Ann Arbor Budget Questions, 2021-2022

I circulated this letter raising pointed questions for police budgeting to various local representatives and organizations:

Dear CM _____,

I am writing to you now—not representing any particular group or organization, but as a concerned Ann Arbor resident—in response to the Ann Arbor City Work Session of February 8th, 2021. Specifically, I was disappointed to see the Ann Arbor Police Department’s failure to participate in the general civic obligation to re-examine its funding. This was particularly striking given the current state of municipal finances, but also a national climate in which progressive police reform means above all considering whether it is possible to reallocate funds previously earmarked for law enforcement towards services and programs that more clearly and directly impact citizen well-being.

To me, a prime example of this was the request for a community engagement officer. While the desire to find more effective forms of police-citizen collaboration is laudable, as with the police data analyst position approved in last year’s budget, this seems to invert the appropriate valence of our community resources. Rather than further bloating police budgets through more executive leadership positions, so that police may have more resources to perform public relations and image-management in the guise of “community engagement,” this money could be more justly allocated to positions that allow the community to engage with police on a more level field. How, for example, does the $158,458 reoccurring cost for this position compare to the overall budget of Independent Community Police Oversight Commission? If there is a need for “engagement” between communities and the police, might not those resources be better placed under the control of a civilian body?

I have similar questions about other elements of the AAPD budget, which I hope City Council does its due diligence in exploring. For example, how appropriate is it for the vast majority of budget reduction for the fiscal year in question to be hypothetical reductions in FTE’s through voluntary retirements? Was this reduction projected over the fiscal year in question, or is it more long term in nature? Is there no other area of AAPD’s budget that can be targeted to meet the concrete and immediate needs of our municipality’s fiscal crisis? If not, how can we start working to ensure that in the future the resources of AAPD can be allocated in a way that is responsive to the needs and responsibilities of civilian governance? And what role does thinking about the budgeting play in that long-term goal of a more flexible and responsive police institution?

I also have several questions about the “bomb dog” budget item. It is my understanding that AAPD already employs at least one K-9 unit; is that correct? Has AAPD adequately justified the need for an additional such unit now, in the middle of the COVID pandemic in which the large public gatherings typically understood as the target of such interventions, are non-existent? If AAPD has justified to City Council’s satisfaction the need for this new unit, has it adequately detailed its efforts at finding more cost-effective means of funding it (for example, through County-wide programs such as fund other specialist units)? I notice that the $50k for this budget item is listed as a one-time cost. Are there no recurring budgetary obligations for the continued care and training of the dog and its human partner?

But the target of my most pointed concern, as it touches on research I have conducted over the last twenty years, is the budget item related to a re-investment in TASER technology. Research on the use of “non-lethal” devices suggests that while they may be useful in circumstances in which the only other alternative was the use of deadly force, there are also many potential disadvantages of their adoption into police force arsenals. For one, the research suggests that while TASERs may reduce the number of deadly incidents, they actually increase the probability of the use of traumatic force. The upshot of this is that in situations where the necessity to consider deadly force is relatively rare (as it is in Ann Arbor), the inclusion of TASERS into police toolkits may actually increase the number of traumatic incidents without working to substantially ameliorate an existing problem. All of this leaves several questions which I hope City Council pursues in due diligence before approving this budget item: Has the Ann Arbor PD weighed these problems, and communicated to the public why—despite the apparent drawbacks—they chose to request such devices? Or is the request for this renewal the outcome of institutional inertia without critical reflection on the changing demands of public safety? Has the AAPD calculated the number of lethal use of force incidents they anticipate TASERS will help avoid? Have they calculated the number of increased traumatic incidents they will create?

Another concern I have over this budget item is that it locks the City into a long-term predatory contract. Axon Corporation, the maker of TASER technology, typically requires Departments commit to long-term contracts in which Departments agree to purchase a set number of new charge cartridges on an annual basis despite the specific needs or use-patterns of the Department in question. These contracts also frequently include clauses in which Axon is awarded exclusive authority to offer ongoing officer training in the use of non-lethal devices. I personally participated in an Axon certified TASER training program when it was implemented at my home institution. It involved a rather loosely scheduled evening in which “Instructors” (members of the police department who have gone through the Training program, as part of the contract) then were given “resources” to further train their fellow officers. These resources involved a few pre-printed handouts and a PowerPoint presentation provided by Axon Corporation. This presentation consisted largely of illustrative video examples of TASER use taken (in a non-critical manner!) from the television show COPS.

All of this, again, raises several questions which I hope City Council performs its due diligence in exploring: Has city council, the city administrator, or some other qualified external body, been able to assess this contract? Has the long-term financial obligation to the City been evaluated? To what degree does the contract commit the City to a set of technologies and patrolling practices that, when put under public scrutiny, civilians may which to divest from? Has the AAPD provided, and City Council been able to assess, the nature and content of the training AAPD officers will receive in associated with these tools? Has the quality and cost associated with that training been weighed against other potential training initiatives such as the Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement (ABLE) Project, recently adapted by the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office? Again, returning to the budget, has the AAPD demonstrated that any potential benefit from TASERS is merited by the sustained financial investment it will require? For example, might not public safety and wellness be more greatly affected by using those same funds elsewhere?

Dr. Kevin Karpiak, PhD

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