Paul Birdsong always carries a gun with him. But it’s not for reasons most people would think. Birdsong, an activist and founder of We the Free People of Lansing, carries the gun to represent that he doesn’t need the protection of people who have oppressed him and others like him.
“Its two-fold,” said Birdsong. “It is for protection, but then it also represents our independence. You know, like me for instance, as a Black man, not requiring the assistance of the very people who have been oppressing me and my people for hundreds of years, to come save me. When something happens, I’m able to defend myself.”
Birdsong is among many local activists leading the charge to defund the Lansing Police Department. Since the death of George Floyd, and the accusations of misconduct among LPD officers, citizens and leaders of the community have been calling for the police budget to be cut from the current $46.5 million. On July 13, Lansing City Councilmember Brandon Betz presented a solution that could cut the LPD budget by 50% over the next five years, but so far only $100,000 has been removed from the budget. The resolution would serve to reinvest that money in the community to help provide safety without the Lansing Police Department.
While Birdsong does not want the protection of the Lansing Police Department, he suggests that the solution might be a “public safety force,” which would include unarmed trained professionals that could handle non-violent public safety issues.
“If there’s a situations where there’s a welfare call, like there’s someone who’s a paranoid schizophrenic, someone like that is having an episode, as opposed to a cop showing up with a gun, and a badge, and a uniform like that, which would intimidate someone like that and make them want to run, or make them escalate even further, maybe somebody shows up wearing a purple shirt, or just a regular blue shirt, or a white shirt even, with no gun, no body armor, that’s a trained professional that knows how to handle people with mental issues like that,” said Birdsong. “A mental health professional that can defuse that person and get them the help they need.”
Executive Director of The Firecracker Foundation, Tashmica Torok, said she believes that cutting the budget by 50% like Betz suggested could be the proper solution, as long as the city invests that money back into the community.
“I would like to see our city invest in our community as much as they can,” said Torok. “If 50% is the most reasonably to keep our community safe from violence, then 50% sounds great. If we can do more than that, then I would be happy to do more than that, because what we have learned over the past you know, however many years it has been, 70 years, is that the police function as a way to protect property, to protect people with privilege, but they do not protect black and brown people, they don’t know how to serve people with disabilities, or deaf people, so we are in a situation where accepting the police in our community is actually choosing a segment of our communities safety, over others.”
While activists have been rallying for the police to be defunded, Chief of Lansing Police Department Daryl Green said he believes that there will be a drastic negative impact on the safety of the community if the LPD budget is cut.
“Understandably so, there has been a lot of conversation about the budgeting of police departments across the country, and most recently, here, in the City of Lansing,” said Green. “While there are no immediate confirmed decisions regarding LPD’s funding streams, I want to be objectively clear with our community that any decrease in funding will have a drastic and lasting impact on the safety of all people that visit, work, and reside in the City of Lansing.”
Green said that it would be reckless for the City of Lansing to test an unproven theory, and follow a model that does not fit Lansing’s community.
“We as a government owe it to our community to envision procedures, tactics, and policies that are based on best practices,” said Green. “In fact I think it is extremely reckless if we use a national cookie cutter strategy to abolish the police department. To think that reducing the police budget will improve public safety in the City of Lansing is fundamentally flawed.”
For the 2021 fiscal year, the LPD is set to receive about $46.5 million, but a lot of the money may not be able to be cut. Chief Deputy City Attorney Joe Abood said that the LPD has funding that has restricted uses due to grants and other agreements.
“With the City of Lansing Police Department, there are certain funding for our police department that makes it very difficult for the city to adjust or change,” said Abood. “Those include grants, which we enter into an agreement when we accept the grant to accept the conditions of the grant, and so those conditions restrict the use of those funds, and so we don’t have the flexibility to adjust that once we accept the conditions and accept the grant funds.”
Abood also said that legacy costs such as pensions and healthcare for retirees are costs that Lansing has committed to, and the law is strict about honoring those commitments.
“Another area is our legacy costs,” said Abood. “Those legacy costs are obligations which the city has undertaken, and has committed to, and people rely on, and the law is very strong in this area that those legacy costs are to be honored by the city.”
While these costs may not seem like a lot, City of Lansing Financial Officer Joe McClure said that legacy costs take up over 36% of the LPD’s total general fund budget.
“The legacy costs, that portion of the personnel costs, is $16.8 million consists of costs such as pension, healthcare, including retirees, workers comp, unemployment, and termination benefit costs,” said McClure. “However, pension and healthcare are by far the greatest costs of these. Note that the legacy costs are 36.2% of LPD’s general budget.”
With a lot of the LPD’s budget already committed to other things, the personnel division would be one that would see dramatic cuts. Green said that the proposed budget cut off 50% over the next five years would attribute to the loss of over half of the LPD officers.
“A 10% reduction of the budget for five continuous years would demonstrate a loss of 120 officers, leaving the department with 86 officers,” said Green. “The department would further lose its community policing efforts, 12 community police officers would no longer exist in those communities, which would further inhibit the department’s ability to positively engage with community and build trust.”
Green wanted it to be known that he is firmly against defunding the police due to the consequences it would have on the community.
“The notion of reducing the LPD budget would have serious consequences, and I want to be on the record firmly stating that I don’t support defunding the police, and I attest it will have a negative impact on public safety, which will negatively affect almost every aspect of the city’s growth,” said Green.
While Green said he believes this change would be a danger to the Lansing community, Betz said he believes that the people who are concerned about the LPD being defunded are stuck in their ways and are not the people who have been negatively affected by the police.
“Some people think the police are there to protect them, but the truth is, from what I’ve seen, the people who are worried about the police being taken off of the streets, never have to interact with police officers. They live in white neighborhoods, they’re older, and they’re very much stuck in their ways.”
Betz also said that one of the main goals of cutting the police budget would be to take responsibility away from the police, to focus their job, as to help their department run more efficiently, and help the community rely on them less.
“The goal is very specifically to make our community safer without police officers, and that is very possible to do, and there is tons of research on ways to do this, and the thing to remember is the police are responding to calls that they don’t need to,” said Betz. “We need to have less reliance on our police officers, and this is the way to start doing that.”
As for the concerns with the community being safe with a reduced police budget, Betz said he believes that getting rid of police officers is actually going to increase the safety because of their lack of help for black and brown communities, and their track record of violence.
“We don’t need the LPD to keep the community safe, in fact I would argue the LPD doesn’t keep the community safe,” said Betz. “The LPD doesn’t keep the black and brown community safe because they’re violent towards the black and brown community. We’ve seen that police are violent. They add to the amount of violence that happens in the community, and that’s the reason we need to get rid of them.”