The history behind GR’s charter threshold for police funding

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The portion of the city charter in Grand Rapids requiring a minimum of 32% of the general fund go to police services each year has a history dating back a quarter of a century.

The requirement has been a source of debate surrounding funding and ongoing calls for reform within the department. Some want commissioners to approve a change in next year’s approved budget reducing GRPD to that threshold, which would mean more than $9 million in cuts.

Others think city officials need time to enact change, which has been committed to in response to protests against police brutality earlier this month, without touching the budget.

“I get the emotion behind it, but when you’re forming policy, you need to be slightly more objective and look at all of the aspects and I think the city commission’s doing that now,” Ed Kettle told News 8. “There’s more progress in the city police department than people know.”

Kettle, who once represented the police union and currently sits on the public safety committee for the city, worked on the campaign to generate more police funding in 1995. The successful ballot initiative translated to the change in the city charter.

David Doyle, an independent political consultant who has worked on several campaigns in the area, also worked the campaign.

“Even though things were pretty good, the thought was that people weren’t feeling all that safe in their neighborhoods,” Doyle told News 8. “At the time, the city was already dedicating 28% of the general fund to the police department. But the idea was if we were going to have an increase, the commission wanted to make sure that money would be dedicated to neighborhood services.”

News 8 chronicled the Safety First Campaign prior to the March 1995 election.

“Grand Rapids voters are being asked to raise their city income tax by three-tenths of a percent and decrease their property tax by two mils,” Henry Erb explained in one of the reports focused on the push. “To make sure the money goes to the 95 new cops, there’s a charter change on the ballot guaranteeing that at least 32% of the city budget be spent on police every year.”

The request for 95 additional officers came directly from then-GRPD Chief William Haggerty.

“I am telling you, I need help and more important than us, the people in these neighborhoods need help,” Haggerty said during a January 1995 press conference focused on the ballot item.

A 1995 Grand Rapids Press story about the vote to change how the city funds police. 

“People do forget that in the ’90s we were involved in some pretty significant gang problems, gang flare-ups, there were a lot of murders and a lot of shootings going on as the ’90s went along and that was a cause for concern and that’s when people realized, ‘Yes I guess we do need more of the cops.'” Kettle recounted.

Voters approved the initiative that year, setting the scene for a charter clause that’s now generating questions and debate.

Both men feel current commitments from the department are promising.

“The reality to me is there has to be a balance between what do we really need on the streets and what are we willing to spend to do that?” Doyle said. “How do we make sure that there’s enough money to fund the need to keep people safe? And those are the things I think need to be defined. The idea of just defund the police doesn’t get it for me.”

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