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Features from Michigan Public's award-winning investigative unit.

A year after “defund” protests, most large Michigan cities spending more on police, not less

protesters call for changes to policing
Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio

It was a last-minute, quixotic attempt to make a statement, any statement, about the future of policing in the city of Lansing.

On May 17, just before council members cast their final vote on the budget for the next fiscal year, council member Brian Jackson offered an amendment.

Never mind that he’d already offered the amendment earlier in the day, and it had failed. Never mind that it was non-binding, and both the police chief and the mayor had no plans to follow through. Jackson made the motion anyway.

“Just take two minutes,” he said to his colleagues on the video call, as he explained the purpose of the amendment one more time.

The Lansing Police Department has six unfilled positions for police officers, Jackson said. Some have been vacant for a long time. His amendment would shift some money in the budget, and give the police department the option to hire a social worker for one of the vacant positions instead of a police officer.

“This mere $22,000 shift is kind of a precursor and good faith to see what, if anything, we can work on when it relates to reimagining police,” Jackson said.

The mayor’s proposed budget already called for adding a social worker to the police department – the department’s second social worker. Jackson’s amendment would mean the department could add a third.

But, as expected, it failed.

A spokesperson for the city says the mayor plans to hire officers - not social workers - for all the vacant positions “in order to provide safety and security for Lansing.” On Monday night, the city commission voted to accept a federal grant that will add an additional five police officer positions in the city.

After a year of protests calling for dramatic changes in policing across America, Jackson wasn’t the only council member, and Lansing wasn’t the only city, wrestling with how to respond to the calls. In April, Detroit council member Raquel Castañeda-López proposed an amendment that would have cut the Detroit police budget by $39 million – a 12% reduction. In Grand Rapids last July, city commissioner Milinda Ysasi proposed cutting her city’s police budget by $9 million.

Those efforts – in Lansing, Detroit and Grand Rapids – all failed. All three cities plan to increase funding for their police departments in the coming year. And they are not alone.

Minutes from Michigan Radio
This Michigan Radio analysis was done using Minutes, a tool that tool keeps track of local government in Michigan.

As cities approach a new fiscal year starting July 1, a Michigan Radio analysis of Michigan’s largest 20 cities finds most will be increasing their police budget from last year’s dollar amount.

Among those cities, few will reduce the number of officers. Ann Arbor and Dearborn are eliminating five police officer positions each. Both Warren and Sterling Heights proposed adding police officers, while most of the other cities will keep their police staffing levels the same.

[Work like this is made possible by donors like you. Support more analysis and stories like this from Michigan Radio reporters by making a gift today.]

“Welcome to American politics”

May 25 marked one year since George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer.

Last summer, the death of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless other Black people throughout the years prompted a huge wave of protests across the country, demanding accountability and systemic changes in the criminal justice system. In Michigan, thousands flooded the streets – from cities like Detroit, Flint and Grand Rapids, to towns in the Upper Peninsula.

Many advocates said the United States relies too much on policing as a solution that can disproportionately impact Black, brown and low-income people, while alternatives – such as social services like counselors, or low-income housing – have gone unsupported for years. “Defund the police” became a rallying cry across the nation, even as it was denounced by many as naive and reckless.

Christian Davenport, a University of Michigan public policy professor, said Michigan Radio's analysis doesn't surprise him, and doesn’t see a shift away from traditional policing in the near future.

“The optimistic version was we see protests and we see people get upset, and then we'd see some response. Well, welcome to American politics,” he said. “It doesn't work that way.”

This Michigan Radio analysis was done using Minutes, a tool that tool keeps track of local government in Michigan. Learn more about it.

“This is about life and death”

In Dearborn, the debate surrounding policing has been contentious this past year. Activists have urged the city to shift funding away from police and into social services, and they want better civilian oversight of the police force.

The group Accountability for Dearborn, formed shortly after George Floyd’s death, has been a consistent presence at city council meetings, raising concerns about what it calls the police force’s racist targeting of Black people. The group’s research found that Black people accounted for more than half of all arrests in Dearborn in 2019, and almost half of all citations, despite making up only around 3% of the city’s population.

"The optimistic version was we see protests and we see people get upset, and then we'd see some response. Well, welcome to American politics. It doesn't work that way."

“This is not a political game. This is about life and death,” Alexandria Hughes of Accountability for Dearborn said at a May 25 city council meeting.

She and other activists say if the data on arrests and citations isn’t enough to convince city officials that change is needed, the police killings of Kevin Matthews in 2015 and Janet Wilson in 2016 should be. The families of Matthews and Wilson, both Black and both Detroit residents, said their loved ones suffered from mental illness.

But like other Michigan cities, Dearborn plans to spend more on policing next year, not less. Dearborn also spends a lot on police per resident: nearly $514. As a comparison, Detroit, which has eight times the general expenditure, spends $487.

Michigan Radio’s analysis is based on general fund spending, which is the discretionary pot of money cities have to work with. Restricted funds are more difficult to compare across cities. It’s also important to note that there’s a lot of variation in how cities put their budgets together. For example, some cities include dispatch services in their police budget, but others don’t.

“The people of Dearborn have said they want a service-driven Police Department, one that is flexible to meet the needs of the day even beyond traditional policing,” Dearborn’s public director Mary Laundroche wrote in an email, adding that voters even put a minimum police staffing provision in their city charter – something that will be revisited in August. “That commitment to a service-driven Police Department comes with financial obligations, and also has resulted in a high level of activities and outreach.”

“Do not let them catch a break”

Across the state over the past year, activists flooded city council meetings with calls and emails, demanding reforms. In Kalamazoo last June, 73 people called in to the city commission, to comment in a meeting that stretched for more than six hours. In Grand Rapids https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qpm7PFvYrDc?t=10935">in June, commissioners said they’d received more than 2,500 emails about police reform.

“Protesting and fighting in this movement is so much more than boots to the ground,” said Aly, an activist in Grand Rapids with the group Justice for Black Lives. Aly asked that her last name not be used out of concerns for her safety. On April 20, the day a Minnesota jury found former police officer Derek Chauvin guilty for murdering George Floyd, Aly told fellow activists to keep the pressure on city hall.

“Show up to the city meetings, blow their phones up, do not let them catch a break,” she said at the rally.

protesters speak in Grand Rapids
Credit Dustin Dwyer / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Advocates have been speaking out in Grand Rapids and elsewhere.

And Grand Rapids wasn't the only city where policing dominated public discussion.

“It is time for us to look at these budgets closely,” said Yvonne Jones at a Detroit city council meeting in April. “The police budget needs to be defunded. There’s too much money being spent on the police, and not enough on the people of Detroit.”

But in 2020, violent crime went up in many cities after years of decline. So, residents also called in to city council meetings to demand more police funding, not less.

That was especially true in Flint.

“We need our police,” said resident Michelle Turner, who called into a Flint city council meeting on May 5.

“We need to have a hiring campaign, a massive hiring campaign for police officers,” said resident Tonya Burns at another Flint meeting on May 24. “We need to make sure that we’re offering them some incentives. We need to make sure that we’re offering them a livable wage.”

In Flint, and in many other cities, crime went up during the pandemic. Residents complained of shots fired in the streets, illegal drag racing, and slow response times from police. Flint’s police chief told council members he has a backlog of cases to solve, and could use twice as many detectives as he has now.

Despite that, Flint is one of the few cities in the state that plans to spend less money on police in the coming year. City leaders say the budget is smaller because of savings in police employee health plans. There is no reduction in force.

Mayor Sheldon Neeley said the city faced a deficit for the year and worked hard to shield its police department from cuts.

“I’m very proud of the fact that hard-working men and women are out there every day, especially through a pandemic, to be able to provide a level of service,” he said. “These dollars are an investment.”

If it’s an investment, it’s an investment the city hasn’t always been able to afford.

Policing and social services

One factor that complicates the argument to defund police in Michigan is that throughout the 2010s, many cities faced deficits in the wake of the Great Recession, and a number of them were forced to slash budgets across the board, including police budgets.

"Show up to the city meetings, blow their phones up, do not let them catch a break."

In Flint, the proposed budget for 2022 will be only slightly higher than it was in 2010. And the number of officers on the street is far below what it once was. In 2010, Flint had 165 sworn officers, according to the city’s financial documents. This year, it’s budgeting for 115.

Statewide, data from the FBI show Michigan had 161 fewer law enforcement officers in 2019 than in 2010, according to the most recently available data.

To supporters of police, that’s an argument for why cities should invest in hiring more officers. To those who want to defund the police, it’s another argument for why the departments don’t need the money. Even as police staffing in Michigan fell after 2010, crime also fell statewide, according to data from the Michigan State Police.

For the upcoming year, some cities have responded to the call for more social services by adding those supports to police departments themselves. Livonia added two social workers to its police force. Lansing and Sterling Heights are also adding social workers. Grand Rapids is partnering with an outside agency to send social workers along with police on certain calls. Dearborn’s public information director Mary Laundroche said in an email there are two social workers on the police staff, and officers are receiving specialized mental health training .

Christian Davenport with UM says having police officers perform mental health or welfare checks is “institutional overreach.”

“We have this institution and yes, they principally use hammers, but let's try to give them a different tool and see if they can use that too? That makes no sense, especially when we have mental health facilities and mental health professionals,” he said.

In 2022, some cities are starting to move in that direction, and imagine different tools.

Grand Rapids city manager Mark Washington says he’d love to see a city where police officers aren’t needed. And he points out that the city, like other cities in Michigan, has invested more this year in programs that could help alleviate crime.

“But you cannot solve in one year what has taken hundreds of years of systematic injustices and challenges to create,” Washington says.

Shifting priorities

So, are cities in Michigan shifting more funds to these kinds of services? It’s a little hard to say. Spending on social services can include everything from lead paint abatement in homes to summer jobs programs for teens.

To try to understand whether spending for these types of programs has increased, Michigan Radio looked at data from each city’s individual budget, specifically its police general fund expenditures and its total general fund expenditures.

On average, across the 20 largest cities, police budgets made up nearly 36% of their general fund in 2021’s budgets.

In Detroit, the police department will make up almost 29% of the city’s general fund expenditures in 2022.

Detroit is difficult to compare to other Michigan cities, due to its large population. Boston is a similarly sized city, and its police department makes up 14% of its general fund for 2022. For El Paso’s 2021 fiscal year, the police department made up 35% of its general fund.

It is worth noting that Detroit’s social services get most of their funding outside of general fund expenditures. But there are still wide gaps. For example, total police spending in the 2022 budget is $341 million. The health department budget is $42.8 million, and its housing department budget is $69.9 million.

Detroit’s mayor’s office has not responded to requests for comment.

Davenport, the U-M professor, notes that there is a historical reason why police departments are given so much more money compared to social services. Across the country, he said, fear and perception of crime has escalated over the years even as crime went down. And that fear tends to skew budgetary allocations towards police.

In the ‘60s and ‘70s, the solution to tackle poverty and apparent rising crime was to reallocate funds to the police, Davenport explained. At the same time, the country began seeing the privatization of hospitals, and mental health facilities were shut down.

Now, social services have little support in both funds and employees. And as the nation is catching up to the idea of prioritizing different services, the discussion “unfortunately…(has) taken place decades later,” Davenport said. “And things are now institutionalized with this.”

Policing on the ballot

After a year of public protests, and little change, organizers behind the defund police movements in Michigan are not giving up.

Instead, they’re digging in on long-lasting change, social change, structural change.

In Detroit, the process of amending the city’s charter has been underway for years. The city’s Charter Revision Commission has already issued recommendations that could dramatically revamp policing in the city. Its recommendations include more oversight, and budget review, of the police department by the city’s Board of Police Commissioners. It also calls for the department to submit “a new blueprint for police operations.”

Those recommendations will appear on the ballot for Detroit voters this August, but they still face a challenge from the Michigan Attorney General’s office over “legal deficiencies.”

Protesters marching through Grand Rapids.
Credit Dustin Dwyer / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Protesters marching through Grand Rapids.

In Dearborn, residents will get a chance to vote on revamping the city charter later this summer. The current charter has a minimum staffing provision of 2.1 police officers per 1,000 residents. A yes vote on the charter question this August would trigger an election in November for candidates to serve on a charter revision commission, which would propose changes for residents to vote on.

And activists in Grand Rapids also hope to open up that city’s charter, which includes a mandate that the police department gets no less than 32% of the city’s annual general fund spending.

Meanwhile, organizers there have been holding community conversations about how to improve safety without involving police. They’ve made refrigerator magnets that list social service organizations to contact in times of crisis, so people won’t feel they have to call the police. The goal is not just to shift the city budget, but to shift how people think about safety in their communities.

“We’re going to keep going,” said Aly, the activist with Justice for Black Lives in Grand Rapids. “All good things take a long time to happen, and if it takes us even longer, that’s not going to stop us. We’re not going to give up.”

Beenish Ahmed contribued to this story.

Editor’s note: Some quotes for this story were obtained through recordings of public meetings. We’ve made efforts to check for correct spellings of names where possible.

This story has been corrected to say that Grand Rapids City Commissioners said they received 2,500 emails about police reform in June, not in July as previously stated.

Work like this is made possible by donors like you. Support more analysis and stories like this from Michigan Radio reporters by making a gift today.

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.
Nisa Khan joins Michigan Radio as the station’s first full-time data reporter. In that capacity, she will be reporting on data-driven news stories as well as working with other news staff to acquire and analyze data in support of their journalism.
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