J.B. Miller: Little Boys, Little Bikes, Big Guns, Big Budgets

On May 18, Ypsilanti City Council voted to go over budget and hire 3 armed YPD officers and 1 YPD records clerk. The vote was split 4-3, with those opposed expressing concerns about adding to the budget deficit and lack of time for public input, including via the council’s own Police Oversight Commission. On June 1, members of the public spoke and council members defended their votes. The council can still remove the officers from the budget through amendment and can still make time for a public dialogue. In the next few weeks, we will publish here a series of posts to encourage that dialogue.

Four members of the Ypsilanti City Council pushed through a budget amendment to add three armed officers to the YPD, without any prior opportunity for direct public input. In response to critiques of both the process and the decision, they still did not provide a clear rationale (safety? not safety? safety again?) or supporting data, but some anecdotal evidence was provided. I don’t discount anecdotal evidence, so here is another anecdote that paints a very different picture of reality from the fictional ideal of police as protectors of—again, it’s unclear—safety? efficiency? towing?

Two years ago on a cloudy Sunday afternoon, I went to pick up my stepson and his brother from their mother’s home in Ward 1, south of Monroe. When I got there, my 10-year-old stepson told me his brother was around the corner being stopped by the police for riding his mini bike. When I arrived on the scene, this 12-year-old boy stood on the sidewalk with his arms crossed in anger and his hoodie cinched tight around his face to hide his tears of powerlessness. Dozens of neighbors had gathered on every corner of the intersection. One elder informed me that he had come out there because he heard the officer yelling at our boy, and the cops aren’t supposed to verbally abuse minors like that. His crime? Riding his mini bike down the empty side streets, as he and his friends had done a thousand times before and as boys will continue to do.

Riding and tinkering with bikes of all kinds is one of the best outlets for pre-teen and teen boys in this neighborhood to be creative, socialize, and learn riding and mechanical skills, especially with few other options for recreation. Another man agreed that the police had been harassing kids on bikes in the neighborhood, profiling Black boys who aren’t hurting anybody and are staying out of trouble. The police used to say they could ride in the park, but one of the men at the scene said he was with his son on a 4×4 at the park and they kicked them both out, even though nobody else was there. I later learned that he had gone out on his bike to find his little brother because he knew I’d be coming soon to pick them up. He was just being a good big brother.

We all watched the tow truck driver trying to figure out how to secure a tiny mini bike on the huge bed of a tow truck. The driver was receiving advice from not one, not two, but all the YPD officers from no less than four patrol cars with lights flashing, including a higher-ranking officer. I asked the abusive officer what was going on, and he refused to speak to me about it. We all watched helpless as they towed away the beloved bike, a special Christmas gift from his granny, never to be seen again because the impound fee was almost as much as the bike was worth.

Let’s not insult each other by pretending this is a safety issue to do with mini bikes, because boys continue to ride and if that were the genuine concern, some efforts at providing helmets, safe riding skills, and a designated track would be the appropriate and loving response to children, not abusive policing. This is what police are, what police do, and what police have always been and done since they began as slave patrols—they police Black people from the earliest possible age to maintain the invisible lines of segregation in order to enforce the racial caste system and maintain and increase property values for the privileged in now rapidly gentrifying cities. There was even more police harassment in this story, but out of concern for privacy and retaliation against those involved, I can’t share it here.

When I hear talk of needing three more YPD officers to supervise towing on the south side, all I can see is that tiny mini bike chained to that huge tow bed, kind of the way that 12-year-old boy’s spirit was subjected to feeling helpless and powerless in the face of violence and abuse by that white officer. When I hear talk of needing time to build relationships with community members, I see that boy’s bitter face on that day compared to his joyful face when he first got his brand-new mini bike, I see that officer refusing to speak to me, and I see the neighbors glaring at the outrageous scene. When I hear talk of YPD officers having to run from call to call to call (doing their well-paid job, in other words), I see those four SUVs there to back up the “dangerous” mini bike operation.

If there was any perception of danger from the outraged neighbors, it was due to the officer’s own violent, abusive, and illegal behavior. No child should ever be verbally abused, and this abuse came from a city employee with no consequences or restitution. At any point, the officer or his superior could have reversed the ridiculous operation and made peace with the community. Instead, they stole a child’s bike—can we just be honest and call it what it is?

The burden is on the council and Chief DeGiusti to demonstrate with hard data, not only anecdotes, how paying for three more officers will truly decrease, not increase, violence in the community. The chief talks about “almost a national epidemic” of gun violence to justify more hiring, but researchers say it’s because of the economic and housing crises of the pandemic, so why not use general funds to address those instead? The responsibility is on the council to justify why they believe YPD is the one exception to the well-established nationwide pattern of Black residents being the disproportionate targets of police harassment, abuse, and violence. The council and YPD need to fully disclose the real costs, including equipment, training, salaries, benefits, and pensions this year and in the future, and to disclose realistically the opportunity costs of this hasty and split decision. The council’s responsibility is to meet with their own Police Advisory Commission and make time for broad community input to discuss not only adding officers, but also the alternatives being explored in cities like Minneapolis, Austin, and many others.

I don’t doubt that community members who desperately want safety speak out at town halls believing police will help, but what about those who don’t? How representative of the entire community are the voices that council members have heard? Will those who disagree come and speak out about abuses they’ve experienced and witnessed, or will they fear retaliation? I spoke to a council member about the mini bike situation at the time and was told that the council would be unlikely to act unless the boy himself spoke. This 12-year-old boy was too traumatized to speak to council then, but with his permission I’m amplifying his voice now, hoping it’s not too late.

Resources

M4BL, Defund the Police
Prison Policy Initiative, Policing research       
Transform Harm
The Guardian

Artwork by Zenith Inception. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0.

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