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Residents speak out against Grand Rapids police drone plan

Grand Rapids City Hall and La Grande Vitesse.
Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio
Grand Rapids City Hall

Grand Rapids city manager Mark Washington is proposing a $643 million budget for the city in the upcoming year, a nearly 8% increase in spending compared to the current year.

But it was a much smaller spending item, not even included in the annual budget, that caused the most controversy at the city commission’s evening meeting.

Dozens of residents came out to speak out about a possible spending item that wasn’t in the budget proposal: the plan for the Grand Rapids Police Department to buy a fleet of unmanned drones to assist with police work.

Under a city policy, GRPD has to seek approval from the city commission before purchasing “surveillance equipment.”

Commissioners scheduled a public hearing for Tuesday night’s meeting to discuss the drone plan, and residents lined up to speak out against the plan.

GRPD chief Eric Winstrom said the drones could help the department be more efficient, solving crimes and clearing accident scenes. And he pointed out that many departments surrounding Grand Rapids already use drones in their police work.

But many residents and activists in the community said that doesn’t mean Grand Rapids should use the technology.

“So I know there can be pressure to feel everyone else is doing it, why not us, given our position in the state?” said Ames Carpenter, a resident and activist. “But there’s actually a very good reason why not. GRPD has a demonstrated history of violating the civil rights of Grand Rapids residents.”

Carpenter noted that, as of December, GRPD was the subject of more than two dozen civil rights investigations by the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, and that three incidents have already resulted in formal charges. Carpenter also brought up the case of Jilmar Ramos-Gomez, a U.S. citizen and Marine combat veteran who faced possible deportation after being referred to immigration officials by a GRPD captain. There is also the Michigan Supreme Court decision handed down last year, which found GRPD violated the civil rights of two men with its photo and print policy, a policy that the department has since stopped.

And then there’s the killing of Patrick Lyoya, who was shot in the back of the head by then-officer Christopher Schurr following a traffic stop. Lyoya’s family has sued the city for $100 million and Schurr is facing second-degree murder charges.

The number of controversial incidents involving the department, which date back years in the city, prove GRPD can’t be trusted, many residents said.

“I look at this like a parent,” said resident Lucas Leverett. “When your kid proves they can’t be responsible with the toys they have, you don’t buy new ones for them.”

GRPD chief Winstrom says he plans to meet with neighborhood groups and other community organizations to discuss the drone plan before bringing it back to the city commission.

On the full $643 million budget proposal, city commissioners have already scheduled public workshops for the next four Tuesdays.

The full budget proposal is available online here.

The city says the $643 annual budget proposal “effectively returns the City to pre-pandemic levels” of operations. The city says it also faces higher costs for goods and services, along with wage increases for staff.

“One of the things I wanted to make sure coming out of the pandemic - it’s not only that we can experience recovery, but continue to grow,” said city manager Mark Washington, noting that the city’s population has been growing.

“The demand for services is also increasing,” Washington said.

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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