Lansing mayor answers call for police divestment — with 20 more cops

Federal grant funding triggers hiring spree at Lansing Police Department

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(This story has been corrected to show that Lansing reported 21 homicides in 2020.)

With legislative enthusiasm for police divestment continuing to wane in Lansing, Mayor Andy Schor announced plans last week to invest more than $2 million into staffing the Police Department over the next four years and to hire five more entry-level officers in the Capital City.

The move won’t immediately increase the size of the local police force, only expand the number of existing vacancies from 15 to 20 — boosting overall staffing capacity from 206 to 211 officers. Schor hopes to have all of those slots filled by February, which he specifically billed as a way to help combat record-setting levels of homicides and gun violence from over the last 18 months.

“Nationally, we’re trending away from defunding back to the funding of law enforcement. The mayor and City Council’s approval is really exciting and hopefully gets us back on track,” said Interim Police Chief Ellery Sosebee, who took over for retiring Chief Daryl Green last week.

Only $625,000 of the $2.1 million needed for the five new hires will be covered by a federal grant, according to a resolution that the City Council approved, 5-2. Councilwoman and mayoral candidate Kathie Dunbar and Councilwoman Brian T. Jackson were the only two members of the Council to vote against the federal grant funding. Councilman Brandon Betz, once a vocal proponent of police divestment, was absent from the meeting. 

An estimated $1.43 million needed to keep the five new officers on payroll for at least four years will be covered by the city.

With at least 16 homicides tracked in the city so far this year, Lansing is on pace to surpass a 30-year high of 21 homicides recorded in 2020 — most of which reportedly involved illegal guns. Five more cops will serve as “an important step to strengthen enforcement and increase resources” that allows officers to better respond to 911 calls in the city and to “de-escalate” situations that can lead to violence, Schor said in a release after the Council approved the grant.

The new officers, who will be hired by early next year, will address gun violence by increasing nighttime and neighborhood patrols and by “disbanding illegal gatherings” that lead to violence.

Sosebee said the newly expanded staffing levels will also allow for more “positive community engagements” — like ice cream socials and pickup games of basketball with neighborhood kids.

“We are facing a tragic increase in gun violence, not only here in Lansing, but across the country,” Schor added. “One life lost is one too many. We have to focus on both prevention and enforcement. My administration has taken many steps toward prevention, but we need additional officers to increase enforcement and the ability to answer resident calls for service.”

In recent years, limited staffing levels have forced Lansing cops to take longer to respond to a rising number of emergency calls — forcing cops into “reactionary” mode, Schor has said. Overtime budgets are routinely exhausted in the first six months of the year. Community police officers have also been pulled away from neighborhoods for other, higher-priority 911 calls. 

The FBI tracks an average of about 3.4 sworn officers per 1,000 residents nationwide. In the Midwest, that figure is about 2.2. Lansing’s average rests at about 1.7 cops per 1,000 residents — limiting the on-duty force to sometimes only eight officers on any given shift, officials said. 

“Due to staffing levels, our public safety efforts are too one-dimensional, focusing solely on call response,” explained City Council President Peter Spadafore, who supported adding the five positions. “Adding these new officers is part of a tiered approach to public safety that includes social workers, expanded resources available when calling 911 and investments in violence prevention programs like Advance Peace that will hopefully help shift our focus from law enforcement to a more preventative and holistic strategy.”

The federal grant was approved last June. Schor’s administration, following federal advice, waited for more than a year to bring it to the City Council for approval last week — namely to give time for the loudest calls for police divestment to simmer down, according to city officials.

Leaders of the Lansing chapter of Black Lives Matter, however, are less than thrilled with the decision following more than a year of advocating for significant reductions to the police budget. Schor’s latest city budget also ratcheted up annual police spending from $46.5 to $49.9 million.

Michael Lynn Jr., a coleader of Black Lives Matter, said the new hires will represent more political performance than silver bullet.

“The move is only designed to make people feel safe as opposed to actually being safe,” he said. “Those officers would need to be trained and learn the environment, which will take years. This isn’t a fix at all for the issues we have here in Lansing, and the mayor knows this.”

Lynn also questioned whether hiring more cops will actually work to reduce violent crime.

Recent research from Morgan Williams, an economist at NYU’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, shows that adding a new police officer to a city prevents between 0.06 and 0.1 homicides annually. That means that the average city would need to hire 10 to 17 new cops to save one life each year, which would cost taxpayers annually $1.3 million to $2.2 million.

Sosebee and Schor didn’t produce any evidence to show that hiring more cops in Lansing could actually help reduce crime rates. Sosebee also dodged the question in an interview this week. 

“We’re just over the moon excited about the fact that we have these new positions,” he added.

Schor also sent out a statement: “Additionally, I am working to provide or enhance programs that offer our youth better options than turning to crime and violence. Both prevention and enforcement are needed to stem the tide of gun violence that we’ve seen across the nation.”

Lynn later added: “The people of this city should be extremely cautious of anything coming out of City Hall until after the election, as all of it will be performative and intended to promote the mayor and those incumbents getting reelected — not the good and welfare of this city.” 

Council Vice President Adam Hussain, who supported adding the five positions, pointed to other studies that show more police officers not only result in saved lives, but can also significantly reduce robberies, rapes and assaults. Additionally, the visibility of more cops on the street will serve as a natural deterrent, he said.  

“Adding the additional five officers must be done in combination with a host of other efforts if we are to truly reduce violent crime and help our most vulnerable to ascend,” Hussain added. “We know that call load, issues with staffing and the woefully low number of officers we have at times in all sectors throughout the city have often resulted in our department being a one-dimensional, reactionary department — one that is at times reduced to responding to violent crime as opposed to preventing violent crime,” he said. “We can and must do better.”

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