Michigan Democrats ‘in knots’ as calls to ‘defund the police’ grow louder

Thousands of people protesting police brutality and racism listen to speakers on the Capitol lawn in Lansing Wednesday during a march organized by the NAACP. (Bridge photo by Riley Beggin)

As thousands of protesters across Michigan and the nation march against racial injustice and police brutality, one policy proposal has emerged as a rallying cry: defund the police. 

The slogan generally means slashing law enforcement budgets and redirecting the money to social services, and activists are hoping it will translate into real change that reins in police abuse. They’ve found success in Minneapolis, where officials agreed to disband the police department and rebuild it using “a new model of public safety” after a white police officer killed George Floyd, a black man, by kneeling on his neck for more than eight minutes. 

But in Michigan, the proposal has gained little traction, even in Democratic strongholds. 

In Lansing, Mayor Andy Schor said he would support cutting $100,000 from the local police department — about 0.2 percent of the department’s funding — and was met with jeers and calls to resign from protesters. 

Dana Nessel, Michigan’s progressive attorney general, this month took to Twitter and Facebook to say she’s “saddened by the demonization of all police officers and calls to defund law enforcement.” In a typical response, one commenter wrote Nessel “sounds like a privileged, unconscious person.”

And when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently told The Root she supports “the spirit” of defunding the police, she quickly clarified the remarks to say, “I don’t believe police should be defunded,” but she supports investment in education, transportation and health care.

The Michigan Republican Party is capitalizing on the division, calling on Democrats to state whether they support a policy they say is “dangerous” and “a step too far.”

Political observers say Democrats face a tough choice. If they call for defunding police, they could upset moderates and independents. Staying silent or backing traditional reforms could alienate progressives and appear tone-deaf to complaints about police brutality. 

“It’s sort of a conundrum for Democrats,” said T.J. Bucholz, Democratic strategist who heads Lansing-based Vanguard Public Affairs. 

“I think they for years have been unfairly painted by conservatives for being soft on crime… there’s always a desire to fund [social services] but resources are limited, especially now.”

For protesters, the time for compromise is over. They say decades of reforms have failed to curb police violence and transformational change is necessary. 

DeWaun E. Robinson, leader of the Black Lives Matter chapter in Flint, said he was “disappointed” to hear Whitmer hedge her support for defunding. Protesters demand action and voters are watching, he said.

Democrats “have talked a good game and have given lip service for a long time,” Robinson said. 

“If you see a need, if you see an issue, it’s about being present when we need you. It’s about making those hard decisions that leaders make. It’s not always going to be a favorable position,” he said.

A new call to action

What does defunding the police mean? It depends.

While some advocate for the total abolition of police, most activists instead call for budget changes that would shift some resources from police forces to social services such as education and social workers.

Some proponents point to programs like RIGHT Care in Dallas, in which an officer, a paramedic and a social worker are dispatched together in response to mental health calls. It led to a decreased number of arrests and ambulance calls and freed officers to deal with other emergencies.

Others look to Salinas, California, which implemented a program that lobbies against increasing police presence in schools and pushes to divert funding to social services, or to Milwaukee’s Office of Violence Prevention that developed a program to interrupt violence and improve health and family resources. 

Osha Tolbert, a 22-year old student at Western Michigan University who attended an NAACP march in Lansing on Wednesday, said defunding the police “sounds like something that can work.”

Osha Tolbert

Osha Tolbert, 22, (center) attended the NAACP “We Are Done Dying” Peace March in Lansing on Wednesday with her aunt and sister. She said defunding the police “sounds like something that can work.” (Bridge photo by Riley Beggin)

It would involve “taking resources that are mostly given to the police” and putting it into “things like education and the health care system,” she said. “If we have the resources to immediately have tear gas and swat teams at a protest but we don’t have enough masks in our hospitals, that’s where we need to be putting our resources toward.”

San Juanita Perez, a 19-year-old from Alma who attended the protest, said she supports reallocating police resources to community services because “they have too much power.”

“With money there is power,” she said. “They’re able to buy more weapons, more ways to be against the black community and anyone, in reality.”

San Juanita Perez (second from left), a student at Michigan State University, attended the NAACP protest in Lansing with other members of her sorority, Sigma Lambda Gamma. She said she supports reallocating resources from the police into other social services such as education. (Bridge photo by Riley Beggin)

Police typically comprise 20 percent to 40 percent of city budgets, according to data compiled by The Center for Popular Democracy, Law for Black Lives and the Black Youth Project 100. In Detroit, the police budget, $331 million this year, is bigger than the Fire Department, Health Department and Public Works combined.

Joseph Hamm, a professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University who studies communities’ trust in law enforcement, said there’s a balance between the two psychological camps in discussions of police reform: those who fear harm from others, and those who fear harm from the police. 

But “there is a loud, loud argument right now from the people who are protesting against the police, which is that any level of risk from law enforcement is unacceptable,” he said. 

After the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, there was some patience for the argument that police are largely effective and misconduct stems from a few bad officers,  Hamm said. 

“That’s just not good enough now,” he said.

Over the last five years, black Americans have continued to be killed by police at more than twice the rate of white Americans. 

Since 2015 in Michigan, 78 people have been shot and killed by police, according to data collected by the Washington Post. More than 35 percent of those were non-white, despite making up around 20 percent of the population. With eight shootings per million people, Michigan has one of the lower rates of deadly police shootings in the United States, according to the Post’s database.

Calls to defund the police are less “a dollars and cents issue” and more an issue of “social control and regulation,” said Alford Young, a professor of sociology and African American studies at the University of Michigan. That’s why the majority of those calling to defund the police aren’t actually asking to disband all law enforcement, he said.

“I think for a lot of people, there's a feeling that the police department, functioning effectively, can contribute to the public good,” Young said. 

Activists want “a police force that adheres to policies that demonstrate some kind of sanction for abuse and increase the ability of police to respond in a healthy fashion,” he said.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans surveyed in an ABC News/Ipsos poll released Friday said they did not support the defund the police movement. That varied by race and by party: Black Americans were twice as likely as white Americans to support it, and a slight majority of Democrats supported it.

“Generally speaking, the public believes that there are bad people out there to do them harm and police are what stands between them and the bad guys,” said Bucholz, the Democratic consultant. 

‘A terrible slogan’

As protests continue, both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have moved quickly to introduce reforms.

Michigan legislators are fast-tracking a bill that would codify de-escalation and anti-bias training, and others to ban chokeholds and require excessive force intervention have been introduced in recent days. Other legislators have introduced resolutions to declare racism a public health crisis. Whitmer has added four non-police seats to a commission that dictates police licensing and training standards in Michigan.

During a hearing over police training legislation Thursday, Rep. Steve Johnson, R-Wayland, said calls to defund the police and add training requirements are “incompatible.”

“You have to either decide we are going to fund these training requirements or not,” he said.

The state Republican party has sent out five statements since last week highlighting the protesters’ “outrageous” calls to defund police departments, comparing it to some Democrats’ demands to abolish Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

“This issue is tying some Democrats up in knots as they try to acknowledge the frustration in the black community while not freaking out suburban whites who typically live with no fear of calling 911 in an emergency,” said John Sellek, who runs Lansing-based public relations firm Harbor Strategic and who formerly worked for Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican.

It’s more of an issue in Michigan’s bigger cities, whose mayors typically run for office seeking the support of police unions, Sellek said. Adding to the complications: Protestors typically don’t have a singular leader and can have different reform demands while voicing the same call to “defund the police.”

“It’s a terrible slogan. It’s not actually indicative of the policy choices that protesters want made,” said Adrian Hemond, a Democratic political consultant with Grassroots Midwest in Lansing.

Guardrails on the Michigan State Capitol Lawn are adorned with homemade signs protesting police brutality and racism. (Bridge photo by Riley Beggin)

“I think that over time you'll see some of the messaging around this start to change, even from the protesters, from ‘defund the police’ to a broader conversation about police oversight and accountability.”

John Truscott, a public relations consultant who worked as the press secretary to former Republican Gov. John Engler, said protestors are unlikely to “accept a middle ground” policy solution.

“It could be one of those issues that people make their deciding vote on,” Truscott said. “I don't see this going away anytime soon.”

Both Bucholz and Hemond argued that Republicans have their own concerns this election cycle, including a president who some say is inflaming racial tensions by threatening to send troops into cities to restore “law and order.”

Truscott and Sellek said Republicans and Democrats generally agree that there should be no tolerance for bad policing. 

“Most of these politicians know that there is an eventual way forward in which we have to not just acknowledge but implement reforms that protect African Americans and minorities, make them feel heard, make them feel safer, and continue to have law enforcement,” Sellek said.

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Mon, 06/15/2020 - 8:49am

Just need to get rid of the poilce unions<<< they protect bad cops and get good cops fired!!!

Mon, 06/15/2020 - 8:54pm

What the (D) supporters are doing .. is pushing homeowners to buy handguns for protection and join the N.R.A. Congrats, (D).

middle of the mit
Tue, 06/16/2020 - 7:37pm


Who you trying to fool? You aren't buying handguns to protect your house. And you have been doing this everytime a dem is elected.....somewhere..........anywhere.

Remember......Obama is FOREVER the Gun salesman of the USA. No one being elected will ever bring you to purchase more weapons.........of course...maybe I should bite my tongue. You never know with you folks.

Thu, 06/18/2020 - 8:54am

I can't even figure out what you are trying to say here - Can you clarify? Where do you stand? Did you have a point?

middle of the mit
Thu, 06/18/2020 - 4:48pm


Let me put in terms you can understand. Conservatives have been saying for decades the reason they need AR-15's and shotguns is because the police are too slow. That is the same reason that you want concealed carry for handguns.

It started WELL before this defund the police thing, which you don't have any problem when it comes to defunding things that harm your way of life, like regulations and the such. But we shouldn't get into another topic because it seems that conservatives have a hard time keeping their own talking points in their heads.

You reap what y...
Mon, 06/15/2020 - 9:00am

Defunding the police is an idea that is ridiculous in the extreme. Think about the reality (not the fantasy) of what would happen. Increased property and violent crime is an absolute without the police to confront the criminals. Imagine being the business owner that gets robbed regularly because there are no police to respond. Defunding the police will ultimately lead to higher crime and lower property values. People will move away from high crime areas to places they feel safe. Businesses will ultimately close or move because of the increased risk to the business and the employees. The tax base will become smaller as a result and there will be less financial resources and there begins the death spiral. No one in their right mind would invest in a community that does not have a robust police force to combat crime and keep the peace.

Mon, 06/15/2020 - 9:40am

You are showing you have never read a single study on this subject or even understand what "defund the police means". It doesnt just mean blanket take money away from the police. It means take money from the police and give it to other services and programs that are better equipped to deal with or prevent these problems. A group of kids in an after school program costs FAR less than extra cops on the street patrolling vagrant kids committing petty crimes out of boredom. A group of homeless people given cheap $3-$5k tiny homes means less cops having to break up fights, investigate murders or spend other time on homeless or mental health issues. Speaking of mental health, transfering funding from the police to mental health institutes that Reagan devastated in the 80s would go a long way to reducing crime rates AND violent police shooting.

Very few people are calling for us to have a barren police force that is incapable. We are calling to stop freaking spending $300,000 to give them god damn tanks. We are calling on reversing the gluttonous funding of the police since the 80s and start investing in programs that support the work the police do and can be better equipped to deal with certain situations. You say no one in their right mind would invest in a community that does not have a robust police force. I say no one in their right mind would want to invest in a community that doesnt invest in its community PAST a bloated police force with far too few regulations or accountability.

As I said, all your rant did was prove you are not informed on this issue at all.

Thu, 06/18/2020 - 1:22am

“Defund “ means take money away from, there is no other way to interpret that. The after school program should be funded by the parents, not taking away police protection from taxpayers. Why should taxpayers fund anything for a bums? Giving bums “tiny houses” would only create more issues. Who would maintain the houses (not the bums obviously because they are homeless already), where do you put the bum housing? Not in my neighborhood! Would you like a bunch of bums in trailers parked in your back yard.? You neighbors might object.
Loom around at the good towns and you can see that a robust, well funded police force creates a stable community. A stable and safe community is a place where people want to do business and raise a family. Communities that lack sufficient police presence are rife with crime and violence. Those are places that businesses and good people avoid. Without a well funded police force you get crime and violence.

The Police
Thu, 12/10/2020 - 8:31am

This is what happens when academia (people that can't tie their shoes without a slide rule), establish police.
Zero common sense. Trust me, you'll regret defunding the police.

Agnosticrat 2.0
Mon, 06/15/2020 - 1:24pm

I thought we had an armed citizenry... I hardly think the horror fantasies you spin would come true. Hyperventilating conservatives are a common sight there days.
Black Lives Matter

Mon, 06/15/2020 - 6:17pm

Correction: All lives matter. They do.

Agnosticrat 2.0
Tue, 06/16/2020 - 4:47pm

I was correct to begin with.
To correct someone you need to understand the subject.
Do not bother apologizing...I forgive you.

Thu, 06/18/2020 - 1:09am

So only black lives matter? Or do all lives matter to you? This narrative that only black lives matter Is counter productive. If only black lives matter to you why should anyone care about your opinion?

Mon, 06/15/2020 - 9:01am

'Defund' is a poor description. But I think at this point most rational people realize it's time we re-thought our police 'establishment' and set about making it better.

Perhaps we need to 'remake' the departments where 'Protect & Serve' is truly the goal and we drop the 'occupying army' model we seem to have become now.

Double Speak
Mon, 06/15/2020 - 9:51am

Love it when people try to say that "defund" doesn't really mean "defund".

Agnosticrat 2.0
Mon, 06/15/2020 - 1:44pm

State Police, County Sheriff, City police, DNR, Tribal Police, FBI, DEA, US Marshals, ICE
According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics' 2008 Census of State and Local Law Enforcement Agencies, the state of Michigan alone had 571 law enforcement agencies employing 19,009 sworn police officers..

Defund works for me.

Mon, 06/15/2020 - 9:06am

Interesting that Mommie Dearest did not insult or demean these protesters as she did those who were protesting her illegal lockdown.

Mon, 06/15/2020 - 9:41am

Interesting that these protestors didnt come armed and carrying dolls of the Governor being hanged or with threats against politicians lives.

Tue, 06/16/2020 - 8:34am

So if protesters are polite and non threatening or non violent she (governor) will scold them and put them in their place?

How did that work out?

Tue, 06/16/2020 - 8:06pm

Funny, I don't recall the anti lockdown (armed or not) people burning and looting...???

Mon, 06/15/2020 - 9:12am

It is a terrible slogan. As a message, it is unclear and confusing. The opposite of effective communication.

I have read on what "defunding the police" means to some groups and it's the opposite of what defunding actually means.

Words have meaning, definitions. It's all the rage to take over language and make it something it is not, but that is not how reality works.

Definition of defund: 
to withdraw funding from.
to withdraw financial support from, especially as an instrument of legislative control
to deplete the financial resources of:  

I read a meme with 15 bullet points, explaining what defunding means. If you need 15 bullets to explain one phrase maybe the message is confusing?  Maybe better messaging?

Restructure Police? Re-Think Police? 

An overhaul of law enforcement is long overdue but if the messaging continues to be divisive and confusing, the goal will be harder to meet. There was a single sign at one protest and it was quickly adopted - no one bothered to inquire if it made sense or was a good message. And to those who will double-down, and again explain to me what I am supposed to think about the phrase, save it. The message sucks. Accept it.

Words matter.

Mon, 06/15/2020 - 1:52pm


Mon, 06/15/2020 - 10:27pm

Grady. I created an account for the sole purpose of telling you that is easily the most intelligent thing I have read on the internet in a very long time. Thank you! People truly dont realize that if you need to write a novel just to explain a single word or phrase
you have already failed at communicating your message. By insisting on attaching new meaning to a word that is fundamentally different from the actual definition instead of simply being more concise people are coming across as arrogant and obtuse. (Not generally helpful when seeking allies) As you said, "Restructuring" people can get behind. "Defund" just causes gridlock because the words you choose do matter. If what you want after all is restructuring..then say so and we can all start that conversation effectively. Or you can just argue all day about what your personal definition of "defund" means and get absolutely nowhere.

middle of the mit
Tue, 06/16/2020 - 7:49pm

Do you hear this everyone?

Remember that conservatives have defunded cities, States, Federal Government, the IRS, environmental and occupational and all kinds of regulatory committees.

They all of a sudden don't like the idea of defunding, the only union they excluded from right to work legislation.

Remember in November!

A Yooper
Mon, 06/15/2020 - 9:16am

Continue funding, but major overhauls of policies and procedures are a must.

Mon, 06/15/2020 - 9:33am

"Popular proposal"?

Since when?

Mon, 06/15/2020 - 9:39am

Over about 60 years, the police have become more militant. In the past 30 years, military hardware has been made available to them. We have to ask, does Maybury RFD require armored swat vehicles for a town population of 250? Is it OK to have 5 or 6 of these under control of the State police spread across regions of Michigan? Does every town need a swat team or is it better to have one for every 2 or 3 counties? So there is some opportunity for budget rearrangement there, increasing the budgets in high crime areas and reducing them where crime is not prevalent, but accommodating the need for proper response when the situation calls for it. Which brings up the next point, the reason for all the protests and calls for defunding. In the Minneapolis case, having a person handcuffed with 4 officers present then kneeling on his neck for 8+ minutes was totally uncalled for and the charges against the officer who had his knee on the neck are appropriate. Atlanta is a totally different case where the suspect managed to grab an officers weapon (yes, a taser is a weapon that could debilitate or even kill some people), point the weapon at the officer, and when the officer appropriately responded, gets charged with felony murder. These two cases really illustrate that the blanket call to defund or eliminate the police is totally out of bounds. The democrats have a real problem on their hands, and they had better decide which camp they are in; rational funding or complete defunding.

What Happens.......
Mon, 06/15/2020 - 9:55am

Since the mob thinks that all police are bad and wants to do away with them, the police should go on strike for a month or two and let everyone see what happens when there is nobody around to protect people and enforce even basic laws. The large democratic strongholds where the calls for defunding are most strident would be war zones within a week.

George Hagenauer
Mon, 06/15/2020 - 10:22am

"Defund the Police" is a good example of how even long organized progressive groups screw up on messaging. When I was dealing with Republican welfare reform in Wisconsin in the 1990s, their messaging was well researched and thought out. Their policies were not. It took two days to analyze the proposed policies using real data to see that it wouldn't work in the areas of highest need. But the think tank while putting little effort into real solutions (though structurally the formulas were designed to create permanent underclass in urban areas to keep many wages low while transitioning white rural people to self sufficiency.) spent a lot of money on developing messaging. When volunteering with Wisconsin rural progressives we spent a lot of time rethinking messaging as what came out of the Democratic party and urban progressives didn't work well in rural communities. That involves a lot of cross cultural communication and focus on concrete issues and how to improve things. (And cross cultural is a lot more diverse than sex and gender - it includes rural and urban and a wide range of ethnic cultures) When the progressives start doing that things will really start changing. It is a grassroots effort and needs to involve people who are not college educated.

Mon, 06/15/2020 - 1:07pm

Kinda funny to hear powerful Democrats try to tell protesters what their own demands mean. State Dems are completely on board with the defund movement, as long as it doesn't REALLY mean cutting budgets or actually relinquishing power. Holding police accountable for their actions is a reasonable expectation that can, hopefully, drive change. It's great that videos of the abuses often exist. As stated in the article, though, better training of officers will not happen if budgets are slashed. You kinda have to choose. Ultimately, it is still a farce to think that the lives the protesters will dramatically improve if police are defunded. The problems are much deeper and uncomfortable to discuss. Michigan's homocide victims are over 70 % African American, and it's not police that are killing them. If only it were that simple.

Marni H.
Mon, 06/15/2020 - 1:08pm

Why is it always 'all or nothing' with the GOP? Both parties can't seem to walk and chew bubblegum at the same time. Outside of weapons that they do not need against citizens, how much money is needed to operate a police station? Once they stop unnecessarily arming themselves to the teeth with the latest in tactical gear, there's a whole bunch left over for training officers how to behave like compassionate human beings. We absolutely need to defund the police.

Tue, 06/16/2020 - 8:14pm

Please tell, do you live in a high crime area or in some lily white suburb where the police write a few traffic tickets … maybe?

Stupid is as st...
Mon, 06/15/2020 - 2:20pm

So we will send a social worker out to respond to a domestic situation and expect them to resolve it. Good idea, I wonder how long a 22 year old will put up with having the crap beat out of them along with the victim.

Mon, 06/15/2020 - 5:08pm

There ideas were tried in Detroit beginning in 1970. By 1992, while I won't list the details, home invasions were a daily occurence with no one even trying to hide who they were.

Kevin Grand
Mon, 06/15/2020 - 5:59pm

Please, please, please...let the politicians fold like a wet newspaper and follow through with the moronic premise of "Defunding the Police".

Implementing it on a larger scale here in Michigan will make CHAZ/Antifastan look like a picnic.




Just in case anyone has any confusion about what exactly "Defunding the Police" REALLY means, here are the demands released by the group behind this nonsense.


Mon, 06/15/2020 - 6:16pm

LOL!!! Keep up the great work liberals!! Trumps re-election is getting easier and easier.

Tue, 06/16/2020 - 1:05am

Any time some one or some group distills a long and broadly happening problem to a simple phrase as the answer, you can be sure that they really aren't about solving the problem and are only after personal political power.
Any problem that affects every corner of our society is complex and the answer can't be answered in less than a sentence.
The reality is that for all the people living today the police have become the de facto triage of community ills and it simply hasn't been publicly acknowledge or the needs addressed. Is a domestic violence call a social problem needing a trained social worker or is it a crime of violence needing a strong and forceful response. My best guess for the wife or husband or son or daughter being attacked the first thing needed is to have the violence stop, something the police receive special training for, so either we keep relying on the police or we train the future social workers how to forcefully stop violence, for anyone that believes that a person already committing violence on another will instantly stop because of a few well chosen compassionate phrases is self delusional.
If we are to solve the problem with policing in our communities we need people who care sitting down together to talk the problem, defining it specifically, identifying the factors that take it to the extreme, building ideas that will engage all in the community, and establishing the measure to verify the effectiveness of what is being done.
The groups that make up the conversations, must include those who have been on the receiving side of the problem actions, those who have been the criminals that have provoked the situations, residents that have the fear they could be targeted, officials that are accountable, and accountable for the system [present and future]. All participants will need to be committed, they will need to voice their thinking without reservation, they will need to be patient and persistent, they will need to be self confident to with stand all the pressure.
There is no 'silver bullet,' the is no pronouncement from Washington or Lansing that will answer this problem, it will need to be solved by people in each community.

Tue, 06/16/2020 - 3:32pm

Very well said!

Tue, 06/16/2020 - 5:28am

First off don't call it DEFUND. Changes needed yes. People get easily confused. Unions are there to protect but often they go too far. Peace R.L.

Anne Lilla
Tue, 06/23/2020 - 1:21pm

Decent, honorable police officers are needed in every community but especially in poor communities. Bad things happen in this world. Police are needed to prevent, solve and process crime; police are needed to keep order. Crime and disorder is caused by people who are doing something wrong or who do not respect other people's rights for the quiet enjoyment of their homes and neighborhood.
I have worked most of my life with people who are poor. They want and need a peaceful place to live. I will never forget what people have said to me over the years: one woman said that every day when she walked to school, she was afraid that she was going to be snatched up; another woman was profoundly discouraged when her small house was broken into and the few valuable things she had stolen; a man in his seventies who spent his time visiting his wife in a nursing home telling about being knocked on the head in his driveway and his money stolen; block club members giving a monthly report about the unrelenting crime in their neighborhood; a mother and daughter living in their house but never feeling secure because a neighbor played loud music, had rough people around and was disrespectful to them; and a woman who finally moved to the suburbs after her house had been broken into seven times. We have lost perspective: most people fear the bad guys, not the police. Criminals commit crimes against victims: break-ins, stealing cars, selling drugs, shootings, knifings, rape, arson, etc. Criminals are not to be trusted. Most police officers are decent human beings doing a hard job.

The Police
Thu, 12/10/2020 - 8:28am

The stupidity can be seen from space.
Good luck with your defunding. We'll all be laughing when you call 911.