This Wednesday evening, Feb. 2, East Lansing’s Human Rights Commission will hear and discuss the annual “complaints against officers” report from the East Lansing Police Department chief and deputy chief.
Based on what we’ve seen at meetings over the last several months plus the published agenda, it is expected that the HRC’s discussion will involve ongoing concerns about police use of force, ELPD policies, racial bias in policing, and policing transparency.
Citizen frustration over a lack of transparency in ELPD is ongoing and not new.
In 2016, the City of East Lansing settled a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit brought by Evan Stivers, who was trying to ascertain whether ELPD officers who he believed had mistreated him had been the subject of prior complaints.
The suit came about because City Manager George Lahanas denied Stivers’ FOIA request, saying there was “a significant public interest in nondisclosure of complaints where the complaint has not been sustained or the officers have been exonerated.”
The suit resulted in a settlement wherein the City had to pay $4,000 plus the legal expenses of both sides. In the settlement, the City promised to release certain information about citizens’ complaints, even if the complaints were found by police on investigation to be without merit.
ELPD leaders promised more transparency in 2016, and, since then, they have been making presentations about complaints against officers each year at HRC. (See ELi’s reporting on the presentations in 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020.)
But transparency continues to be a struggle when dealing with ELPD and the City.
For example, ELi found out in a roundabout way that last year’s special HRC presentation about complaints made against officers in 2019 failed to mention any internally-generated complaints, suggesting there had been none in 2019.
In fact, we now know from ELPD Deputy Chief Steve Gonzalez that, in 2019, there were four internally-generated complaints against officers. One of the four was a policy violation found to be “sustained” (meaning the complaint was found warranted), and another was about excessive use of force that also was found to be “sustained.”
Asked why the ELPD chiefs never even told the HRC about these four internally-generated complaints, Gonzalez said by email, “There was a misunderstanding of what was being asked by the HRC in regards to 2019 HRC Administrative Inquiries.” He said, “we intent to report on these inquiries at the meeting” at HRC tomorrow.
We recently attempted to use FOIA to find out whatever we could about the four 2019 complaints that went unmentioned last year. ELPD charged us $78.14 for this request (#7-21) and then proceeded to give us only material that told us nothing meaningful about the complaints, denying us the rest under the claim that our request was “too broad” and involved confidential material.
We were basically charged for the request and then given nothing of what we asked for.
Mayor Aaron Stephens has not responded to our request to refund our money, and in general, he does not respond to ELi’s requests for more transparency.
The current Council has taken few actions to increase policing transparency; for example, the five Council members now obtain weekly reports from ELPD on use of force incidents but do not make them public without FOIA.
To our surprise, through relentless tracking of ELPD’s published weekly reports, the ELi reporting team also discovered that the public weekly reports from ELPD generated in 2019 noted only about one-quarter to one-third of the actual use of force that occurred in 2019.
Gonzalez has explained that this resulted from problems with the record-keeping computer system and the way documentation was occurring. He said that the publicly-available data should now be more accurate. But it has been hard for us to obtain records of incidents involving use of force.
When we recently asked for all available material on use of force cases during a seven-week period, we were denied the request, told it was too broad in terms of what we were asking in terms of material and the time span covered. The denial erroneously claimed we were asking for three months’ material, and deemed our material request “too broad,” even though an identically-worded request for a single use-of-force case was answered with a request for a $235.44 fee, suggesting material will be turned over in that case, despite the same wording.
And it’s not just use of force data that’s hard to obtain or pin down.
ELi recently requested information about violations being written under the City’s emergency public health ordinance, so that we could ascertain for our reporting the frequency and location of student parties that are exceeding public health regulatory limits. We were told to FOIA the information, even though in the past, the addresses and number of citations were made easily available.
When we did try to FOIA the most recent information, we were told we would have to pay $568.48 for information, and were not told, in these exchanges, key and relevant information that the police knew by then – that the City Council had accidentally let the law lapse and so all violations written since the start of the year were legally meaningless.
ELi and other news organizations have had to struggle to obtain police reports and bodycam video even in highly-publicized cases. The HRC has on occasion stepped in to demand release of videos. The struggle for transparency has been called an “uphill battle.”
We have previously reported on how the problems with transparency in East Lansing policing reflect a broader problem of transparency under the current City leadership.
This year’s HRC discussion on complaints comes amidst a new scene.
The scene in East Lansing around policing has changed radically from a year ago. While last year’s complaints-against-officers discussion at HRC on Feb. 12 was tense, it actually came before – exactly two days before – tensions would erupt in the wake of allegations of police brutality against ELPD officers by Tito Gasito.
Gasito’s public outcry in Feb. 2020 led to a special investigation by ELPD which then found “insufficient evidence” of police wrongdoing. The way ELPD handled the matter came under fierce criticism, particularly after it came to light that one of the officers involved had been the subject of an earlier complaint by another Black man, Anthony Loggins Jr., who was similarly injured. That complaint investigation, ELPD’s chief told the Council, had been temporarily lost.
Special investigation by ELi (benefitting from the Stivers lawsuit) found the officer at the center of the complaints, Andrew Stephenson, has been the subject of at least five racial bias and/or excessive force complaints. Investigation into Stephenson’s actions by Michigan State Police and an independent prosecutor ultimately led to no charges against Stephenson. He has now been moved to a desk job in the detective bureau.
Public outcry in this matter also led to the decision to drop all charges against Gasito and those against Loggins. Amid the turmoil, ELPD Chief Larry Sparkes retired suddenly and Deputy Chief Gonzalez became Acting Chief. Now, ELPD has a relatively new chief, Kim Johnson and is undergoing “realignment” – meaning that ELPD has been undergoing a lot of since last year’s HRC complaint-reporting meeting. Added to all of this, of course, has been the national outcry over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
More has changed since a year ago.
The current City Council has amended the disorderly-conduct code in an attempt to reduce the piling-on of unjust charges, and, following many months of delay, last October, City Council finally named and convened a special Study Committee on an Independent Police Oversight Commission, which has – inevitably – been paying a lot of attention to transparency and accountability.
That group has also been paying attention to data that may show racial bias in policing with regard to traffic stops, arrests, and use of force. A significant amount of new data is expected to be released by ELPD to the Study Committee before its next meeting on Feb. 8.
So, it is safe to expect that the meeting of the HRC this week will go long and deep along many tense axes.
The agenda includes information about how you can make public comment. Atypically, public comment for this meeting will occur near the end, the reason being it allows comment to come after the police presentations.