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What one activist in Grand Rapids means when she says “defund the police”

Brian Jennings stands at the front of a crowd of protesters who marched through Grand Rapids Wednesday.
Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio
People gather for a protest march through Grand Rapids on Wednesday, June 3. Some community activists are hoping that they can pressure the city to amend its budget and shift money from the police department to other programs and services.

The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer set off massive protests across the U.S. At many of those protests, there was a familiar refrain: "Defund the police." It was scrawled across poster boards and chanted by protesters. But what does that actually mean? For some activists in Grand Rapids, it means reopening the city budget to move funding away from police and to other community services. LaDonna Norman, a member of the group Together We Are Safe, is one of those activists.

Below are some excerpts from our conversation with Norman about what she means when she says “defund the police,” and why defunding — as opposed to reform — is the way to improve public safety and policing.

Reform vs. defund

In recent years, there have been a number of incidents involving Grand Rapids police officers detaining black children, including one where five unarmed black boys were held at gunpoint. Many cities, including Grand Rapids, have pledged to reform their police departments by implementing anti-bias training and new use-of-force guidelines. But Norman says those kinds of police reforms have not made a difference in black people’s safety in the city.

"I mean, how can you put policies in place when you have police who can't distinguish a 12-year-old from a 25-year-old? Or a 40-year-old? The language sounds good when you put it on paper, but how can you put policies in place when it’s clearly a difference in the way African-American girls and boys, women and men develop. Our appearance is already threatening from a very young age. They keep making these mistakes and putting these policies in place, and we keep repeating ourselves. So when does it end?”

Defund, then what?

Right now, the Grand Rapids Police Department’s budget takes up 43% of the general fund for the 2020-2021 fiscal year. That adds up to just under $62 million dollars. An amendment to the Grand Rapids city charter dictates that the police budget take up no less than 32% of the general fund. Norman says she would like to see some of that money redirected to black and brown communities that have been disproportionately affected by police violence.

“We want to actually promote a community of care, which would result in real safety. We believe that if people have their needs met, that crime would be reduced, and we could take care of our own communities.”

What about public safety?

The movement to defund the police has faced pushback, from both within and outside of law enforcement. Even as activists have increased their calls for defunding or abolishing the police, many politicians at both the stateand federal level have instead proposed banning tactics like chokeholds and increasing police oversight. Norman says that people who think that defunding police would make communities less safe haven’t had the same negative experiences with law enforcement as people in her community have. 

"Where I come from, people that look like me, they, from a very early age, they have interactions with the police and they're not the best. So, most of the people that are yelling that are people that have never been directly affected the way black and brown communities have. So how can you speak on something that you have no direct connection to?”

Stateside invited Grand Rapids Police Chief Eric Payne to talk about policing reforms and the call for defunding. A spokesperson for the department declined our request.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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