A look at defunding police in Detroit

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Activists who are protesting police brutality and racial injustice after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are now demanding local police departments be defunded, with a redirect of money and resources away from the department and an investment of more money into social services and public programs.

Camden, New Jersey, dissolved its police department in 2012 after widespread corruption made fixing the department nearly impossible. Before it was closed, the small East Coast city was one of the most violent in the country, according to FBI statistics. Seven years later, according to a CNN report, the city’s crime rate has dropped nearly 50 percent. 

Over the weekend, city officials in Minneapolis voted to defund its police department, in part due to George Floyd’s death at the hands of the police. 

Amid nationwide outcry, some Detroit activists are demanding the city defund its police department.

In March, just days before the first COVID-19 cases were confirmed in Michigan, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan proposed a budget that called for more investment into the police department over the next four years. 

The investments in Duggan’s proposal include raising the starting annual salary of all officers to $42,000, spending $2.6 million for 44 crime analysts, and spending nearly $1 million to prepare and send 120 police cadets to the academy.

Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon (Courtesy Photo)

Defunding a department is fundamentally a local concern, said Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon who said there needs to be change in the way police function in this country and that residents can actually bring about that change. 

“Policing is, in my opinion, a local function and we as police people are required to police a community in a manner that is acceptable to them. The community has to lay out those acceptable practices,” he said. “If the community wants to defund the police, that’s fine, but it has to be a consensus from a majority.” 

Nakia Wallace, a community activist with Detroit Will Breathe, said Detroit police budgets should be cut. 

Detroit Will Breathe, created in the wake of recent police killings, pushes for an end to police brutality and says the city should reduce staff and offload equipment developed for war. 

“We need to really assess our priorities. Should our budget, the majority of our budget, go towards the Detroit Police Department, or should it go to more social services, housing, economic development? We have to look at how we’re prioritizing DPD moving forward.” – City Council President Pro Tempore, Mary Sheffield

“First of all, [the Detroit Police Department] doesn’t need any more tanks, they don’t need rubber bullets, they don’t need tear gas,” Wallace said. 

To her, it’s a simple request: Demilitarize. 

Wallace said investing in social services such as community mental health services, social workers, and affordable housing will improve the city. 

“A lot of those funds that they are using to stay militarized can actually go back into social and public services,” she said. 

One demand that is specific to Detroit is for the city to stop funding Project Green Light — a video surveillance system that allows DPD to see live security camera footage from businesses across the city —  and other forms of facial recognition technology. 

When Project Green Light launched in 2016, the goal was to help police stop robberies and other crimes more quickly, but the project has been controversial among Detroiters since.

Detroit Board of Police Commissioners in September approved the use of facial recognition technology, but not without controversy. Part of what troubles many in Detroit is that the software has been shown to misidentify Black and Brown people. 

Keep in mind that the city of Detroit is over 85 percent Black or Latinx — 78.6 percent Black and 7.6 percent Latinx, according to 2019 Census data

The sentiment that these surveillance programs are harmful to Detroiters was shared by community activist Meeko Williams of Detroit. He says the city needs police but policing must change. 

Meeko Williams, Detroit activist (Courtesy Photo)

Williams is a proponent of community policing. For him, that means more residents reporting crimes and taking the initiative to hold their neighbors accountable. He also believes police need to walk the streets and Detroit should reopen ministations. 

In the 1970s, Mayor Coleman Young opened mini police stations throughout the city to combat crime and bring police closer to citizens. At that time he told the New York Times: “No police force can be effective in controlling crime without the cooperation of the people.”

“I think that conversation needs to address the fact that Detroiters, especially Black Detroiters, are overpoliced outside the city. They are stopped and harassed by cops in the suburbs as well.” – Casey Rocheteau, Detroit Justice Center

Police Chief James Craig says there aren’t as many officers as there were in the 1970s when Detroit had nearly 6,500 officers. Today, there are fewer than 3,000 and no fully functioning ministations. 

“Neighborhood police officers have kind of replaced the need for the ministations. Neighborhood police officers can address quality of life issues the way ministations cannot,” Craig said. 

Ultimately, police need to get closer to the community and live in the city. Detroit should reinstate the residency requirement, according to Williams. 

Williams argues that officers who live and work in Detroit will, inherently, do a better job at serving Detroit residents than officers who live in the suburbs. 

“We only have something like 500 cops who live in the city, all the outside cops need to go. We need to bring back the residency program and keep our officers living here,” he said. 

Sergeant Nicole Kirkwood, who handles media relations for DPD, says as of May 31, 571 officers in the department are Detroit residents, and 1,914 officers are nonresidents.

Casey Rocheteau, Detroit Justice Center (Courtesy Photo)

Casey Rocheteau, communications director for the Detroit Justice Center, said defunding the police is a regional issue and suburban communities must also adopt reforms. Detroit Justice Center is a nonprofit law firm that works to make the justice system in the city more equitable. 

“I think that conversation needs to address the fact that Detroiters, especially Black Detroiters, are overpoliced outside the city. They are stopped and harassed by cops in the suburbs as well,” Rocheteau said. 

Sheriff Napoleon urged residents to, in seeking reform, highlight issues unique to the city.

“Defunding the police department won’t stop other police from having racial bias outside the city. I think it would be better to address the issues specific to Detroit and not so much what’s going on in other states,” Napoleon said. 

Napoleon joined the Detroit Police Department in 1975 and served as police chief from 1998 to 2001 before becoming Wayne County sheriff. 

“Policing is, in my opinion, a local function and we as police people are required to police a community in a manner that is acceptable to them. The community has to lay out those acceptable practices.” – Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon

When asked if he believes the city should defund the department, he said if it’s what a majority of people want, they should be required to meet that demand. 

But is this something city officials are talking about? Well, according to City Council President Pro Tempore Mary Sheffield, not yet. 

Sheffield says she and council member Raquel Castaneda-Lopez have talked with various community organizations about what defunding the police actually means and what it might look like in Detroit. 

City council, which funds DPD operations and approves its budget, could take steps to defund the department. But there’s a lot of work that would need to happen first. 

“We need to really assess our priorities. Should our budget, the majority of our budget, go towards the Detroit Police Department, or should it go to more social services, housing, economic development? We have to look at how we’re prioritizing DPD moving forward,” Sheffield said. 

With the entire country’s economy being affected by the novel coronavirus pandemic, now could be as good a time as any to rethink where the city’s money goes. Let us know your thoughts on Twitter and Facebook.

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