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Opposition to the GRPD using drones was overwhelming during last night’s Grand Rapids City Commission meeting, then the Mayor suspended the Public Hearing

April 26, 2023

Since February, GRIID has been writing about the GRPD’s proposal to purchase and utilize drones as technology for their practice of policing in Grand Rapids.

From the very beginning GRIID has critiqued both the news media’s coverage of said proposal and the GRPD’s narrative about what they would use drones for. In a February 22nd post, we critiqued the coverage from MLive, which was based on proposal that police Chief Eric Winstrom made to the Public Safety Committee in regards to obtaining drones.

On March 29th, GRIID once again critiqued the local news coverage of Chief Winstrom’s presentation to the Public Safety Committee, where the news agencies failed to ask important and probing questions about the GRPD’s proposal to use drones.  On the very next day, March 30th, GRIID presented its own analysis of what the GRPD presented to the Public Safety Committee. Earlier this week, we provided a critique of a survey that the City of Grand Rapids sent out, which we believe to be misleading and even deceptive in regards to the GRPD’s proposal to use drones.

Public Hearing on the GRPD’s proposal to use drones

Last nights public hearing on the issue of the GRPD using drones started off poorly, in terms of process. I say that because when the Public Hearing on the GRPD’s acquisition and use of drones the police chief was given the floor to do yet another powerpoint on why the GRPD needs drones. The presentation that Chief Winstrom gave was essentially the same presentation he gave at the Public Safety Committee meeting previously, which we reported on March 30th, which also included a link to the video presentation that Winstrom gave then.

It is also important to note that having Chief Winstrom speak first, essentially undermined the public comment period for this Public Hearing. It set a tone and potentially intimidated people who came to speak on this matter. Lastly, his presentation also serves as an “expert testimony” on this topic, whereas the people who spoke during the public comment period are merely providing their “opinion” framework, despite the fact that those who opposed drones for the GRPD had well thought out arguments with sourced facts.

Surveillance curates mistrust

There were numerous arguments against the GRPD’s proposal to purchase and utilize drones, such as an invasion of privacy. Other points that were made centered around issues like a lack of public trust that the cops would not abuse the use of drones, the litany of current lawsuits that the GRPD is already facing around civil rights violations, that drones would be used to monitor and target activists and organizers, plus the defund the police argument, which says that money for drones should be redirected to meet community needs and not expand the already bloated police budget.

There were also some people who felt that this public hearing was merely a formality and that it had already been decided that the GRPD would get whatever they wanted.

I counted 28 people who opposed the GRPD’s proposal to use drones and only one person in support. There were other people who were lined up to speak who would have expressed opposition to drones for cops, but the Mayor suspended the Public Hearing.

The one supporter of the GRPD’s proposal to use drones said during their comment, that former Grand Rapids police officer Christopher Schurr “did a great job taking a monster off our street.” Many of those in attendance took offense at Patrick Lyoya being referred to as a monster, especially since Schurr shot Lyoya in the back of the head while sitting on top of him.

However, the reason that the Mayor suspended to public hearing was more complicated than the reaction people have to the comment about Patrick Lyoya. The person who made the comment, when walking back to their seat lobbed a verbal threat against some of those seated in the front that had already spoken against drones. One of those members got up and approached Chief Winstrom and said, “this person just threatened people, what are you going to do about it?” Winstrom did nothing and in fact that the cops who were there last night began to surround those who opposed drones while the white woman who made threatening and despicable comments was left alone. This was the context for why the meeting was suspended by the Mayor…….white privilege.

My comments for the public hearing

I have been part of an organized effort to oppose the GRPD from purchasing and utilizing drones since the proposal was first announced earlier this year. We have created educational material and invited people to sign our statement of opposition, with some 660 letters already sent to this elected body.

I also saw the City’s survey about the GRPD’s proposal to use drones, a survey I found to be misleading and deceptive. While I understand that the City already has a policy in place on technology use by the GRPD, this policy is ultimately meaningless, since Grand Rapids City officials can always use Extenuating Circumstances as a justification to use drones to monitor activists, organizers or protests whenever they feel like it. 

The issue of Extenuating Circumstances was discussed in an April 11 article on MLive, where City Manager Mark Washington said that drones could be used to monitor protests that aren’t permitted and are potentially interfering with roadways. In case there is any confusion about that, most of the autonomous groups that I have been involved with in recent years NEVER obtain a permit to protest, because we do not need your permission or anyone else’s permission to protest or resist oppression. Many of these same groups also engage in disruptive tactics, like shutting down traffic. Disruption of business as usual is a longstanding tradition that has been practiced by social movements since the Abolitionist movement in the 19th Century, the labor movement, anti-war movements, the Civil Rights Movement, the Environmental Justice Movement, the Climate Justice Movement, the Immigrant Justice Movement, the Disability Justice Movement and the LGBTQ Movement. We believe we are in pretty damn good company when we use disruptive tactics.

In that same MLive article from April 11, it also stated that drones may be used by the GRPD “in the case of civil unrest and large gatherings where an aerial view is necessary to ensure safety and minimize the number of officers involved on the street,” Chief Winstrom wrote to commissioners in an April 11 memo.” Again, Extenuating Circumstances is the rational that can and will be used in these circumstances.

Another thing about the recent survey on drones that was deceptive was in Question #2 of the survey where it stated that drone use including reporting all deployments, making photos/video subject to records retention policies and available under FOIA records requests. This might sound like transparency, but the fact remains that even if someone submits a FOIA request it doesn’t mean that the GRPD will honor that request to turn over any and all documentation. For example, when we submitted a FOIA request to the GRPD in 2019, a request that focused on all of the GRPD monitoring & surveillance of Movimiento Cosecha’s 2019 May Day march, we received 271 pages the GRPD had on that action. However, between 80 and 85% of those 271 pages were redacted, they were blacked out, so we couldn’t read what the GRPD was doing or saying about the surveillance of the immigrant justice movement that is deeply committed to non-violence. We paid $551 for the 271 pages, with most of the content redacted. This is all to say that if the City of Grand Rapids allows the GRPD to use drones, then the public should know that if they submit a FOIA request on drone use by the GRPD, the GRPD gets to decide what information they chose to share, which is the complete opposite of the concept of transparency.

With that I simply want to urge this elected body to reject the GRPD’s request to purchase and utilize drones, which in the end will be used to monitor, surveil and target activists, organizers and autonomous groups that are committed to fighting against repression and fighting for collective liberation.

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