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MLive article about the GRPD’s proposal to use drones presents the issue as a done deal

February 22, 2023

On Tuesday, Police Chief Eric Winstrom presented to both the Committee of the Whole and the Public Safety Committee, his department’s intention to purchase and use drones.

MLive wrote about the GRPD’s proposal to use drones in an article headlined, Rules for police drones to be considered by Grand Rapids. 

For me, the headline suggests that the issue of the GRPD using drones is not in question, only what they will be used for. If one reads the MLive article it becomes clear that the GRPD’s desire to use drones is presented as if whatever the City Commission needs to decide, is simply a formality. 

First, Police Chief Winstrom is the only person cited in the MLive article, thus readers do not get to hear other perspectives on the matter.

Second, the arguments that Chief Winstrom is making in the article allows him to control the narrative. Maybe this is what Winstrom was saying during his presentation to the Public Safety Committee, when he said that the local news has said to him that he has been available to do more interviews than the previous police chiefs. (Go to this video of Tuesday’s Public Safety Committee meeting) Winstrom even had the audacity to use traffic congestion during ArtPrize as a justification for the department to use drones. 

Third, the MLive article states, “The Grand Rapids City Commission would still have to approve the department using drones. Before that consideration, a public hearing on using the new technology would be required.” If the City Commission needs to approve  the GRPD’s use of drones, why did MLive not ask Commissioners what their initial thoughts were on this matter? 

The MLive article also states, “In addition to that public hearing, Winstrom said he also foresees a community meeting in each of the city’s three wards that at the very least would communicate, explain and answer questions around how the department would use the drones.” Again, MLive allows Chief Winstrom to control the narrative, since there are no community meetings scheduled at this point – which makes the Chief look as if he is community minded – plus he would share how the drones would be used, which is fundamentally different from the question of whether the GRPD should be even allowed to use drone. Once again, Chief Winstrom got to dictate the narrative.

Fourth, there is the issue of cost. Chief Winstrom does mention the issue of budgeting at the end of the MLive article, but no dollar amounts are provided as to the cost of drones that the police department would use, nor how many they want to purchase. In addition, there would be the cost to operate these drones, which means that GRPD personnel would be paid to operate the drones, go through all of the data that would be gathered, and present said information to the department. Therefore, the use of drones by the GRPD might be another justification to increase the GRPD budget. This is what Naomi Murakawa names as one of the Three Traps of Police Reform, where police reform translates into increased budgets. (Cited in the book, Abolition for the People) Whenever there is push back against police departments, cops always use the opportunity to say that they need more money for training, technology or additional officers, which is how Chief Winstrom is framing the issue of drones, when he says it would make the GRPD more “efficient.” 

A fifth, and final reason why the MLive article is so problematic, has to do with what was not said in the article. The MLive reported didn’t talk to other people in the community, particularly organizers that have been challenging the practice of policing in Grand Rapids in recent years. 

In addition, there are no references to what national groups have ben saying about drone technology, surveillance and civil rights. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has an important post from 2022 on this topic, as does the ACLU from 2020, just weeks after the country erupted with protests following the police murder of George Floyd. 

Lastly, it is worth noting that the MLive article did mention that the GRPD had considered acquiring the technology known as ShotSpotter, but the reporter failed to acknowledge that it was defeated because of the organized opposition in 2020. With Police Chief Winstrom acting as though the departments purchasing of drones sounds in just a formality, it seems like the perfect opportunity to oppose the GRPD’s use of drones, which would add to their already bloated budget and eliminate another way the GRPD could monitor the public.

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