In a 3-1 vote during its Sept. 20 meeting, the East Lansing City Council approved recommendations put forth by the city’s Independent Police Oversight Commission that will result in a letter to Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel demanding her office drop all charges against DeAnthony VanAtten.
VanAtten, who was shot by East Lansing Police Department officers Jose Viera and Jim Menser on April 25 in the parking lot of the Lake Lansing Meijer, was charged by Nessel’s office with seven felonies and one misdemeanor in August. The officers were cleared by Nessel of any wrongdoing.
The recommendations to the council, which were unanimously passed by the oversight commission at its Sept. 7 meeting, also requested that council urge Nessel to move VanAtten’s case to the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office if she chooses not to drop the charges and that council ask for access to the AG’s investigatory materials into the events of April 25.
During council’s public comment period, Kath Edsall, a commissioner on the oversight commission who is running for reelection to the East Lansing school board, urged the council to adopt the three recommendations. She noted the commission had acted in unity on this.
“That was a big deal,” Edsall said. “We [the oversight commission] don’t necessarily agree on a lot of things. There’s a pretty heated debate at times, but we all agreed on those motions.”
Before the Sept. 20 vote, Mayor Ron Bacon called Nessel’s announcement of those charges and her decision not to charge the officers “political theater.”
But when it came to the vote, Bacon and council members Dana Watson and Jessy Gregg voted in support of the oversight commission’s three recommendations (asking Nessel to drop the charges or move the case to Ingham County and turn over the investigation file). Lisa Babcock was recused by her colleagues at her request due to her candidacy for the judgeship of 54B district court. George Brookover voted against adopting the recommendations.
“I think the continued involvement of the city council in the politicization of this matter is not to the benefit of the accused or the criminal justice system,” Brookover said. “I ask that they [the Oversight Commission] continue to do their work, let the AG do hers and allow this defendant to have his day in court.”
Brookover, who said he has done substantial defense work in his law practice, warned that council may be dragged into the court case against VanAtten by taking these actions. He objected to council discussing what was being called “evidence” in an active criminal case in part because of the harm it could cause the accused. He also said he wanted to remind that police officers have rights, including through their union contracts.
Before the vote, Bacon voiced his hesitations about the motions, arguing he believed Nessel would not drop the charges nor provide the commission information on an ongoing investigation. He said there had to be a “balancing act” of supporting police and the public and he didn’t like to ask for actions that weren’t going to happen.
But Bacon said he strongly supports, in principle, moving VanAtten’s case to Ingham County, stating he believes VanAtten having to face the “political machine” of the AG’s office will be very difficult.
“To me that’s [dismissal of the charges] not a real option,” Bacon said. “But for the exact same reason, I think that’s why the case shouldn’t be held where it’s held at. So, this is really complicated for me.”
Nevertheless, Bacon voted in favor of adopting all three recommendations as drafted by the oversight commission after Watson moved to ask the AG to drop the charges or move the case and Gregg moved to ask the AG to hand over the investigation file.
Babcock did not make clear her intention not to vote because of her judge candidacy until the moment when the vote was being taken on Watson’s motion. At the point of the vote, Babcock said “pass.”
Then, recognizing the City Charter does not allow a present council member to take a pass on voting, council moved, at Babcock’s request, to recuse her. As a consequence, the vote to recuse Babcock came after the vote on Watson’s motion. This made for an irregular process of recusal, according to the rules of order.
Watson, who like Bacon was in attendance at the Sept. 7 meeting of the oversight commission, said before the votes she and Bacon had met with Nessel in private along with East Lansing’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion administrator Elaine Hardy. Watson also explained why she believes it is important to approve the oversight commission’s recommendations.
“I consider myself a community activist and that means giving voice or supporting voice,” Watson told council. “These types of motions coming in front of us let our community know how we stand as a city council.”
When addressing Bacon’s hesitations over asking the AG to drop the charges, Watson said, “I think it’s worth asking and worth getting a response that makes sense to our community.”