City Commission turns down $500K for public safety

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GRPD Police Chief Eric Payne Courtesy city of Grand Rapids

The Grand Rapids City Commission rejected $500,000 of Federal CARES dollars to support public safety and crime prevention from Kent County.

The commission voted 3-3 on the measure, with Commissioner Jon O’Connor having a planned absence. The resolution would have allowed Mayor Rosalynn Bliss to accept the grant with the expectation that it could be used to meet increasing public safety demands due to a surge in violent crime.

This grant would have allowed the city to reprogram funds from other one-time sources to fund gun violence reduction strategies in the police department’s strategic plan. Among the strategies considered were incentives to combat the illegal use of guns and new technology.

Police Chief Eric Payne made a plea for additional resources since the city experienced its 32nd homicide year-to-date, and the city commission did not wish to add sworn officers to the police department, per the Hillard Heintze study. Payne indicated that technology, along with other collaborative community and evidence-based crime reduction approaches, will result in a safer community.

Bliss, commissioners Joe Jones and Nathaniel Moody voted in support, while commissioners Senita Lenear, Kurt Reppart and Milinda Ysasi voted against accepting the funds.

“I think we missed a great opportunity, and I’m saddened about it because we could have used that money for our city and to help curb some of the violence that’s taking place in the city, so I hope somebody comes up with a better plan that will be supported,” Moody said.

The commission’s public safety committee received an update on year-to-date crime, which shows a drastic increase in violent crime over 2019. Some of the most notable and concerning increases are weapon firing (209.9% increase), murder attempts (195.5% increase) and murder (108% increase).

On Oct. 22, the Kent County Board of Commissioners made $500,000 of the county’s CARES Act funding available to the city of Grand Rapids for crime prevention investments through the police department during the coronavirus pandemic.

Reppart said he voted “no” on the resolution because the resolution was not specific on where the funding would be allocated, and Reppart was concerned the funding would be used to purchase the controversial ShotSpotter system.

“If you look at comparably sized cities to Grand Rapids — Birmingham, Rochester, Littler Rock, Baton Rouge — they’ve been utilizing the technology for many years, and they haven’t seen a reduction in homicides. In fact, every one of those cities has seen an increase in homicides this year,” Reppart said. “So, if our goal is to reduce homicides, we have to spend the money on something that’s evidence-based to reduce gun violence … I don’t know if I can accept it without knowing what it’s going to go toward.”

ShotSpotter is a series of sensors positioned within a defined area that detect gunfire, initiates an expert review confirming the sounds were gunfire, pinpoints the location of the gunfire within 25 meters and notifies the police department. The city received 279 communications from residents and organizations opposed to the implementation of the system, according to city documents.

A joint statement from local organizations, including LINC UP, NAACP Grand Rapids and the Urban Core Collective read, “Our neighborhoods should not be subjected to mass surveillance. Implementing ShotSpotter will turn public spaces into sites of continued surveillance. There is a profound lack of clarity on how ShotSpotter footage/alerts will be used, and whether or not peripheral activities that amount to a ‘violation’ will be prosecutable.”

The groups also argued ShotSpotter is an imperfect technology, and as it is just an alert system, enforcement is still up to police officers, and it allows for police officers to lawfully stop and search residents who might be in the vicinity.

“We believe that ShotSpotter will grant GRPD unilateral permission to violate the privacy and safety of our neighbors. Furthermore, it continues to be reactive to crime while neglecting to come up with proactive solutions that help heal community,” the statement continued.

Bliss said, based on the community feedback, the resolution to accept CARES funding was decoupled from the conversation about ShotSpotter.

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