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Grand Rapids police considering plan to buy drones

Door to the Grand Rapids Police headquarters
Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio

Grand Rapids residents will get more chances to weigh in on an idea to spend $100,000 to buy a new fleet of police drones.

Grand Rapids Police Chief Eric Winstrom presented the idea during a Public Safety committee meeting at city hall this week.

“We’re not going to do this in a vacuum, obviously,” Winstrom said. “I’m here to discuss it with you, to present it to the public, and then we’re going to talk to the community about it, to see how the city of Grand Rapids envisions, if they want drones to be used, how that would come about.”

Some residents immediately raised concerns about the idea, and questioned how the department would use the drones. The city adopted a surveillance policy to govern how equipment such as drones could be used by the department.

But GRPD has a long history of policing practices that raised civil rights concerns. The Michigan Supreme Court ruled last year that the department violated the civil rights of two men when it fingerprinted and photographed them despite no evidence the men had committed crimes. The Michigan Department of Civil Rights last year filed multiple formal charges alleging racial discrimination by the department, and said in December it had 21 open investigations into the department - far more than any other police departments.

One of GRPD’s former officers is also facing second-degree murder charges for killing Patrick Lyoya, and the city faces a $100 million dollar lawsuit from Lyoya’s family.

But Winstrom said drones could help the department be more efficient in gathering photos and clearing accident scenes on the road - which could both improve traffic, and free up officers to move on to more important tasks. And he said drones could help in searches for missing persons.

Members of the city’s Public Safety committee voted to bring the issue back to the table for more city commissioners at a morning meeting on April 11. At that time, they may schedule a public hearing on the issue. Winstrom said the department would also hold listening sessions with community members.

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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