East Lansing City Council member Lisa Babcock is floating several measures relating to East Lansing’s laws, police, and prosecution in response to the nationwide and local outcries about police brutality and excessive use of force.
Babcock has been subject to criticism for not saying much during Council discussions on these issues. Now she’s brought forth proposed interventions she says are intended to be placeholder policies until the implementation of East Lansing’s police oversight commission – a commission that won’t come to be for at least six months, given that it requires the work of a study committee that isn’t yet named.
Babcock, an attorney by profession, sent Council a draft of five measures for consideration:
- Create a misdemeanor (punishable for up to 90 days in jail) for “weaponizing the police,” defined as the act of knowingly exaggerating or creating false crimes based on someone’s race, ethnicity, religion, or disability.
- Require that copies of citizens’ complaint about police officers be forwarded (with video and all supporting material) to the City Council, Police Chief, City Manager, diversity officer (not yet named), Human Relations Commission, and (eventual) police oversight study group, within three days of a complaint’s receipt. If physical contact has occurred between an officer and the complainant, Babcock wants the material automatically referred to a prosecutor for an official Use of Force review.
- Require the City Attorney to provide data quarterly to the City Council about the race of people criminally charged by his office reaching back to Jan. 1, 2020. The idea behind this is to see if there are racial disparities in prosecution by the City Attorney’s office.
- Empower the City Council to order the City Attorney to dismiss charges if the Council believes a case includes credible allegations of police misconduct.
- Reaffirm the right of Council to remove the City Attorney if cases are found to be charged in racially discriminatory fashion.
About the last point, Babcock said that the City Attorney’s “current contract allows for 30-day removal for any reason, [so] this just highlights how serious we are – or I am – about fair [prosecution].”
Babcock’s proposals relate to (and reference) the Feb. 9, arrest of a Black man, Uwimana Tito Gasito, outside a 7-Eleven downtown, when ELPD officer Andrew Stephenson is alleged by Gasito to have used excessive force while participating in the arrest of the 19-year-old. Council learned on March 10 that Stephenson was the subject of another recent, unrelated complaint of excessive force by Anthony Loggins Jr.
Charges against Gasito and Loggins were ultimately dropped. For his part, Stephenson was found by a Michigan State Police investigation to have been justified in his actions, but now Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon has asked the Attorney General to appoint a Special Prosecutor to look into Stephenson’s actions.
Babcock said that in meetings with police command officers about the Gasito case, the similar complaint against Stephenson by Loggins wasn’t disclosed.
“The rationale was that, ‘Well the other investigation was under a different name so we didn’t realize it,’” Babcock said. “I said then and I’ll say now, I find that very hard to believe in a small department.”
Three sets of criminal cases came from the February incident, including the now-dropped charges against Gasito. Gasito’s friend Anthony Zarwea is facing assault charges, and Chandler Lee, whom Gasito has suggested instigated the incident, is facing charges of disorderly conduct.
The difference in the charges between Lee, a white man, and Zarwea, a Black man, Babcock said, is evidence of racial disparity in charging that Council needs to address, along with police oversight.
“We know that this has been racially charged, at least once,” Babcock said. “It is my hope that compiling that data will force the prosecutors, [specifically] the City Attorney prosecuting on behalf of The City of East Lansing, to think long and hard about racial equity in charging.”
Babcock had intended to add the items to the agenda for Council’s June 23 meeting. But at the request of Mayor Ruth Beier, Babcock is considering waiting until after the council’s yet-to-be-scheduled retreat.
The goal of the retreat is “to discuss diversity, equity and inclusion; policies; and police-community relations” according to the agenda item report from Tuesday’s meeting. The retreat will be open for the public to watch when it happens.
At this Tuesday’s meeting, Council discussed the retreat, the type of facilitator they desire, and how to properly identify issues, create solutions, and implement them. The dominant sentiment seemed to be that, until the retreat where council can synthesize recommendations and ideas in solutions, Babcock’s ideas would best be kept tabled.
“This is a perfect example of a great idea that you want to do for the right reasons,” Beier said of Babcock’s proposals on Tuesday. “But as council member [Jessy] Gregg said, is there some benefit to waiting until we hear from affected populations?”
The morning after Tuesday’s meeting, though, Babcock’s proposals — minus creating a law to outlaw “weaponizing the police” — were added to Tuesday’s Council agenda after the fact.
Babcock tells ELi said she is seeking feedback through Friday on which items to push first. She didn’t provide a specific date on when she might put the resolutions on future agendas for formal debate, but Beier said she would help get the material on agendas.
Babcock is sending out up-to-date versions of her proposals to anyone who requests them from her via email. She says that the minimum she hopes to accomplish is begin a conversation about Council’s and the City Attorney’s roles in police oversight and ensuring that local prosecutions are not biased.
Some have wondered about the meaning of Babcock’s relative silence until now.
“For me, at least the other Council people were really engaged in the discussion and it seemed like she was not,” Chuck Grigsby, an East Lansing resident, said. “It was very important for me to understand where she was coming from.”
Grigsby is a member of East Lansing’s Human Relations Commission (HRC) and has been active in speaking at Council and with the City Manager on these issues. He lauded Babcock’s second proposal, requiring the police to share citizen complaints with Council, the HRC, and top city staff and to automatically forward excessive force complaints to the Ingham County Prosecutor.
The forwarding of complaints directly, Grigsby said, is a proposal “that really affects police reform.” It took several weeks for the Council and public to get materials related to Gasito’s complaint, Grigsby said, and even then the material was heavily redacted.
“Having the Council have a copy of the complaint,” Grigsby told ELi, and “having the Human Relations Committee have access to that information would be huge up to the point until we have the oversight commission.”
Ultimately, Babcock’s hope is that her proposals represent the first, and not the only, step in the right direction in terms of legal interventions.
“It’s not the only thing I have in mind and it’s certainly not the only thing the council has in mind,” Babcock said. “It’s a step. It’s ‘in addition to,’ not ‘instead of.’”