Detroit raises police salaries but also commits to mental health response team
Detroit Police Department Neighborhood Police Officer Dan Robinson walks around while handing out gun safety information and gun locks as officers go door-to-door along Fenelon Street on Detroit's east side on March 25, 2021. | Ryan Garza / Detroit Free Press via AP

DETROIT—On Thursday, Nov. 10, it was announced that Detroit police officers will receive a $10,000-a-year pay increase. City Council unanimously approved the new labor agreement to amend the budget to make police officer pay competitive with surrounding cities.

Retaining police officers has been a problem for the city for some time, and despite having the largest budget of any city department, the Detroit police have struggled to keep up with competitive salaries.

However, this was not the only thing that came with the deal. During the press conference, council member Gabriela Santiago-Romero discussed how thinly stretched the city’s police officers are and how this affects the level of service they are able to provide.

“But that’s one part of the safety equation. The other part is addressing the root causes of violence…. We cannot police our way out of crime,” she added.

Santiago-Romero and Police Chief James White agree that the lack of mental health services is “one of the biggest issues our city faces.” She also added: “We need to do more as a city, as a state, as a country” to address this mental health crisis. Chief White agreed that Detroit police officers should not be responding to the majority of mental health calls—50 to 60% of which are regarded as “non-violent—which a “mental health care provider or social worker should be addressing.”

Santiago-Romero and White will be working together to create a “non-police response program,” similar to Denver’s STAR program or Portland’s Street Response, to address these calls.

This news comes just over a month after the death of Porter Burks, a 20-year-old Detroit resident who, in the midst of a schizophrenic episode, was gunned down by Detroit police who fired 38 rounds, 19 of which struck Burks.

The announcement of the new labor agreement has been met with mixed reactions. On one side, residents feel like they are about to receive a better and more responsive police force. On the other, activists and protesters are tired of seeing police officers getting more money. Earlier this year, City Council unanimously approved $2,000 retention bonuses for every “active member” of the police department.

Mayor Mike Duggan said at the time that “there’s no talk of defunding police; we want to put more money behind our officers.”

Although having unarmed professionals responding to mental health calls is a major step forward, many are concerned the increased salaries are too significant of a compromise, especially while residents have had to go above and beyond to get funding for housing repairs, to protect emergency ARPA funds from going toward surveillance contracts like Shotspotter, and to ask for real poverty and crime solutions.

One of the other concerns not explicitly addressed is the designation of “non-violent” mental health calls. Such a designation seems paradoxical for the very fact that mental health crises are almost always violent in some way.

How should the Porter Burks call have been classified, for instance? Burks had a knife and allegedly charged the officers. How would a suicidal situation be handled? If someone is armed and ready to hurt themselves, at what level of danger will they be assessed? Someone who is self-harming with a knife is as much a violent mental health call as it is a non-violent one.

Likewise, suicide-by-cop is a very real phenomenon where someone is willing to provoke an officer to the point of being killed by them. We already have an issue with Detroit police arresting Black residents for nonviolent gun crimes—would someone who is both Black and suicidal be considered a “violent” mental health call, requiring police to respond instead?

The designation of “non-violent” is a limitation that will undoubtedly have to be addressed.

However, this is still a major change in how policing will work in Detroit, and the political moment is still open to making significant strides in the direction of limiting police power, not to mention curbing police brutality and murder.

It’s important to note that if police are to earn more but do not go out on as many calls, this may not resolve the funding concerns that many residents have when it comes to securing stable shelter, but it could, in fact, make officers overpaid administrators or stewards of the law.

Likewise, if such a policing alternative sees decreases in crime (as has already been witnessed in other cities as a result of these programs), then it remains possible that funding will be reallocated away from the police department.

This also means that how we imagine policing will continue to shift, and police officers will either become more useful to us—or, more specifically, less violent—or will further contribute to mental health calls. If this isn’t a form of defunding or abolishing, then the concepts themselves mean nothing at all.

Another important effect of this new labor agreement regards the cost of police officer retention itself. It is far more expensive for a department or company to lose an employee—either through firing or quitting—and then have to hire a replacement, than it is to keep that employee. This is especially true for salaried employees. Factoring in the overhead costs of looking for a replacement, training the new employee, and the amount of cross-departmental work (i.e. HR, management, etc.), then it is abundantly clear that the expense of taking on a new employee far exceeds that of an older, even ineffective, employee.

The conclusion to be drawn from this is not that we ought to lean in to paying police officers competitive salaries or more, but rather that the costs of police officer retention are an unacknowledged aspect of the incredibly high police department budget, which means that actually retaining employees is a point of leverage in our favor against such a bloated budget.

This of course does not mean that progress is happening nor is it guaranteed because of the birth of a mental health response team in Detroit. It does mean that change is occurring and the meaning of that change is open to those who want it most. What matters now is that we continue to fight for the responsive services that we need, and the pressure activists are putting on Detroit officials to consider alternative policing measures is being felt.


Andrew Wright
Andrew Wright

Andrew Wright is an essayist and activist based in Detroit.  He has written and presented on topics such as suicide and mental health, class struggle, gender studies, politics, ideology, and philosophy.