Battle Creek

Defund the police? How Battle Creek police already are undertaking changes protestors are asking for

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

Citizens throughout the United States are being very vocal about what they see as the need to defund police departments in the wake of the increasing numbers of deaths of African American men and women, many of them unarmed, at the hands of police officers.

Locally and nationally, these calls for defunding have been tempered with varying interpretations of what that means.

“There are two basic definitions out there,” says Battle Creek Police Chief Jim Blocker. “One which is very extreme and that I disagree with and that is the literal defunding. The other emphasizes the important role that community policing plays in responding differently to residents’ concerns and every concern is different. It can’t just be the police. The community has to work in partnership with us.”

"Defund the police," a common slogan seen on signs in the Black Lives Matter protests, has gained national attention during widespread demonstrations against police brutality following the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, during an arrest by Minneapolis police. 

Activists say police reforms have not been effective wherever they are tried and to end abuse police departments should be defunded and more money spent on other parts of the social safety net, like housing, education and transportation, and creating new systems for ensuring public safety. 
From left, Kevin Kellums, Whitney Perigo Det. Stephanie Estree, Sargeant Jeff Case, and Melinda Holliday
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has said she thinks the spirit of the calls for defunding are about rebuilding communities in a just and equitable manner to level the playing field, though not necessarily at the expense of police departments.

"I don't believe police should be defunded,” Whitmer says in a Detroit Free Press story. “But what I hear from all of my friends who are part of this moment and who are leading on the front lines is we have a real need for greater investment in communities.

“We need to rebuild and level the playing field through better schools and better transportation and access to health care and those are all the critical investments that I absolutely support."

State Rep. Jim Haadsma says he thinks “defunding” is advocating change in budgetary priorities in the context of a city or county budget.

“Obviously, there must be a policing agency, and for most people it means re-prioritizing what’s in a city or county budget,” says Haadsma, who represents the 62nd District, which includes the city of Battle Creek.

State Sen. John Bizon says he thinks a lot of people have simply “hooked on to whatever is being pushed at any given time and have not thought through the process. 
Melinda Holliday Mental health professional and Kevin Kellums are part of the team at the Fusion Center.
“Who are you going to call if someone is breaking into your house or raping your wife or your daughter?” Bizon asks. “Not calling the police is kind of crazy in that setting. We need to address the situation, but I would not be supportive of defunding.”

Blocker says he doesn’t think the general public understands what defunding a police department would look like and what that would mean for a community.

“Today, we’re seeing ongoing and continuous conversations. What makes it mainstream today is that it’s more accessible because of social media. With political rhetoric at an all-time high and the spread of misinformation and social media platforms not being held accountable for that, that’s certainly part of it.”

Sixty percent of calls for service received by Blocker's officers have nothing to do with enforcing criminal justice. Calls vary and include anything from complaints about household items left on the street, to cats in a tree, to a child refusing to get up in the morning. Then there are the more serious calls such as homicides that make up the remaining 30 percent of calls that do involve criminal activity.

He says his officers recognize that the department is used as an all-call center for the entire community and they respond to every call, but as their budget has been decreased, Blocker says, the community needs to understand that they can’t always police the way residents would like them to.

Successful past community-focused initiatives such as a Citizens Police Academy, Cops and Clergy meetings, programs that streamline better internal and external communications, and the Police Explorer program have all been suspended because funding to support them is no longer there.

“I would love to be able to have all of these programs, but they have nothing to do with our core mission, which is to answer 911 calls and other calls for service,” Blocker says.

“There are challenges and complexity with the reallocation of funding. It’s not just as simple as saying ‘Let’s just send a social worker.'”

At the same time, Battle Creek police officers are doing their jobs in ways that some police reform advocates might appreciate.

For example, in early July the mental health team from Summit Pointe was called out to respond to a man who was holding a knife to his own throat. Officers called in the Summit Pointe professionals and then left because they didn’t want to escalate the situation.

This is an example of the work of the Crisis Intervention Team program, a partnership between the BCPD and Summit Pointe, which provides mental health and disability services.

Officers routinely interact with individuals experiencing behavioral health and addiction disorders who lack access to support services. To support the needs of these individuals, the BCPD and Summit Pointe found it is necessary to provide law enforcement with tools that better address the issues they encounter as first responders. 

The BCPD and Summit Pointe collaborated to formalize and implement the Crisis Intervention Team and created the Summit Point Recovery Center to address behavioral health and addiction disorders in the community.

Blocker says the Crisis Intervention Team heightened “our level of de-escalation skills as well as the awareness and recognition of all of the disabilities out there and helped us better see individual calls versus what we thought they might be. There’s an awareness that this person is not all there and we need to slow down and back off.

“This is a hybrid version. We were way ahead of our time because we had a lot of creative minds and innovative thinkers who collectively recognized the need for this,” Blocker says.

Another initiative known as the Fusion Center began in 2014 as a collaboration among several organizations and the BCPD and it has dedicated office space in the BCPD headquarters. In addition to Summit Pointe, the center has representatives from SAFE Place, the county’s only domestic violence shelter; the SHARE Center; Juvenile Probation;  Homeland Security; Substance Abuse; Child Protective Services; and the Michigan Department of Corrections.

The Fusion Center enables officers to focus on calls involving criminal activity while giving representatives with partner organizations the ability to address the needs of residents who seek out the police as their first line of defense.

(Read more about this program here: Battle Creek police and area agencies find the benefits of working together for the community)

These innovative approaches have become a central focus for police departments in the United States in their discussions around defunding. Locally, they got the attention of the Battle Creek Community Foundation, which has helped write grants to state and federal funders to get funding to fill positions within the BCPD that address specific issues and also has provided direct funding for newly-created positions.

Annette Chapman, Battle Creek Community Foundation Senior Vice President of Grantmaking and Scholarships, says the police department received a $75,000 grant from the BCCF that is being used in violence prevention efforts and victims' services. She says she also helped write a $276,000 three-year grant to support a Victim Advocate position and services for victims and a $143,000 grant for a Domestic Violence Detective position.

Chapman says it may seem a little unusual for a foundation to fund law enforcement initiatives, but “a Iot of foundations have different focus areas.”  She says her foundation’s board members are very supportive of the BCPD’s work as it relates to reducing violence in the community. 

Blocker says this funding is critical since the BCPD budget was decreased by $1 million in 2018 due to a budget crisis the city went through. Now, as a result of the coronavirus, the city is experiencing a $4 million budget shortfall and more police department cuts will be coming.

“We are authorized to have as many as 128 officers, but we are all the way down to 106 officers, and that’s significant,” Blocker says.

Over the July 4 weekend, the department had more than 300 calls for service in less than 24 hours and it had 18 officers to handle those calls. Blocker says this stretched his department’s resources thin given that each of these calls lasted anywhere from 20 to 90 minutes in duration.

In a regular week, officers on the afternoon shift are responding to between 630 and 676 calls.

This call load leaves little or no time for his officers to attend community events or shoot hoops with the city’s young people, both activities that Blocker says would go a long way to strengthening the relationship between his officers and community residents.

The defunding that his department experienced through shrinking municipal budgets "has already significantly impacted us as a proactive program that police officers love to be. It’s set us back, and now we can only be reactive,” Blocker says.

These funding cutbacks are among the reasons that the BCCF stepped in.

“Our foundation is known to be very catalystic and the chief and I have been working on a couple of new models as it relates to violence intervention. It takes all of us to make our community a safer place to live and having community involvement and having citizens involved in that.”

State Rep. Haadsma says he knows the BCPD needs more funding.

“It’s just a question of where funding is going to be going. I absolutely would like to see more funding for community policing of the kind that young people are describing for officers to shoot hoops with them,” Haadsma says. “I also would like more funding for training in the context of interacting with community members who might be of a different race or ethnicity.

“There also should be greater funding to ensure that there’s a clearinghouse established so that an officer fired in Port Huron can’t be hired in Battle Creek or Albion. This would be a way to trace so that those who performed a bad act elsewhere couldn’t be hired by an agency somewhere else.”

Haadsma says the kinds of programs that Blocker is seeking are what he would consider “very fundamental with regard to a robust police agency, which is more likely to undertake preventive justice rather than law enforcement compliance justice.

“It’s definitely on the radar of the State House Democrats and House Appropriations Committee.”

Bizon says he thinks it's important to have an ongoing dialog between residents, the police, and governmental units.

“We don’t do well by ourselves,” Bizon says. “If you’re just isolated out there and sitting at home and you don’t trust the police, that’s going to make it very difficult to develop more positive relationships. We have a lot of crimes where everyone in the neighborhood knows who did it, but no one wants to tell the police.”

Blocker says as political leaders come up with a recipe to reform law enforcement, they haven’t come up with any ideas to help law enforcement.

“They’re doing nothing to address the heart of the issue,” he says. “They have to better define what they want law enforcement to do. If they ask us to do something the money has to be there to provide that.”

“Many of the political and systemic failures from a lack of consistent leadership and guidance results in community turbulence, aggravation, and frustration. That’s really where the criminality begins at the local level and we’re constantly responding to it,” Blocker says.

“If your focus is just on the police, you’re really missing the mark.  It has to be a collaboration and that’s why we have the Fusion Center.”

Read more articles by Jane Simons.

Jane Simons is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.
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