WESTLAND — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Tuesday attempted to distance herself from the “defund the police” movement, calling the phrase “dangerous and foolish.”
The first-term Democrat, up for re-election Nov. 8, is battling criticism from Republican challenger Tudor Dixon, who argues Whitmer has not done enough to quell anti-police sentiment that coincided with a 12 percent increase in violent crime in the state in 2020.
At the height of social and racial justice protests in 2020, Whitmer joined a civil rights march in Highland Park and said she supported the “spirit” of the defund the police movement, a comment Dixon has bashed while claiming the governor is weak on crime.
“I think the phrase ‘defund the police’ is dangerous and foolish,” Whitmer told reporters Tuesday in Westland, where she was joined by dozens of sheriffs, prosecutors and other law enforcement officials who are part of a new coalition backing her re-election campaign.
“I understand the desire to get more resources invested in prevention and creating opportunity, and that’s what I was talking about (in 2020),” Whitmer added.”If you look at my record, I have funded the police over and over again.”
As governor, Whitmer has signed budgets that increased state police funding from $716 million to $824 million a year and doled out an additional $253 million in annual revenue sharing payments to local governments, which use that money to fund public safety.
But the funding bumps did not prevent a spike in violent crime.
As Bridge Michigan reported last week, violent crime offenses in the state jumped 12.4 percent in 2020 and another .03 percent in 2021. That leap was part of a national trend but significantly higher than the roughly 5 percent increase across the country.
“Gretchen needs to be honest,” Dixon said Tuesday in a statement to Bridge Michigan. “She is on record saying that she supports the spirit of defund the police, she knelt with protestors as our cities burned … and has time and again shown that she doesn’t have the backs of law enforcement. To say otherwise is just another lie she is peddling to the people of Michigan.”
The defund the police movement, which caught on in some cities 2020, was a liberal rallying cry to reallocate money from police to other government agencies, particularly those that deal with social services and addiction.
While few cities actually defunded police, spikes in crime in cities such as Minneapolis and Seattle that reallocated resources or reduced arrests for petty crimes prompted a backlash against the movement.
Crime increased nationwide after COVID-19, and experts largely blame it on the pandemic, which led to isolation, economic anxiety and mental-health issues that coincided with record gun deaths, increased substance abuse and other violence.
Republicans criticizing Whitmer over the violent crime data have been unable to point to specific policy disagreements with her, but they contend criminals have been emboldened by liberal attitudes toward police.
Dixon has proposed spending $1 billion over four years to support law enforcement, including $700 million to help local agencies recruit and retain officers to address a labor shortage that law enforcement officials have called a “crisis.”
Whitmer last year proposed a smaller $75 million “MI Safe Communities” plan with $32 million for police officer recruitment and retention. She has not yet reached a deal with the GOP-led Legislature.
“We have to give support to our law enforcement so they can do recruiting and they can do training so that we can draw good people into policing,” Whitmer said Tuesday, telling reporters she also wants to help agencies hire more diverse officers.
“The stress, and the lack of those supports for too long has made it very difficult to lure people into this important, honorable profession.”
Whitmer also signed bipartisan bills designed to lower inmate populations, including one that ended the practice of suspending driver licenses for non-driving offenses such as drugs and restricting the use of criminal records to determine eligibility for professional licenses.
Democrats contend Dixon’s plan to phase out Michigan’s 4.25 percent personal income tax will jeopardize the state’s ability to pay for services, like public safety.
Dixon’s campaign is backed by the Police Officers Association of Michigan, along with at least 22 sheriffs, including Saginaw County Sheriff William Federspiel, a Democrat.
Whitmer’s campaign on Tuesday launched a “Public Safety Officials for Whitmer” coalition and announced a 34-member leadership council that includes Iosco County Prosecutor James Bacarella, a Republican.
The governor was joined at the Westland event by Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, a fellow Democrat, who praised Whitmer for signing a law that no longer requires the Michigan parole board to consider release of certain violent offenders every year, instead allowing for review every five years.
“Some of these potential parolees are so dangerous to public safety that, if released, we would all be sitting back and wondering when they’re going to violate the next time,” Worthy said.
Genesee County Sheriff Chris Swanson, a Democrat, praised Whitmer for her handling of the social justice protests following the 2020 murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed by a police officer in Minnesota.
“The governor supports, but we have to prove that we’re a worthy profession,” Swanson said. “If you can’t train it out, discipline it out, you got to cut it out. We are not without fault.”
Whitmer proposed a series of law enforcement reforms following Floyd’s death, including a statewide ban on police chokeholds and new limits on no-knock warrants that drew scrutiny after the death of Breonna Taylor, but Michigan’s GOP-led Legislature has not approved any legislation for her to sign into law.
Swanson said Whitmer personally called him after a 2020 Flint protest in which the sheriff removed his own riot gear and marched with demonstrators in an act of de-escalation.
“He led,” Whitmer said.
“He brought people together and showed this is still honorable work, and recognizing that every person should expect to go home safely at the end of the day, whether you are on the law enforcement side of the equation or someone on the other side of the equation. We want safer communities.”