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Grand Rapids leaders face calls to defund police at virtual town hall

Door to the Grand Rapids Police headquarters
Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio

The city of Grand Rapids is facing calls to re-open the 2021 budget to cut funding for police.

The city finalized its budget less than a month ago. That budget included cuts to many departments, including police, because of an expected shortfall in revenue.

But now a number of people in the city want the Grand Rapids Police Department’s budget cut even further.

On Wednesday night, the city held a virtual town hall event to discuss policing.

City leaders outlined a number of changes they say they’re making at the department. That includes instituting policies to explicitly ban choke-holds, and require officers to give verbal notice before resorting to lethal force.

But for many who called into the town hall, the changes aren’t big enough, and aren’t happening quickly enough.

A number of callers said they supported defunding the police department, and using trained social workers or mental health professionals to handle calls instead.

They also criticized GRPD for using tear gas at a protest on May 30.

“I don’t know that we as a city are any safer because we have a police force that has access to that kind of tactics,” said one caller, who, like many people on the call, didn’t give his name.

GRPD Chief Eric Payne said the department’s internal affairs unit is still investigating an incident from that night in which an officer appears to have fired a tear gas canister directly at a man’s face.

But he defended the decision to use tear gas, saying the protest had become an “unlawful” event. He also resisted calls to do away with military-style gear and tactics from the police department.

Payne said officers still need the ability to respond to large events, such as mass shootings.

“We are all issued sidearms,” he said. “but what we are finding more and more is that the threats we may confront – people are carrying much more dangerous weapons.”

Still, Payne said the department has been working in recent years to have more community police officers. He said part of next year’s budget would go toward hiring civilians who are trained in dealing with trauma, and who can work with police officers and assist on calls.

The budget for the 2021 fiscal year goes into effect July 1. The plan currently calls for funding of just under $62 million for the police department. That represents about 43% of the city’s total general fund budget. According to the Grand Rapids city charter, the police department must receive the equivalent of at least 32% of the general fund budget. 

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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