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Organizers plan discussion renewing calls to defund Grand Rapids police

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio
The Grand Rapids Police Department headquarters.

Organizers in Grand Rapids are planning an online community conversation around defunding police, even as the city’s leaders seem to be moving on from the issue.

Commissioners in Grand Rapids got an update on reforms in the police department during a special meeting on Tuesday. GRPD Chief Eric Payne told them the department is shifting to a neighborhood-based policing model in March, and plans to shift all parking enforcement to another department in July.

Commissioners largely praised the progress, undertaken as part of a new strategic plan from the department. But GRPD leaders suggested any effort to defund the department would take away from that progress.

“In order to move forward with the strategic plan and obtain a successful implementation, GRPD will have to, at the very least, maintain its current staffing levels and financial resources,” said Deputy Chief Kristen Rogers.

The push to defund

Commissioners were flooded with calls and emails to defund the department in the summer and fall, following protests over the killing of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Taylor grew up in Grand Rapids. Police in Louisville, Kentucky shot and killed her last March in a botched raid.

Thousands of people marched in the Grand Rapids’ streets in 2020, calling for police reform.

At one point, at least three commissioners in Grand Rapids publicly called for cutting GRPD’s budget by $9.4 million dollars – the maximum cut currently allowed under the city’s charter.

“They had a lot of their constituents coming forth and telling them that this was a great idea, that this is what they wanted, that this is what they’re seeing, this is how they’re reimagining things,” says Zahna, an organizer with the group Defund the GRPD, who asked that her last name not be used.

But the push to cut the department’s budget largely fizzled in the fall, after a contentious meeting in which the city’s attorney told commissioners they couldn’t introduce a budget cut without the city manager’s input. And city manager Mark Washington resisted putting the budget cut on the table.

Now, organizers with Defund the GRPD say they want to restart the community conversation around cutting police funding. They’re planning an online discussion at 7 p.m. Thursday on Facebook.

Getting the community involved

“We want community to be able to understand how these processes work, and be able to engage in this process, which is something we haven’t seen that the city has been transparent about,” says Danah, another organizer who asked that her last name not be used, because of concerns about safety. “So we are trying to build transparency for our community and engage the community in ways that our city is not.”

The GRPD says its new strategic plan takes into account the calls for reform. In addition to the new neighborhood-based policing model and changes in parking enforcement, the department says it’s also looking into creating a new behavioral health team to respond to calls for mental health or non-violent drug issues.

But to organizers with Defund the GRPD, the changes don’t go far enough. They say they want to elevate people and organizations in the community who can assist in a time of crisis, so that fewer people even feel the need to call police.

“It would be wonderful to live in a world where you can just go to your neighbor, and say ‘Hey, this is a situation that’s happening. I’m not sure how to deal with it, can you assist me?’” says Nikita, another organizer with Defund the GRPD. “And your neighbor could be like, ‘Yeah, I’m equipped to assist you.’”

Thursday's conversation will be streamed on Defund the GRPD's Facebook page.

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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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