Activists ask Houghton council to defund police


HOUGHTON — Local activists asked the Houghton City Council to consider shifting police funding to other resources, while Chief John Donnelly praised the department’s training and community involvement. 

Defunding the police has been one of the most frequent suggestions raised by protesters nationally during the wave of protests that began last month after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. 

Evan Lanese, a Michigan Technological University student, said the department could gradually shrink the number of personnel by instituting a hiring freeze. They could gradually reduce the scope of services by cutting patrol hours and offloading some services such as mental health and drug cases, he said. 

“What we could put this money into would be supporting education, health care, housing, youth programs, childcare, public transportation — areas where the community needs it most,” he said. “And we can also create specialized jobs, such as community responders, who would be more specialized to handle cases regarding mental health and drug use.”

Houghton resident Gabriel Ahrendt, a member of the group Keweenaw Youth for Climate Action, suggested redirecting funds to schools, hospitals, food banks and shelters. Speakers said while there weren’t necessarily any problems with Houghton’s department, policing nationally has structural issues tied to a history of oppression. 

“I don’t mean to say that any of the officers are inherently bad because of their profession, and I also realize it can be really hard to view a community that doesn’t have police,” Lanese said. 

Speakers said whatever changes occur should be gradual.

“We don’t want any police employees to become jobless … this should be a process, that should go without saying, that minimizes any type of hardship to our policemen and women,” said Elise Rosky. 

During his police report, Chief John Donnelly addressed the concerns, saying that he had made a point of ensuring the department has a large budget for training. 

“I’ve always said I’ll take 10 well-trained officers over 11 untrained officers,” he said. 

That training involves various forms of non-violent de-escalation. That includes mental-health training, which has included consultation with the National Association of the Mentally Ill (NOMI) group. they also take crisis intervention training, which stresses the importance of listening. 

“Even the people who spoke here tonight, I don’t think they’ve said anything about or department,” he said. “I think other departments aren’t funded as well or trained as well, and probably do have more difficulties.”

Donnelly recalled undergoing training on defensive tactics earlier this year, in which a defensive tactics instructor specifically pointed out not to put a leg on a suspect’s neck — the manner in which Floyd was killed. 

“That’s why we receive training, so we don’t put ourselves in these kinds of situations,” he said.

The department has a strong connection to the community, Donnelly said, whether involvement through youth sports, work with rehabilitation centers and the drug court.

“I feel that because we are well-trained, we attract good officers to work here,” he said. “We treat people with respect.”

About 90% of feedback, even including arrests, has been about how cordial the officers were, he said. 

Donnelly said there had been a good level of community support, with people bringing baked goods or making donations.

City Manager Eric Waara said there had been no discussion at the city level about defunding police. 

“I think we have a well-trained, well-run police department who actually spend probably a lot more time training on peaceful conflict resolution than what people might consider stereotypical police training,” he said. “I think it’s just unfortunate that a lot of departments, especially ones as well-run as ours, are getting broad-brushed with the other ones that have problems.”


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