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GRPD takes over Public Safety Committee meeting and convinces the members to support drone proposal

March 30, 2023

(You can watch the GRPD’s presentation on why they should have drones at this link.)

Yesterday, GRIID posted a piece that deconstructed the local news coverage of the GRPD’s proposal on drones presentation that took place during the Grand Rapids Public Safety Committee meeting.

The coverage on MLive and the 3 Grand Rapids-based TV stations was superficial, using the GRPD as the primary source, along with literally copying parts of the GRPD’s presentation they made to the Public Safety Committee. There was no serious inquiry from the commercial news media about what the use of drones by the GRPD would mean and how it could impact the public.

Since I was critical of the local news media’s coverage on the critical issue of the GRPD proposing to purchase and utilize drone technology, I wanted to offer up my own analysis of what took place during the Public Safety Committee meeting and what impact it could have in the larger fight to defund the police and reduced their budget in order to fund more care work in the community.

During the presentation, Chief Winstrom was joined by three additional cops to make a push for the GRPD to obtain and use drones. In his brief comments at the beginning, Winstrom used the faux argument that the “GRPD is short handed.” Winstrom then used the MSU shooting as an additional argument for why drones would “enhance” their work, even though he never made it clear as to how having drones in the case of an active shooter situation it would enhance what the cops do.

The GRPD then began putting up slides for everyone to see, slides which were meant to make their case for why drones are necessary for their work. In this first slide, shown here above, they give reasons why drones are needed, arguing that the drones will “offer an opportunity for a safer community.” However, all four reasons listed, in my opinion, are not about a safer community, rather they are really about efficiency. 

There was also information about costs and economic benefits. In one slide it stated, that the “Direct GRPD call-in savings would be $11,880 annually. However, in another slide, seen here below it states that the cost of the number that the number of drones the GRPD wants to purchase would be $100,000, plus annual reoccurring expenses, which were quantified for maintenance, certification and training ($20,000), but not for data storage or FOIA requests. This means that the savings amount ($11,880) in one slide is meaningless, on top of the fact that they don’t know how much it will cost to do data storage or for POIA request. 

Equally important is the fact that beside the money they will spend on training people, there is no budget cost listed for paying the salaries of cops who will be using the drones from the time of deployment until they stores the data. For me, the fact that they left out cost for cops using the drones is deceptive, since it could mean tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for police salary. Having GRPD cops working the drones also adds to Chief Winstrom’s argument that they need a larger police force. 

The other slide that is worth looking at (here below) , shows a list of reasons for deploying the drones. The one listed that is worth reflecting on is City Manager Extenuating Circumstances. This means that the City Manager of Grand Rapids has the power to determine if there are other reasons to use drones, for surveillance and information gathering. Chief Winstrom said that Extenuating Circumstances, as an example, might be the 2020 uprising that took place in downtown Grand Rapids. In fact, Winstrom had stated at the previous Public Safety Committee meeting, that when there are protests that are not permitted or where traffic is being blocked or government and business operations are disrupted, those would qualify for Extenuating Circumstances. Extenuating Circumstances are included in the policy that the Grand Rapids NAACP had a hand in writing, which you can find here. Ultimately, when the City Manager decides there are Extenuating Circumstances, the City’s policy on surveillance, which the NAACP helped craft, goes out the window.

However, the reality is that, most of the presentation by the GRPD during the Public Safety Committee meeting focused on using drones to find people who are lost or to find suspects who flee. 

Public Safety Committee responses & questions

After the GRPD presentation, there were a few questions from committee members, both government officials and volunteer committee members.

Commissioner Moody was the first person to speak and he began by saying that he was in favor, saying that drones were needed. Commissioner Moody went on to say that for the GRPD to not have drones says a lot about what is “wrong.”

Mayor Bliss, who was filling in for Commissioner O’Connor asked if car theft issues and motorcycles speeding in city, would drones be good for these issues?

Commissioner Ysasi asks if drones would be used for monitoring speeding? She then asks if operating a drone would only be cop position, not civilian. Winstrom responded by saying that a drone cop would be in a squad car.

One of the volunteer members of the Public Safety Committee asks how drones would promote and protect the public. Winstrom says that drones would reduce the time when looking for a live shooter or someone who commits a felony. 

Another volunteer member of the Public Safety Committee, Christine Cameron, believes that the GRPD should drones.. “If we don’t have drones, it would tie the hands of the GRPD.” Cameron then wants to make a motion to have a public hearing.

Finally, one Public Safety Committee member asks if drones would be used for criminal intelligence gathering? Winstrom said no.Chief Winstrom then talks about how the OPA will review all the drone footage and make sure it is in line with City policy.

Commissioner Moody then makes a motion to set a public hearing for GRPD drone purchasing and use. There is a unanimous vote to hold a hearing. City Manager Mark Washington said he will bring the question back to the next City Commission meeting on the April 11, with a public hearing potentially being April 25th. 

In the end, the members of the Public Committee didn’t really challenge the GRPD on the information, claims and arguments they made for the need to purchase and utilize drones. The unanimous vote wasn’t just a to support holding a public hearing, since many of the committee members had also verbalized their support that the GRPD spend more money on technology that could still be used against the public, and facilitate the likely expansion of the police force. 

If you don’t support the GRPD purchasing and utilizing drones, then check out the campaign being organized by Defund the GRPD.

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