrase literally means to eliminate or deny funding, supporters of the movement have argued that it really represents an effort to shift more funding into social programs to help minority and other groups.

Michigan is facing a $3.2 billion shortfall in its current budget and a $3 billion estimated hole for next year with no proposal from Whitmer on how to fill the void except to get a coronavirus subsidy from a divided Congress and the Trump White House. Republican legislative leaders have argued state government needs to make cuts to balance the budget, meaning there is little likelihood of any shift toward more social spending in the near future.

In the Tuesday interview, Whitmer also argued for other changes in policing, which she said was “ripe for reform.” Among those reforms were implicit bias and de-escalation training, an affirmative duty to intervene, mental health screenings and changes to qualified immunity. 

“This blanket immunity gives people the sense that there are no repercussions for their actions,” said Whitmer. State officials also are granted qualified immunity. 

The decade-long federal oversight of the Detroit Police Department forced reforms on the law enforcement agency that has resulted in a drop in deaths while in police custody, use-of-force incidents and lawsuits against the department.  A U.S. Department of Justice investigation found a pattern of excessive force, civil rights abuses and a culture of covering up misconduct in the Detroit department after then-Mayor Dennis Archer requested the probe.

Whitmer’s comments come a few days after Attorney General Dana Nessel expressed support for “substantive structural change” to policing and said she was inspired by protesters. But she stopped short of supporting calls to defund law enforcement. 

Nessel, a Democrat, former defense lawyer and Wayne County assistant prosecutor, said on Twitter that she had friends in law enforcement who have given their lives in defense of others. Change can be accomplished without vilifying police, she wrote. 

“Calls to abolish police departments and destroy their funding sources are not the solution,” Nessel said.