Amid calls to shift funding from Muskegon police to social programs, police chief vows to explore further reform; commission to increase community dialogue

A crowd gathers in downtown Muskegon for a protest against police brutality and systemic racism last week. The KKK sign is in reference to a now-former Muskegon police officer who had KKK memorabilia in his home. Photo by Anna Gustafson

As cities across the country look to divert funding from police to social programs in the wake of worldwide protests against systemic racism and police brutality, Muskegon residents this week urged local elected officials to reallocate a portion of the city’s proposed $10.76 million police budget for initiatives centered around affordable housing, youth, healthcare, and other efforts aiming to address the impacts of institutionalized racism. 

“Please take seriously the proposition that public safety in our community may be better served by shifting our focus, as reflected in budget line items, from policing to providing equitable access to social supports that encourage economic stability, physical and mental health services, education, and social cohesiveness,” Muskegon resident Kwame James said at the City Commission’s work session Monday night.

Other city of Muskegon residents joined James in advocating for change at the City Commission’s meeting Tuesday evening, when elected officials and city staff discussed the 2020-21 budget [the proposed version of which you can see by clicking here]. Of the proposed $28,871,143 budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year, $10,766,690—a little more than one-third of the budget—is slated to go to the police department. The proposed number is an increase from the $10,190,969 budget allocated for police in the 2019-20 budget. City Manager Frank Peterson said the increase in the police budget is due in part to rising pension and healthcare costs, including a $440,000 bump in some police pension costs. 

Commissioners are expected to vote on the budget at their June 23 meeting.

Close to 1,000 people gathered in downtown Muskegon for a protest against police brutality and systemic racism. last week Photo by Anna Gustafson

The push to reallocate funding comes as hundreds of thousands of people fill our country’s, and world’s, streets, including here in Muskegon, to protest police killing George Floyd in Minneapolis and police brutality throughout the nation. Elected officials from Minneapolis to Los Angeles have begun to explore what it means to have a public safety infrastructure that emphasizes social programs instead of policing as we currently know it. It is a notion often described as “defunding the police,” but that phrase is, perhaps, a bit simplistic. The goal in diverting police funding, the Muskegon residents who spoke during this week’s Commission meetings explained, is to increase financing for social supports that could provide a more sustainable public safety infrastructure. In other words, residents said, instead of dedicating one-third of the city’s budget to police, who can address immediate issues—such as a robbery or homicide—but not the issues underlying that robbery or homicide, why not expand funding for mental health services, education, affordable housing, and more to address some of those underlying issues and prevent crime altogether?

“There will certainly be a lot to learn along the way, but transitioning to a new way of managing public safety that isn’t so fundamentally dependent on violence and the threat of violence is more than doable, and right in line with the kind of innovative, forward facing development that we have been cultivating here for years now,” James told commissioners during Monday’s work session. “Along with all of Muskegon County, we have called for people across Michigan to ‘Watch Us Go.’ Let’s give them something to watch. Let’s give them an example worth following.”

Elijah Nichols, another Muskegon resident, too voiced his support for reallocating police funding to other initiatives that could better address systemic inequities. 

“This reduction [in the police budget] would free up city funds to go to Covid-19 relief for the residents of the city of Muskegon, our healthcare system, or any other mechanism that would reduce the economic burden of low-income and black and brown residents of the city of Muskegon,” Nichols said at Tuesday night’s meeting.

Mayor Stephen Gawron

While Mayor Stephen Gawron and what appeared to be the majority of the commissioners did not back the idea of currently diverting funds from police, the officials emphasized they want to provide additional funding to a variety of social programs in the future—many of which Gawron emphasized elected officials have long supported—and increase community dialogue surrounding issues of policing and systemic racism. Peterson echoed this, saying the city invests about $400,000 to a variety of community programming, including neighborhood association grants, the Boys and Girls Club, Muskegon Area Transit, the Muskegon Museum of Art, youth recreation, Community enCompass, Port City Football, West Michigan Lakehawks, the Lakeshore Business District, the Martin Luther King, Jr. diversity programs, Latinos Working for the Future, and others.

Commissioner Willie German, Jr. was the sole commissioner who specified he did not support the budget; he said Tuesday night that he is “not in favor of this budget because there needs to be police reform.”

The mayor said he does not support cutting the police budget “at this time, but we’re going to give you the best public safety we possibly can and show our system isn’t broken like some of the other ones. We’ll continue to do the outreach we do in this community to help support our kids, our affordable housing and many other initiatives with our partners that really hold the social fabric together in this town.”

 City of Muskegon Police Chief Jeffrey Lewis stressed that, with about nine-tenths of the police budget going to officers’ salaries and benefits, it would be difficult to find excess fat from which to carve, especially, Lewis said, considering the fact that the department currently has about 10 vacant positions. 

“We’re at around 69 officers right now, down about 10 positions; it’s been very, very difficult to hire people,” Lewis said. “There’s been a lot of negativity with media. We used to get about 100 applications for an opening; with our last opening, we got about three.”

Should the police budget be cut and the department had to lay off officers, Lewis said it would be detrimental to the community.

“About 90 to 95 percent of what we do in the police department is call driven—citizens call us, and we respond,” Lewis said. “…I don’t think 69 to 80 officers is an exorbitant number of officers in a city of almost 40,000 people.”

During Monday’s work session, Lewis noted that, under his leadership, the police department has mandated a minimum of 20 hours of annual training for each officer—something he said goes above and beyond what the state currently requires, “which is almost nothing.” Last week, the state Senate passed a bill that would mandate police officer training on implicit bias and violence de-escalation, as well as mental health screenings. The bill [the full text of which you can see by clicking here] is now being considered by the House, and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said she plans to back it. That training would go into effect in 2022.

Among a variety of training efforts, Lewis said he “introduced less than lethal tools for us so we don’t go from fists to firearms.” 

“We do have policies and procedures that are in place now, but, hey, we’re not done,” Lewis said Monday night. “I’m open to anything—discussion, town halls, you name it. We want to be peace officers and not what is seen as abusive, aggressive.”

Gawron noted that the Muskegon police department implemented what’s known as community policing—essentially meaning an officer is dedicated to a specific neighborhood in an effort to forge better relations between residents and police—a little more than two decades ago, and he said “it’s paid great dividends in our relationships with our citizens.”

“We haven’t had the abuse other departments have had,” Gawron said. 

“We have moved towards embracing the benefits of policing at the doorstep and getting to know our fellow citizens and making sure we have safeguards in our policies so we’re not an aggressive or militaristic agency,” the mayor continued.

Muskegon City Commissioners at their June 9 meeting.

When asked how police monitor interactions with the public, Lewis said the department uses audio recordings, dash-cams, and seven body cameras. He added that he would like to see all officers potentially outfitted with body cameras.

“We need to start stepping towards the next generation, the body cams,” the police chief said. “They are relatively expensive; we’d need to invest between $350,000 and $500,000 to reconfigure our system.”

While residents said they are grateful for the efforts from the city and police department to partner with the community, those who spoke Tuesday night said they continue to support reallocating resources in order to have a more holistic approach to public safety. This support stems in part, Muskegon resident Kyla Fonger said, from the fact that reforms and training did not keep now-former police officer Charles Anderson from serving in Muskegon’s police department. Klu Klux Klan memorabilia was found in Anderson’s home in 2019, about a decade after he shot and killed Julius Johnson, a 23-year-old Black man from Muskegon, following a traffic stop in 2009. After the KKK memorabilia was discovered at Anderson’s home in 2019, the city fired the officer that same year.

“I really do not think we should be putting more money into the Muskegon police department budget,” Fonger said at Tuesday night’s meeting. “…Our city budget must be allocated in a way that provides relief to those in our community that are marginalized and victimized by the structural racism and inequity that Muskegon is built upon and that the Muskegon police department and our city commissioners are complicit in enforcing. Please commit to cutting the police budget and redirecting funds to much-needed social services.”

Protesters gathered in downtown Muskegon last week hold signs of two men killed by police, Julius Johnson in Muskegon and George Floyd in Minneapolis. Photo by Anna Gustafson

Commissioner Willie German, Jr. agreed with residents’ calls to divert funding from the police.

“We have an opportunity to look at changing things; we could allocate dollars to certain programs—more youth programs, housing, programs for social justice,” he said. “…People are speaking up. We have callers calling in about this budget and they see something wrong. These taxpayers don’t see the dollars being contributed to this line item of funding the police being beneficial to them.”

The commissioner added that he himself experienced racism at the Muskegon police department, prior to Chief Lewis’s tenure.

“I applied to become an officer; I met all the requirements, but I was turned down three times,” German said. “…I understand the problem of institutionalized racism. I see it is alive and well.”

Commissioner Willie German. Photo by Anna Gustafson

The commissioner emphasized that once Lewis became chief, he offered German a position, which German declined because he “couldn’t run a 50-yard dash like I used to.”

“But, the offer was greatly appreciated,” German said.

Vice Mayor Eric Hood, a retired Muskegon police officer, said that while he knows the police department has made progress over the years, “we have a long way to go.” He said he’d like to see the city review the police department’s policies regarding use of force, as well as records of officers charged with misconduct. 

“It should be clear that a police officer cannot stand by while another officer causes undue harm, pain or suffering to another human being,” said Hood. “I’ve been a law enforcement officer, so I know the job, the difficulties. I also know you can be a human being. We have a lot of good officers who come in with good hearts, but then we have the ones who can’t control themselves either.”

The vice mayor too recalled facing racism as a police officer.

“I’ve been the officer in a predominantly white police department,” he said. “I remember the first time coming into the squad room; people were saying, ‘This is bullcrap; you’ve gotta hire a Black, a Mexican, a woman.’ They didn’t want me here, but I made it.”

And, Hood said, he’s been on the other side of law enforcement as well—as someone fearing for their life during an interaction with the Pierce County Police Department in Washington state.

Vice Mayor Eric Hood. Photo by Anna Gustafson

“I thought it would be the last night I walked on earth,” he said. “I understand the fear that is in one’s heart when the police stops them. I can only say to my fellow African Americans, Hispanic Americans: when you are stopped by an officer, at that moment, you will not win, but you have the ability to record. You have a phone: record, take notes, do everything they want you to do at that time—but take good notes because if they’re doing something wrong, you can come back later. I know at our department, you should be able to come back and file a complaint against that officer.”

Other commissioners said tension between police and the community needs to be addressed, including with community dialogues tackling systemic racism and policing, among other topics. [At 1:30pm on Thursday, June 11, elected officials noted, the Muskegon Social Justice Commission is holding a forum on police and community relations in Hackley Park. For more details, click here.]

“When you say, ‘Oh, we only have 69 police officers, young black people are saying, ‘Well, 69 is enough because I’ve got three on me right now,’” Commissioner Michael Ramsey said. “We can’t tell them not to feel that way, that the pain and trauma they’ve experienced isn’t real. This is all about engaging the communities where these atrocities are happening so we can have conversations about how we can be supportive…We need to make sure we have ways to engage with the community and make them feel more safe.”

Protesters gather in downtown Muskegon last week. Photo by Anna Gustafson

Commissioner Ken Johnson said while he is “not inclined to just defund our police department and take money away from our police department that does serve our community, I do think we need to take up the mantle of reimagining how our Department of Public Safety is configured so every resident of Muskegon feels confident that the department is serving and protecting them.”

While addressing institutionalized racism in the community is not an easy, nor simple, endeavor, Muskegon’s elected officials said it is a crucial one—and one buoyed by an international movement proclaiming: Black Lives Matter.

“Our country and communities have been struck by a horrible disease, Covid-19, that has sickened and killed family, friends and neighbors,” Gawron said. “Our country and communities have been struck by a horrible disease: racism, that has sickened and killed family, friends and neighbors. One disease is of the body, the other infects the soul. We need to heal both of them. I’m committed to fight against both, especially the longer plague of racism and inequality that has poisoned our collective soul for too long.”

“I don’t have ultimate answers alone,” Gawron continued, referring to addressing racism and inequity in the community. “We will find them, always, together. And to my family and friends and neighbors who have been knocked to the ground by racism, this kid from Muskegon, the man before you, apologizes.”

Story and photos by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. You can connect with her by emailing muskegontimes@gmail.com or on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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