Skip to content

How did a third of the City’s Budget get designated to the GRPD: The Safety 95 Campaign and White fear in Grand Rapids

June 17, 2020

The Clinton crime bill of 1994 introduced mandatory life imprisonment for persons convicted of a third felony in certain categories. It maintained the 100-to-1 disproportion in sentencing for crimes involving powder and crack cocaine, even though the US Sentencing Commission had concluded that the disparity was racist. It expanded to fifty the number of crimes that could draw the death penalty in a federal court, reaching even to crimes that did not include murders–the largest expansion of the death penalty in history. Pell grants giving prisoners an avenue to higher education were cut off. Federal judges were stripped of their powers to enforce the constitutional rights of prisoners and the power of states to set sentencing standards for drug crimes was greatly diminished.

The above comment is a summary of the 1994 Crime Bill, more formally known as the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. This legislation, which was written by Senator Joe Biden,  led to the massive incarceration of black and brown people, so much so that the US became the country with the highest percentage of civilians incarcerated in the world. 

The Crime Bill passed under a Democratic Party leadership, using white supremacist fear-mongering as a tactic to get public support for the legislation. Not surprisingly, Grand Rapids took a page from the Crime Bill’s playbook, to not only get 95 more police officers added to the GRPD, they got voters to support a change to the City’s Charter to guarantee that 32% of the annual budget would be allocated to the Grand Rapids Police Department.

With the help of the wonderful people at the Grand Rapids Public Library, I was able to access much of the news coverage and material that was produced by the Safety 95 Campaign Committee, all of which you can view on the Grand Rapids People’s History Project site

The Safety 95 Campaign Committee, was made up of 32 people, even though we have been unable to find out who most of them were. We do know that former Grand Rapids Mayor, Gerald Helmholdt and Ella Ramirez, who lost two sons to murder, were the Safety 95 Campaign Committee’s co-chairs, based on a story in the GR Press (page 7 of the 44 pages we have on the Safety 95 Campaign Committee) The campaign also hired David Doyle, who has run numerous ballot initiatives over the years in Grand Rapids and was the former director of Silent Observer in Grand Rapids.

Looking at the GR Press coverage, one can see that then Police Chief William Hegarty was a major source cited throughout the campaign. Rarely do we hear the voices of residents in Grand Rapids and even less from black and brown residents, even though the Chief Hegarty often cited urban crime as a major problem. There is included in the documentation (on page 14), a copy of a flyer that was in the Afro American Gazette, published in late February of 1995. This flyer, with the headline No Means No, dismantles the argument that the city needs more cops.

On page 8 of the collected documents, there is a GR Press article with the headline that reads, Crime drops as city asks for more police. The article also includes data showing that crime, particularly violent crimes had declined.

There was also an instructive article on page 16/17, which provided some information on who had made financial contributions to the Safety 95 Campaign. The article reveals that the Michigan Consolidated Gas Co. contributed $5,000 to the campaign, and Butterworth Hospital donated another $1,500. Other notable contributors to the campaign to get more cops and change the City’s charter to guarantee that one-third of the City’s budget automatically goes to the GRPD, were Mayor John Logie, City Manager Kurt Kimball and City Commissioners Linda Samuelson, Roy Schmidt and George Heartwell. Members of the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) also contributed, along with David Frey, one of the co-chairs of Grand Action.

On pages 18/19, there is a GR Press article about six former city officials who opposed the need to add more cops to the GRPD. In addition, these six former city officials took out a paid ad (page 35) in the GR Press expressing their opposition to more police and to the change in the city charter, seen here below.

On page 20, the GR Press writes that the Grand Rapids police union was endorsing the tax increase, which would be used for an additional 95 cops.

Then on pages 37 – 41, there are examples of what the Safety 95 Campaign Committee were distributing, along with what the City of Grand Rapids was sending out to voters before the March 28, 1995 vote. So, not only did the Mayor of Grand Rapids and half of the City Commissioners contribute to the Safety 95 Campaign, the City used public money to encourage residents to vote for more police and to change the City Charter to solidify a third of the budget for the GRPD. Part of the language in the pamphlet that the City sent out before the vote included this:

The Grand Rapids Police Department plans to assign officers to all of our neighborhoods all of the time. Police officers will be able to more promptly respond to calls; prevent and control neighborhood problems such as property thefts, disorderly youth, gang activity, drug violations, and traffic complaints; and work directly with neighborhood associations, block clubs, and neighborhood schools.

According to a GR Press story from March 29 (page 43-44), 18.9% of the City’s voting population turned out, with the income tax increase passing by more than 2,000 votes, but the charter change barely passing by a margin of 804 votes. One of the reasons that these two ballot initiatives passed, especially the income tax increase initiative, was because property taxes would be reduced by 2 mills over two years. We know that home owners vote at a higher percentage than those who rent, which is what the Safety 95 Campaign Committee was banking on.

Therefore, it seems that Safety 95 Campaign Committee was using the same fear tactics that got the Crime Bill pass just a few short months before Grand Rapids was asked to vote. Add to that the financial incentives offered to home owners, along with City officials endorsing the campaign and using public money to turn out the vote, and you have a solid formula. White fear, white privilege and white liberals were used to solidify more cops and more funding for the GRPD, so they could primarily patrol black and brown neighborhoods, thus protecting white lives. This is how it is done in Grand Rapids.

%d bloggers like this: