Lansing residents: Enough talk. More action on racial equity.

Council president floats ‘dismantling’ of Lansing Police Department

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George Floyd was murdered about 30 days ago.

Protests that erupted in Minneapolis quickly spread across the country and have since landed in Lansing, which for weeks have included a growing voice to defund the police and ramp up community-based programs and services to support Black residents and promote racial equity.

Several dozen have spoken out at City Council meetings. Activists with Black Lives Matter and the NAACP (among other individuals and groups) have rallied in the streets and hosted press conferences. A massive “Black Lives Matter” mural is spray painted downtown along Capitol Avenue. The message is clear: Many Lansing residents want to see fundamental changes.

But is the city of Lansing prepared to give it to them?

City officials — including Mayor Andy Schor — have talked almost exclusively of big-picture ideas for weeks. Everybody wants to listen. Plans are being made to make a plan. The City Council symbolically declared racism a public health crisis. A town hall is being scheduled.

A date for that event, however, hasn’t been picked. The City Council has yet to have any substantive public conversations about police reforms — let alone divestment — in Lansing. And residents are growing increasingly frustrated with a city government that is trying to talk the racially equitable talk but, at least so far, has been relatively slow to walk the actual walk.

“What we are hearing is that people are totally overwhelmed and our message of hope is being dulled by the lack of deliberate action to change and overturn the systems that keep black and brown people subjugated and out and on the underside of power,” explained the Rev. Sean Holland, an activist affiliated with the Lansing chapter of Black Lives Matter.

Holland and Lansing BLM cofounder Angela Waters Austin spoke during a live video last week.

“We’re talking about defunding police. We’re talking about having elected officials that actually support and will advocate and will actually join arms with us as we move toward a condition of life where Black lives can thrive,” said Waters Austin, who has demanded Schor resign.

Schor, who confirmed again this week that he has no plans to resign, offered a response.

“I think big change needs to be done in a deliberative manner, and I want to make sure that all of the pieces are in place to listen and to get a sense for what makes sense in this community,” Schor said. “We’re taking action to start the plan. We’re working on that daily. It’s in progress.”

Schor announced the city’s first concrete response to the unrest last week in the form of a one-page outline that calls for the hiring of a diversity officer, a review of police policies and procedures, training on racial biases and the creation of a diversity, equity and inclusion plan.

It seems to have garnered mixed reviews from the community, with many generally pleased to see steps toward tangible changes but others skeptical about whether they’ll come to fruition.

“The mayor realizes there’s a problem with racism in Lansing and is willing to address the problem. That’s good. And pledges are one thing, but acting on them is another. We need to have more qualitative and quantitative data that shows that things are being done,” said Maxine Hankins Cain, a retired public school educator. “We just can’t afford to walk down the same trajectory we’ve seen for decades.”

A pledge signed by the mayor last week largely reaffirmed existing Police Department policies geared toward deescalating violence, exhausting non-lethal alternatives and reviewing the use of police force. Police Chief Daryl Green said each of those policies had been in place for years.

The diversity officer hasn’t been hired; the full scope of that position hasn’t been finalized. A review of the police budget is quietly under way, but no proposals have surfaced, Schor said.

“The town halls and things are all in progress,” Schor explained. “There’s work to be done. We know that. We’re putting together plans to figure out how Lansing can be a better place. We’re listening and gathering that feedback, which will translate into how we move forward as a city.”

Community activists, over the last week, have issued a broad array of demands ranging from an enhanced review of police policies and misconduct complaints to additional training in de-escalation and support for social services for things like mental health and substance abuse.

Perhaps the most specific proposal came from Black Lives Matter, which has called for a $9.6 million cut to the Police Department’s annual budget.

About 20% of the city is African American, so local leaders demanded that an equivalent portion of the budget be redirected to the immediate and long-term needs of Black residents.

“Defunding the police has to do with the reallocation of resources and wealth and putting it back into the community,” Holland explained last week. “That is a righteous demand, so we can educate and empower. We can mentor our own. We don’t have to be over-policed.”

City Council President Peter Spadafore said a conversation about police divestment, or at least the concept of reallocating police funding to other community services and programs, can only begin at the Mayor’s Office. Under the City Charter, Council members cannot propose budget amendments, he said.

That doesn’t mean the Council isn’t willing to have a conversation about the long-term direction and financing of the Police Department, he added. Spadafore just wants to take a holistic approach to mitigating racism — including a focus on education, housing and health care.

“The reason I think we need to take a long-term, deliberative approach is it’s important work. We’re talking about dismantling the Police Department in the way we’ve come to know it,” Spadafore said. “That doesn’t mean abandoning law enforcement, but it takes time to rethink how we’ll deliver public safety services in Lansing, and that all begins with listening.”

Schor isn’t opposed to reallocating resources and services, but he still isn’t prepared to make any immediate cuts to the police. Subsequent service gaps tied to divestment — like calls related to mental health or homelessness — would still need to be handled by another agency.

He voiced support this week, however, for a fundamental shift in law enforcement in Lansing. In some instances, he recognized, it’s possible that officers could be over-policing certain issues. 

“We should absolutely be looking at whether people should be pulled over for broken tail lights or air fresheners hanging from rearview mirrors,” he said. “I’m very open to that conversation to see what needs to be changed. I’m certainly open to reducing the number of equipment stops.”

As part of the mayor’s efforts  to assemble a more comprehensive diversity, equity and inclusion plan for the city of Lansing, attorney Teresa Bingman will be hired this year to conduct an “environmental scan” and help piece together recommendations for Schor’s administration.

The goal: Foster a racially equitable future in the capital city by identifying longstanding inequities and finding ways to allocate more resources to address those social disparities.

Bingman said her plans include gathering community input and developing meaningful action — which could include the possibility of recommended police reforms and budgetary adjustments.

“The dialogue has changed. It seems there has been some type of an awakening,” Bingman said. “We certainly want to produce a plan with some type of tangible action steps. It’s all tied to resources. Without resources, this plan will just end up on a bookcase, and that’s not the goal.”

The exact scope of that tangible action, however, is to be determined. Bingman said plans are still being developed. As of this week, she hadn’t yet been formally contracted to work for the city. As a result, the Mayor’s Office has yet to assign a price to Bingman’s contracted services.

“I’m not making the decisions about how much is spent and where it comes from, but I’ll certainly help provide input on those conversations,” Bingman said. “Expediency is a priority. We’d certainly like to see some type of tangible action steps well before the end of the year.”

 

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