East Lansing Mayor Jessy Gregg, in conjunction with the rest of City Council, declined to sign on to a two-paragraph statement presented by Ingham County Sheriff Scott Wriggelsworth attempting to rebuke a recent policy reform that Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon has enacted regarding Michigan’s felony firearm law.
Wriggelsworth spoke to Council at the Sept. 14 discussion-only meeting in an attempt to persuade Gregg and the other Council members to sign a statement that asked Siemon “to reconsider her internal felony firearm charging policy,” as, in his words, it “does not hold people properly criminally accountable, and increases the likelihood of additional gun violence in the communities we are tasked to govern, lead, serve, and protect.”
Wriggelsworth told Council that he has already met with other mayors, councils, and village leaders under his jurisdiction, and that 21 of them had already added their signatures. When asked by ELi to name the parties that had signed, Wriggelsworth did not say who had signed on, writing that “I still have more to hear back from” and that “it will be released when complete.”
What is the new policy?
The policy change in question was announced by the prosecutor’s office on Aug. 10, and concerns a state felony firearm law that has been in place since 1976. A person found guilty of the crime at issue faces a mandatory two-year prison sentence on the first offense, a five-year sentence on the second offense, and ten years on the third.
Moving forward, Prosecutor Siemon’s office will no longer plan on bringing the charge for possessing a firearm while committing a felony where the firearm was not used “except under circumstances where the other charges do not adequately reflect the person’s overall behavior.”
In the initial release, Siemon said she was concerned with how the “add-on” charge impacts racial equity in policing and called the change in firearm policy “a race equity issue, not a gun violence issue.”
Siemon and her office received pushback from many local law enforcement agents, including Wriggelsworth. In response, Siemon issued another statement, expressing her dismay at the vitriol against the changes.
“The new policy concerning Felony Firearm charging is related to dramatic racial inequity in how this and certain other laws have been charged as is not in any way linked to the goal that we share of keeping the public safe,” Siemon said. “The purported link between this policy and any future rise in gun violence is disingenuous and erroneous.”
In response, Wriggelsworth has been traveling to the 16 municipalities under his purview and asking township supervisors, mayors, and village presidents for their support in denouncing the prosecutor’s policy and offering his explanations on why he feels the need to do so. Tuesday’s meeting with East Lansing City Council was his 25th such meeting, the rest of which had apparently not taken place in public. This one was in public because Gregg insisted on it.
On Tuesday evening, Wriggelsworth told Council that he was not happy that he and other law enforcement officers had not been consulted by the prosecutor before these changes were made public.
Wriggelsworth referenced his nearly three decades of experience in law enforcement as what allows him to “talk educatedly” about the issue and why he “just can’t be quiet” on an issue that he thinks endangers the public.
While Siemon shared a study from Safe and Just Michigan and other specific local data to support her decision, Wriggelsworth offered no data to justify his stance that this policy will make Ingham County less safe.
He said he doesn’t know what circumstances would lead Siemon’s office to bring felony firearm charges, but with emphasis said he did know what didn’t apply, before diving into an example from East Lansing to illustrate his point.
Wriggelsworth described an incident in East Lansing, handled by the East Lansing Police Department, he said, where a young woman had taken a gun to another woman’s home and started to beat her up with it. When a man tried to intervene, Wriggelsworth said, the woman with the gun shot at him.
Wriggelsworth claimed that the prosecutor had opted not to bring the felony firearm charge in that case even though, he said, ELPD had wanted that charge brought.
But ELi confirmed with ELPD Chief Kim Johnson after the meeting that ELPD did not request the felony firearm charge in that case and that the police and prosecutor were satisfied with how it was handled, as the woman in question has been charged with a bevy of felonies including assault with a deadly weapon and attempted murder.
Additionally, that incident involved the gun being used during the crime. Siemon’s policy is meant to apply when the felony firearm charge in question is tacked on when a gun wasn’t used, but was in the accused’s possession during the crime.
Gregg and other Council members said they did not feel “comfortable” signing a statement from one elected official attempting to rebuke another.
In the discussion, Council Member Lisa Babcock noted that she couldn’t remember a time when an elected law enforcement officer was “so openly critical” of a policy made by another elected official.
“I am a little surprised by this request,” Babcock said. “While I may have concerns about the prosecutor’s policy decisions, it does not match my concern about law enforcement coming to us and telling us we should be critical of the prosecutor’s policy positions.”
Mayor Pro Tem Dana Watson took Wriggelsworth to task on racial inequity — the real aim of Siemon’s policy — asking him when his office first understood there to be racial disparities in policing and what he’s done about it.
Wriggelsworth acknowledged that there are more people of color “going to jail and prison than there weren’t” but that he doesn’t “have all those answers.” He added, “when we take a 911 call…the race of the victim, or the reporter [of a crime], and the suspect are always predetermined. We don’t play any role in determining that.”
“But you all do choose sometimes not to charge, or to charge, or how many charges,” Watson replied. “And there is racial disparities in how that’s divvied out.”
Wriggelsworth asserted that there are “a million reasons” why people commit crimes, but that in his opinion, using this policy change to fix inequities “makes literally no sense” and that the policy is “foolish” in the face of what he called a “gun violence crisis in this community.”
But Watson persisted in her questioning and asked Wriggelsworth to comment again on what he and his office are doing to address known racial disparities: “What role do you all play in that, and how can you fix it?”
“When it comes to the criminal justice system, and there’s a victim involved in the case, we don’t necessarily — we have to investigate the case and submit charges if the victim wants to prosecute,” Wriggelsworth said.
Clearly unhappy with that answer, Watson responded in what was perhaps her most impassioned moment as a member of City Council.
“The prosecutor saw a role that could be played by the prosecutors and our community, we see a role that we can play in systemic racism. And this unrest has come from our relationships with police officers and you’re standing here, and there’s nothing? There’s nothing that you guys are thinking about doing? There’s no policy changes that you all are offering up? But you’re here, because the prosecutor is trying to do something different because something different needs to be done,” Watson said. “We have a problem.”
In response, Wriggelsworth reiterated that he saw Siemon’s new policy as one that would lead to increased gun violence.
Council Member Shanna Draheim also pointed out, as did several of her fellow Council members, that Siemon had come with “incontrovertible” evidence that a racial disparity existed due to this charge, and was taking some action to fix it.
Draheim and Ron Bacon both expressed concerns about how the policy was released without much public debate beforehand, and both asked that conversations continue around the topic.
Draheim told Wriggelsworth that “I think a forum for educating and having that conversation is a little different from signing onto a policy that in some way rebukes another elected official. And I’ll just say straight up that I’m not comfortable doing that.”
Gregg, in response to the discussion, told Wriggelsworth that she didn’t “sense support” from the Council to add her signature to his document.
Wriggelsworth was re-elected for a four-year term as Sheriff of Ingham County in 2020 with about 70% of the vote, running on the Democratic ticket. Siemon was also re-elected for a four-year term in 2020 on the Democratic ticket, obtaining about 66% of the vote.
Andrew Graham contributed reporting.