As we await word of which local prosecutor will review the actions of ELPD Officer Andrew Stephenson, a number of citizens attended this week’s meeting of City Council to defend Stephenson and to criticize the actions of the Black man injured by Stephenson during a December 2019 incident.
Some also denounced Mayor Ruth Beier for what she has said about the case. The mayor responded just as forcefully.
Revelations about Stephenson’s actions have energized East Lansing’s discussions about perceived problems of excessive force and racism in policing.
Stephenson was among three officers accused of police brutality by Uwimana “Tito” Gasito, a 19-year-old Black man, in February. In late February ELPD found “insufficient evidence” to support Gasito’s claims, noting that some body cam footage was lost either because body cameras fell off or were not turned on.
Council then discovered in March that Stephenson was the subject of another excessive force complaint — from 62-year-old Anthony Loggins, who is also Black — from six weeks prior to the Gasito arrest. This revelation spurred on further action, including ultimately the dropping of charges against Gasito and against Loggins.
State Police were asked to investigate Stephenson, and exonerated him. But earlier this month, Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon asked the Attorney General’s office to assign a special prosecutor to review the case after discovering miscommunications about it.
Callers come to Stephenson’s defense
During the public comments section of this week’s City Council meeting, the first caller was Diane Cardenas-Johnson. She told Council that Stephenson had helped to save her husband, Kobie Johnson, a Black man, during a cardiac arrest. (Judy Putnam reported this story for the Lansing State Journal in November 2019, the month before Loggins was arrested and injured.)
Cardenas-Johnson told Council that she could not understand how anyone could consider Stephenson “a so-called racist.” She said that Stephenson had not only helped during the emergency but had visited at the hospital and repeatedly expressed warmth and care for her and her husband.
Mayor Ruth Beier was asked by another caller who did not identify herself what concerns people should have about Council “acting as prosecutor, judge and jury,” and what caliber of recruits ELPD should expect to get with a Council that openly doubts its officers’ credibility. (This is an issue previously raised by Stephenson’s recently-hired defense attorney, Mike Nichols, in an interview with ELi).
Beier acknowledged the recruiting concerns and that being a police officer now is a hard task. She said that people can be learning from biases and doing all they can and still be viewed as a monolith.
Another caller who gave her name only as “Mable” questioned whether Loggins bore any responsibility for Stephenson allegedly using excessive force on him. Loggins was pulled over for failing to use his turn signal when turning right out of a parking lot, and was then found to be driving on an expired license in an uninsured vehicle.
Video shows that, told he was being arrested, Loggins sat down in his vehicle and told officers they’d have to come and get him. He was then forcibly removed from the car and pushed to the ground in a maneuver that injured his face and head.
At the May 26 Council meet, Interim Police Chief Steve Gonzalez told Council that what alarmed ELPD officials about the Loggins videos was the way Stephenson’s shoulders moved as he took Loggins down. Beier agreed at that meeting, saying “his shoulders indicate [Stephenson] lifted [Loggins] up and then pushed him down.”
But the caller named Mable focused on Loggins’ failure to comply with an order, repeatedly calling Loggins a “bad guy” and telling Council they might be guilty of slander by “persecuting” Stephenson. She questioned whether Council or a planned oversight commission could really understand how hard police work is.
Beier challenged Mable to watch the videos of the Loggins arrest and come to a conclusion that it wasn’t brutal. Mable said she had, and that she comes from a family with a police background, and Beier “doesn’t have any idea what police work was involved.” She said Beier was judging based on feelings and not knowledge.
“My judgement is not based on my feelings,” Beier responded. “And it’s not a judgement. I watched the video and I was appalled.”
Beier had previously suggested that Stephenson may have been lying about Loggins having tried to bite him during the take-down. At this week’s meeting, Beier told Mable what she saw on the video:
Loggins “sat back down in his car he was grabbed and thrown forcibly to the round, held down with a knee very close to his neck, had the officer at his head, take his head in both of his hands and bash his face onto the ground twice, keep his knee on his neck after he was inert, say to the older African-American man ‘ stop struggling’ when he was inert and already handcuffed, finally turn him over and as he sits him up he covers up his face because he knows it’s being shown on the camera. Those are the things that appall me.”
At that point, Mable asked if Beier was referencing a video of George Floyd being killed by Minneapolis Police, which Mable called murder. Beier said she was talking about the Stephenson/Loggins video and told Mable to watch the local video. Mable said she had, and that Stephenson has been exonerated, but that Council continues to “persecute” him.
“This is a railroad of injustice,” Mable told Beier. “I truly am the most diverse person and want racial justice but I am so saddened by my community of 34 years.”
When it was his turn, Stephenson’s lawyer Mike Nichols noted to Council that once Loggins failed to comply with verbal commands, the officers had the right to remove him from the vehicle and detain him. He also told Council that having had the case referred to a different prosecutor was not that unusual in cases like this.
Other callers praise Council for actions taken so far
In contrast to the three women and attorney calling to defend Stephenson, several callers applauded the Council for their actions in regard to the Stephenson case.
That included Chuck Grigsby, a Black resident and Human Relations Committee member, who has become recently very vocal about issues of racism and policing.
Edmund Rushton, a local activist who has been working alongside Grigsby, also called in to remind that Stephenson hasn’t been tried or convicted. In fact, he has not even been charged with anything.
Krystal Rose Davis-Dunn, a graduate student at Michigan State University, called to ask about progress in hiring a new police chief. City Manager George Lahanas said the process will likely run through the end of July, but Davis-Dunn said she wanted the yet-to-be formed oversight study committee to have input on the hiring decision, which would put it off.
In a follow-up email this morning, Nichols told ELi that Stephenson is “not lying about being bitten or use of force and the Mayor was really unfair in that statement in calling him a liar about the bite and bouncing his head off the ground twice – and she needs to take that back.”
Quoting Council member Mark Meadow’s controversial remark that “good cops don’t protect bad cops,” Nichols told ELi today, “good cops will support good cops and good cops are speaking out in large numbers” to defend Stephenson.
Will his client sue?
Said Nichols, “so far [Stephenson] has not been disciplined – because he’s been cleared. On that end – there is nothing to sue for at this point.” He said, “defamation-type causes of action certainly have crossed my mind. But when a politician says something defamatory, the bar is pretty high because you have to prove that it’s not (essentially) political speech.”
In the end, Nichols says, Beier’s comments are evidence of “more than just poor leadership – they’re reckless to the truth. I’ve reached out to her and to the council and no one has responded. Let’s be partners and reach out to the wide bandwidth of citizens who want to problem-solve without the polarizing entrenchment of judgment.”
Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon’s office told ELi this morning that that office is still waiting to hear from the Prosecuting Attorneys Coordinating Council to find out who will be appointed.