City Council: Going Into the Red for More Police

Brian Geiringer
City Council: Going Into the Red for More Police
This article has embedded timestamped video links from Ypsilanti City Council meetings on May 18 and June 1.

In a move that surprised even some councilmembers during the Ypsilanti City Council meeting on May 18 of this year, four of the seven members of council voted to move funds to the Ypsilanti Police Department (YPD) in order to add an additional three police officers, under guidance from chief of police Anthony DeGiusti. Councilmember Nicole Brown suggested the addition as a “controversial” amendment to the city’s budget which went into effect on July 1. This amendment to increase the YPD’s budget was proposed and passed without public notice or input, as it was offered in the final reading of the 2021-22 budget appropriations. At the following Council meeting, significant community backlash was voiced. Numerous factors complicate Council’s decision to increase the police budget, but with no time for discussion—and no hard evidence offered—many feel the arguments against adding more police were not given due diligence.

The addition of three new police officers will introduce an additional $238,500 per year into the city’s already over-budget 2021-2022 fiscal year. City Manager Frances McMullan confirmed that this will bring the city to a one million dollar shortfall, and City Treasurer Rheagan Basabica said the city has “no way of replenishing” its reserves. The gap in the budget will likely be covered by reductions in other areas at a time when the city is already struggling to cover its expenses. City Clerk Andrew Hellenga cautioned Council about using funds in this way, noting that “if the city eventually goes bankrupt, we won’t have a police department or a fire department.” According to Hellenga, the city “slashed” the budgets of both the police and fire departments the last time it was close to bankruptcy. This budget line item is currently paid for with taxes that will no longer be collected after two years, meaning that the city will have to raise taxes, cut these positions, or cut key infrastructure and programming by 2023. Before this newest increase, the YPD’s budget was higher than at any point in the past decade. 

Clerk Hellenga’s comments were made in response to the newly re-appointed councilmember Brian Jones-Chance, who championed the addition with Councilmember Brown. Jones-Chance argued that if adding police saved a single life, it was worth the city going a million dollars into the red. Later he stated that he’d choose to spend money on the three police officers over a train station, and seemed to reject the missive popularized by the Black Lives Matter movement to “Defund the Police,” saying he knows “some things are sort of en vogue right now, but… the people that are really experiencing this day to day need respectful, responsible police presence.” Councilmember Jennifer Symanns, a former police officer herself, supported the move, and Councilmember Anthony Morgan provided the swing ‘yes’ vote after suggesting adding fewer police during discussion.

There is no evidence during the past decade that increases in the Ypsilanti Police Department budget have led to a decrease in crime.

As the council considered the addition, Councilmember Steve Wilcoxen voiced his opposition to the amendment. Wilcoxen challenged the idea that safety in Ypsilanti would come from more police, saying that instead “safety’s going to come from a lot of other things happening.” Councilmember Annie Somerville rejected adding new officers, especially before the issue had been brought to the attention of the Police Advisory Commission, as well as to the public. Mayor Lois Allen-Richardson also opposed the budget increase, saying that the city  needed to retain its firefighters, and plan for the future rather than just the coming year. Mayor Allen-Richardson urged councilmembers to postpone voting on the amendment while the council remained split on the matter; Councilmember Symanns rebuked this wish by ‘calling the question,’ forcing an end to discussion in order to vote. 

Photo by Brian Geiringer

The councilmembers who supported the addition to the YPD cited a number of reasons to hire the three officers. Councilmember Brown noted that the city wants to add a social worker to the police department, and said that hypothetical worker would not feel safe answering calls without police backup. During public comment, Ward 3 resident Desiraé Simmons stated that the idea of three police officers supporting one social worker “didn’t add up.” Across the country, a growing number of social workers are against working with police: Lori James-Townes, executive director of the National Association of Public Defense, states that social work is about preventing intervention from becoming necessary, and that “the concept of dispatching armed officers to help people in crisis is antithetical to everything I know [as a career social worker.]”

At times, those in favor of the proposed increase disagreed, like about whether more police officers would lead to more safety for the community. In a tearful five-minute response to public comment during the council meeting of June 1, Councilmember Jones-Chance relayed a story in which a grandmother put her grandchildren to sleep in a bathtub “because there were bullets flying through her apartment.” Meanwhile, at the previous meeting, Councilmember Brown was adamant that “the [added] bodies don’t create safety… I don’t mean that in any way,” which Councilmember Morgan agreed with. Police chief DeGiusti also resisted the connection between more police officers and the city’s safety, saying “I could put a police officer on every street corner and it’s not gonna stop gun violence… the community is going to be responsible for making the community safe.” 

In her justification for increasing police presence despite it not creating safety, Councilmember Brown stated that “people feel safer by visual proximity to our officers,” and Councilmember Morgan agreed with that as well. Unfortunately, surveys have not been conducted in Ypsilanti or its neighborhoods to confirm or deny the truth of that statement. Nationwide, Black residents are significantly less likely than the nonblack population to feel safe speaking with police or to trust the police, meaning that the new police officers in Ypsilanti are more likely to make white residents feel safer than Black residents, if Ypsilanti is like the U.S. The South Side, one of the city’s historically Black neighborhoods, and downtown are particularly vulnerable to the city’s ongoing gentrification, its associated neighborhood criminalization, and racialized police calls from white residents and business owners who have a direct line to city leadership. Abdallah Fayyad describes such situations grimly in The Atlantic: “…as demographics shift, activity that was previously considered normal becomes suspicious, and newcomers—many of whom are white—are more inclined to get law enforcement involved. Loitering, people hanging out in the street, and noise violations often get reported, especially in racially diverse neighborhoods.” 

Indeed, the additional police may accelerate gentrification more than they reduce crime: According to What’s Left’s analysis, there is no evidence during the past decade that increases in the Ypsilanti Police Department budget have led to a decrease in crime. From 2011 to 2020 there was only one instance of a significant increase to the police budget coming at the same time as a decrease in the city’s crime index, in 2013-14, a year which saw an increase in murder. Whereas for the last four years of available data, covering 2016-20, the city increased the police budget every year while the crime index also increased. This contradicts with the idea that adding police will decrease crime. In fact, the greatest reduction in the city’s crime index and murder rate came during a year in which the YPD budget slightly decreased, from 2015 to 2016. 

Ypsilanti’s police budget (left vertical axis) and crime index (right vertical axis).

Contrary to a popular belief, researchers find the same trend throughout the country: increases in police budgets have not correlated nationally with decreases in crime indices. Despite that, councilmembers across the nation have acted as though increasing police budgets does decrease crime rates. As a result, the national cost of police has tripled (after adjusting for inflation), up to $115 billion dollars, in the last 40 years.

Rather than create safety or aid social ills, research shows that bloated police departments disproportionately target community members who are Black, low income, less educated, and/or unemployed… and do so largely based on non-violent offenses. One driving force behind this pattern is the type of “order-maintenance” policing that some Ypsilanti community members attribute to the YPD, in which police target petty crimes (or ‘suspicious’ people or events) often as an excuse to search them. The result is that across the country Black and poor and otherwise marginalized communities often live in a police state, receive too large a share of tickets and infractions and misdemeanors, and get swept into the criminal justice system far too often. 

All of this is relevant to New Parkridge, the Ypsilanti Housing Commission development on the South Side that Councilmember Jones-Chance used as a primary example during his support of hiring additional police. Jones-Chance advocates for a version of “order-maintenance” policing in New Parkridge and similar places, stating without evidence that “in these kinds of properties, towing [cars] is the single easiest way… to alleviate violence.” Jones-Chance argued that due to guest issues, police oversight of towing is one solution to the violence at New Parkridge. 

Another factor for residents of New Parkridge is private security. The Ypsilanti Housing Commission, an independently operated arm of the city’s government, employs Adrian-based Great Lakes Security and Services at a significant annual cost. The presence of private security was not mentioned by Jones-Chance or any councilmember advocating for more police at New Parkridge, raising questions about how much of a focus that development will be for the new YPD officers.

“I could put a police officer on every street corner and it’s not gonna stop gun violence” -police chief DeGiusti

In her advocacy for additional police officers, Councilmember Brown argued that complaints against the police nationally don’t apply to the Ypsilanti PD—saying “we have a great police department where we don’t see the behaviors exhibited that I think we hear about elsewhere… at this point in time we don’t hear those things and I think our officers and the culture that has been cultivated within YPD shows that we are unique in this current climate”. In contrast, What’s Left has received reports of multiple Ypsilanti residents feeling profiled by the police department in regards to both race and perceived sexual orientation. Those who have experienced profiling from the YPD are either not being heard, or being dismissed by local leadership.

Councilmember Brown did not mention David Ware, the unarmed Black man shot in the back by YPD in 2007, just outside The Keg. (Community support for Ware lives on; in 2017 a fundraiser in his name raised $3,000. May he rest in peace.) Ware’s murder provides reason to doubt Brown’s assertion that the YPD is unique in this way: the incident places the YPD’s murder rate at about 3.33 murders per million residents per year in the last 15 years, which is equal to the national average, just below the Chicago PD at 3.8 police murders per million per year, and slightly more than the Minneapolis PD at 3.1, according to Mapping Police Violence. And like the vast majority of instances of police violence, the officer that murdered Mr. Ware was retained on the Ypsi force for years after the incident occurred, and was not on the hook for the $450,000 settlement the city covered. Ex-county prosecutor Brian Mackie never charged the officer with a crime. 

Many residents responded to the hiring of the police with anger and frustration during the June 1 Ypsilanti City Council meeting of this year, urging the council to reconsider their hire. “…Do we want to fund what is needed to end gun violence?” asked Desiraé Simmons, “Do we need more people from somewhere else patrolling certain street corners and writing [more] tickets…for things like paraphernalia [and] to support revenue? Or do we want a community presence that will disrupt, deescalate, and reintegrate? …I’m talking about prevention, not something for after the fact” . Multiple residents at that same meeting asked Council to use the money for something “proactive,” like social programs or housing, rather than “reactive” budget items like more officers. In cities around the country, such proactive spending is beginning to gain popularity. According to The Guardian, “more than 20 major cities have reduced their police budgets in some form, [which is] an unprecedented trend.” In Austin TX, “police funds were reallocated to emergency medical services for Covid-19, community medics, mental health first responders, services for homeless people, substance abuse programs, food access, workforce development, abortion services, victim support, parks and more.” 

The Ypsilanti City Council has the power to go back on their recent decision at any time; until they do, those funds will go to the three new officers. 

Research and Organizing by Floki Ivey

Edited by Amber Fellows and Zach Nichols