Community members spoke out at the Tuesday, Sept. 6, East Lansing City Council meeting after Attorney General Dana Nessel announced the East Lansing police officers involved in the April shooting of DeAnthony VanAtten would not face charges and that VanAtten will.
The agenda for tonight’s meeting of the Independent Police Oversight Commission includes the matter under the heading “high priority items” That meeting starts at 6 p.m. at the Hannah Community Center. The agenda includes discussion of letters to the Attorney General from commission members Erick Williams and Kath Edsall who both call on her to drop the charges..
VanAtten, a 20-year-old Black man, was shot after the East Lansing Police Department received a call about a Black man who entered the Lake Lansing Meijer with a gun and face covering. Four ELPD officers responded to the call. VanAtten ran out of the store as he was chased by officers. Police say they issued calls to VanAtten to stop before two officers, Jose Viera and James Menser, fired several shots in the busy parking lot, with two striking VanAtten.
Several community members were upset by the shooting, which they deemed unnecesary, as well as Nessel’s decision to not charge the officers.
“Do we as a community go along with an Attorney General who, in an election year, made a very calculated decision? A decision she clearly assumed would quiet the reformists in her base,“ said Edsall, who serves on the oversight commission as well as the East Lansing School Board. “She exonerated the police, she refused to even mention race in her press release.”
Community members were also displeased with Nessel’s decision to charge VanAtten with seven felonies and a misdemeanor. While VanAtten was illegally carrying a firearm at the time of the shooting, he was not posing a threat to the officers and there was no way to know the weapon was not legally obtained prior to the shooting, some community members said.
The charges brought against VanAtten include four counts of resisting arrest and obstructing an officer, one count of carrying a concealed weapon, one count of receiving and carrying a concealed weapon, one count of felony firearm and one count of third-degree retail fraud.
VanAtten “now faces upwards of 20 years in prison as well as a lifelong criminal record,” said Karen Hoene, who serves on the East Lansing Human Rights Commission. “He did not point his gun at anyone, he did not threaten anyone, he caused no bodily harm.”
Hoene said she understands the City Council can’t control the Attorney General but she called on the Council to formally request Nessel drop all charges against VanAtten. Council did not take up the suggestion.
The shooting adds to growing concern that racial bias exists within ELPD. In 2020, the department drew scrutiny after injuring 19-year-old Uwimana Gasito, who is Black, after Gasito filmed the arrest of his friend. It was later revealed the officer involved, Andrew Stephenson, was subject of five of ELPD’s 12 complaints since 2018. An independent prosecutor exonerated Stephenson following public outcry.
Subsequent reviews of ELPD activity revealed ELPD officers disproportionately stop, arrest, and use force against Black people.
“New mayor, same stuff. New chief, same stuff. More training, same stuff. More funding, same stuff,“ activist Farhan Sheikh-Omar said. “There needs to be a structural change in this police department.”
Many of the community members who spoke urged council members to condemn the Attorney General’s decision and publicly oppose the officers’ reinstatement. About a dozen people spoke for a total of approximately one hour.
Responding to comments, Mayor Ron Bacon said no parties should come away from the incident and Nessel’s announcement feeling vindicated or good about what happened.
Bacon also questioned the quality of the legal representation VanAtten had after the slew of charges were announced against him.
“As soon as that decision came out, I don’t think I slept for two days,” he said. “The only peace that I get from this is that all these individuals are alive.”
Council member Dana Watson expressed hope that East Lansing’s Independent Police Oversight Commission will help the community have its voice heard.
“We can get a decision from Attorney [General] Nessel on a policy and what was followed and then these up-charges, but that doesn’t mean that our police oversight commission should rest,” Watson said. “We represent the community, and the community was saddened and we are horrified and we don’t believe that this is going to stop. So, I believe in the presence of our police oversight commission.”