Draft budget priorities may invest rather than defund Lansing police

Council members float early ideas to hire more social workers, boost training

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FRIDAY, Sept. 4 — More social workers. More police training. More grant funding.

Those are at least three of the budget priorities that could be en route to Lansing Mayor Andy Schor’s desk as a committee of the Lansing City Council looks to answer the call for police reforms and community reinvestment. But so far, actually defunding police still isn’t on the table.

Councilwoman Patricia Spitzley, chairwoman of the Council’s newly formed Committee on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, outlined three budget priorities this week that could eventually be approved and sent to Schor to use as he crafts the city’s annual budget proposal by March.

Among them:

  • Additional funding for at least four or five social workers to be embedded with officers at the Lansing Police Department or with first responders at the Lansing Fire Department.
  • Additional funding for training at the Lansing Police Department — specifically in areas that focus on de-escalating conflicts, inherent racial biases and cultural sensitivity.
  • Additional funding to hire a full-time grant writer and coordinator who can assist community organizations in supporting disadvantaged populations across the city.

Notably absent? An actual reduction to the Lansing Police Department’s $46.5 million budget.

“When people talk about defunding, it’s a reinvestment or a reimagining of the police department. I think what we’re doing and proposing is consistent from what we’re hearing from folks in terms of wanting a more community-focused approach to public safety,” Spitzley said.

Spitzley said the draft budget priorities were partially assembled in response to growing social unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s death and a focus on systemic racism across the country. In Lansing, that has included activists — like Black Lives Matter — pushing for divestment at the Lansing Police Department, reinvestment in Black communities and for Schor’s resignation.

And while the draft priorities, at least at this point, appear to be calling for police investment rather than police divestment, Spitzley said not everyone is taking police divestment literally.

“There’s always going to be a need for armed police, but maybe this would help lessen the load and let them invest more time in other areas,” Spitzley added. “If someone wants to literally defund the police, I don’t think that’s practical. We want real solutions-oriented proposals.”

Spitzley’s new committee — which includes Council President Peter Spadafore — is reviewing a proposal from Council members Brandon Betz and Kathie Dunbar that aims to slash the police budget in half over five years. She doesn’t expect to take action on it until October.

And that means financial priorities will likely be due to the Mayor’s Office for the next budget cycle before the City Council even considers a proposal that would include police divestment.

“Budget priorities are just the start of the conversation,” Spitzley said. “The real work is developing our policies and reforms and figuring out exactly how we put them into action.”

Spadafore and Spitzley said additional social workers could help resolve conflicts and mitigate the need for a heavier police response for issues like homelessness or substance abuse — potentially freeing up road patrol officers to focus more on longer term criminal investigations.

LPD’s current training budget is less than $250,000 for all 206 police officers. The committee would like to see that amount increased to enhance the quality of law enforcement protocols. Additional training could also help mitigate systemic police discrimination, Spitzley explained. 

“I really don’t think these priorities we’re putting together are off target here,” she added.

Additionally, the committee also discussed a desire to bring on a full-time grant writer to the city to help assist community organizations and nonprofits as they work to fill the gaps. Those grants, Spitzley said, could help serve as a broader reinvestment into Black neighborhoods.

“People want funds redirected to the community, and that’s exactly what this is doing,” Spitzley said. “This can all help to build in more contact with residents so some aren’t calling the police all the time and maybe aren’t always relying on a uniformed officer in a police car to come in.”

Betz applauds any effort to reinvest in social services for Lansing neighborhoods, but said he still won’t support any proposed budget priorities that would increase police funding. Those who won’t support broader efforts to defund the police will continue to see “public pressure,” he said.

“If you won’t stand alongside the Black Lives Matter movement, there will be some real public pressure applied,” Betz added. “We cannot continue to uphold this racist institution of policing.”

Spitzley said City Attorney Jim Smiertka’s office recently voiced unspecific “concerns” related to the legality of Betz and Dunbar’s divestment proposal. Those will be discussed next month. Until then, the committee will stay focused on budget priorities that will be approved in October.

Schor was hesitant today to endorse any priorities before they’re approved by the City Council. He said his annual budget proposal — as usual — will be based on available funding, though he labeled social workers, training and grant writing as “very important” for the future of the city.

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