When the first George Floyd protest happened in East Lansing on May 31, the only visible presence of Michigan State University came in the form of two armored vehicles, including one with a circular hatch on top, like tanks have.
That MSU vehicle was used to transport members of the Ingham County Special Response Team, led that day by MSU Police Lieutenant Jon Martin, all dressed in SWAT-style gear, carrying big weapons.
Now a protest about local police militarization is planned for next Wednesday, June 24, starting at 4 p.m. It will include a march starting at ELPD and ending Cowles House, the home of MSU President Sam Stanley (recently renovated at the cost of $6 million).
“The March Against Fear” is being planned by Edmund Rushton, Farhan Omar, and Chuck Grigsby as a peaceful protest to focus on reform they say is needed at MSUPD and ELPD, particularly with regard to demilitarization.
East Lansing’s Council talks about police funding and militarization
The question of militarization came up during East Lansing’s City Council’s discussion this week of a surprise “add-on” item that appeared without advance notice to the public.
This was a discussion of whether the City should spend $10,400 to purchase new vests for officers so that their body cams will stop falling off. Right now, the body cams are held on with a magnetic system that is not working well.
Body cameras falling off became a point of contention with the investigation into the police brutality complaint from Uwimana Tito Gasito, in which ELPD decided they could not find evidence to support the complaint while acknowledging that may have been because many officer’s body cams had fallen off during the event. (One officer was also disciplined for not turning his body camera on.)
At Council this week, City Manager George Lahanas called the body cams falling off “a pretty pervasive problem.” He called the option of purchasing new vests, which would hold the cameras on, an “important accountability thing,” and said he didn’t want another instance where people were upset because video was missing from cameras falling off.
During the Zoom-based meeting, Interim Police Chief Steve Gonzalez showed how the new $200 vests would look and work. He showed an image of Captain Chad Connelly modeling the new vest. (Connelly was the investigator who decided there was “insufficient evidence” to support Gasito’s complaint.)
Calling the military look of the vest “a drawback,” Gonzalez said there might be ways to make it look less aggressive.
Council member Jessy Gregg, a professional sewist who owns a fabric store around the corner from the police station, offered a much cheaper solution – finding a way to sew nylon loops on the existing uniforms to secure the cameras appropriately.
But it did not appear that the City Manager or Interim Police Chief was interested in taking her up on the offer to prototype a fix.
Still, Gregg made clear her point: “my inclination [is] to shrink the size of the police department,” not spend more money on it.
She said she was “not in favor of trying to equip our way out of this problem,” as she wants to take seriously radically changing policing in East Lansing.
For his part, Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens called the problem of the body cams falling off “a ridiculously important thing” but suggested holding off on buying new vests until Council could get feedback from the public.
Council member Mark Meadows said the problem of dislodged body cams was too important an issue of trust not to get it fixed fast, and Council member Lisa Babcock agreed, saying, “More cameras is more accountability and we need that now.”
Mayor Ruth Beier said she would like the police to not just look less militaristic but to be less militaristic. But she saw the camera issue as too important not to address now, and so she counted herself, Meadows, and Babcock as unofficial “yes” votes and suggested the City Manager proceed.
The City Manager replied that they would try to find the most friendly-looking vests they could.
This surprise discussion was watched by Chuck Grigsby, one of the organizers of the upcoming protest and an East Lansing Human Relations Commissioner. Grigsby said securing the cameras is a good idea but he questioned why the City Manager didn’t seem to take seriously Gregg’s quick-and-cheap possible solution. (Gregg tells ELi she has not heard from the police or City Manager on her offer.)
Grigsby also questioned why the City Manager came to Council for advice when he could make this budgetary decision without discussion with Council, and why, if Council was going to weigh in on this, they didn’t take a vote to make clear to the public where each of them stood.
East Lansing Police officers are firing weapons – but at what?
During Tuesday’s discussion of cameras and vests, Stephens said the big issue for him was not this equipment but firearms. So what kind of equipment are we talking about?
In addition to carrying handguns on their persons, an ELPD officer on patrol also typically carries a taser and pepper spray, while wearing ballistic protection on their torso. They also carry flashlights and radios.
Gonzalez told Council this week that part of the reason officers have back problems after years on the force is how much they are carrying on their fronts. He said that new vests might better distribute the weight of all they are carrying.
ELPD officers also carry patrol rifles in their cars. Gonzalez tells ELi, “The use of a rifle allows officers to more accurately confront and stop lethal threats.”
Gonzalez explains, “These rifles are not M-16s, which are a fully automatic military rifles. The patrol rifles we carry [in cars] are civilian versions of an AR-15, [and] they are not fully automatic.”
ELi’s team has been working for some time on trying to understand use of force, force equipment, and force techniques in East Lansing’s policing. In late May, our research showed 15 recorded instances of “firearm discharge” by ELPD officers since the start of 2019. So, who were they shooting?
Gonzalez explains, “All of these instances are a result of officers having to put an animal down. Ten of them are due to having to put down a deer that was gravely injured (more often than not from being struck by a car), [and] the remaining five were the result of having to put down a rabid racoon that posed a public safety hazard.”
The equipment ELPD officers carry is fairly standard in American policing. But the local question, like the national, is now about the necessity and cost of this style of policing.