Michigan Gov. Whitmer supports ‘spirit’ of ‘defunding police,’ open to ending qualified immunity

George Floyd protestors gather across Metro Detroit, June 6, 2020. (WDIV)

DETROIT – Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer spoke on calls to “defund the police,” as well as other issues on policing in an interview with The Root on Tuesday.

The Instagram Live interview was broadcast on Tuesday afternoon and Gov. Whitmer offered her opinions on some of the issues being highlighted by protesters, who have been marching for weeks to call for an end to police brutality, injustice and racism. Whitmer spoke to Terrell Jermaine Starr.

Gov. Whitmer was asked about the call from activists to “defund the police,” which essentially means divesting funds from police departments and then reallocating them to social services and other community resources where they are needed. The action is being especially encouraged among marginalized communities, where policing -- and police brutality -- occurs more frequently.

“It’s really about reprioritizing and rebuilding communities, not just policing. That this is really about where do we, where do we prioritize our resources," Gov. Whitmer said. “You look at budgets and they’re focused on policing — they should be focused on education, transportation, access to health care, access to skills and leveling the playing field."

“I think you do all those other things, you don’t need all the money that’s going to the police departments. So, yeah, I mean, the spirit of it, I do support that spirit of it.”

Following the interview with The Root, Gov. Whitmer clarified her comments in an interview with the Detroit Free Press.

“I don’t believe police should be defunded,” but “what I hear from all of my friends who are part of this moment and who are leading on the front lines is we have a real need for greater investment in communities,” and “we need to rebuild and level the playing field through better schools and better transportation and access to health care and those are all the critical investments that I absolutely support.”

Press Secretary Tiffany Brown issued this statement clarifying Gov. Whitmer’s comments on defunding the police:

“As the governor has said, she does not believe that police should be defunded. The governor believes we need greater investment in people and communities, which means leveling the playing field through better schools, transportation, and access to health care. That’s why the governor has proposed real reforms in policing, and will continue to advance a policy agenda that promotes racial equity here in our state.”

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Gov. Whitmer said she’s open to the idea of ending qualified immunity in Michigan. Police officers are generally not held personally liable for anything that happens on the job, including when someone dies. The concept of qualified immunity has long been a way to protect police from unnecessary lawsuits and to give them the freedom to police without fear of unnecessary retribution.

“I think that is something we need to look at. This blanket immunity feeds into the notion that there aren’t consequences. I think there’s something that makes sense in that space."

Gov. Whitmer also said she was open to legislation that would unseal police records, which New York lawmakers are expected to repeal.

“I want to learn more about it, but my inclination is absolutely. I think it’s important for the public to be able to scrutinize authority. If you have a gun and a badge, you should be held to a higher standard.”

Whitmer said she believes mental health screening on the front end of hiring officers is a key component of any police reform plan. She said she’s open to all ideas on how to improve policing in the state.

The Michigan Senate passed a new bill last Thursday that establishes mandatory training for incoming law enforcement officers on implicit bias, de-escalation techniques and mental health screening.

About the Author:

Ken Haddad is the digital content and audience manager for WDIV / ClickOnDetroit.com. He also authors the Morning Report Newsletter and various other newsletters. He's been with WDIV since 2013. He enjoys suffering through Lions games on Sundays in the fall.