Council Unanimously Approves Police Oversight Study Group; Split Vote Removes Mayor as Chair

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Gary Caldwell for ELi

Steve Gonzalez, now East Lansing's Interim Police Chief, at the Feb. 12, 2020, meeting of the Human Relations Commission. The meeting fell between when Officer Andrew Stephenson's actions injured Tito Gasito and when Gasito made his injuries known to the public.

After hearing from numerous citizens concerned about policing and management of officers in East Lansing, last night the East Lansing City Council passed a resolution to establish a temporary study committee that will recommend to Council how to form an independent police oversight commission.

The mission of the study committee will be “to take testimony, review evidence, and examine the methods by which other communities review complaints of police misconduct, with special emphasis on racial and ethnic injustice, to review best practices based on national standards and to propose framework for police oversight commission in East Lansing.”

In the biggest change from previous considerations, Council voted 3-2 against appointing Mayor Ruth Beier as the chair of the study committee, reflecting concerns made by community activists that she would have too much influence over the committee’s direction. 

The Rev. Liz Miller, an East Lansing resident and member of East Lansing’s Human Relations Commission, said she was concerned with a white person having “maximal” power over this committee’s work.

Liz Miller at the Feb. 12, 2020, meeting of the Human Relations Commission (Gary Caldwell for ELi).

In contrast to Miller’s remarks – and seeming to mark a change from when Beier was elected Mayor by Council when Beier said she wanted “a Council of equals” – last night Beier said that she believed that, “as a mayor of a city, elected by the people,” she should be chair of this study committee.

“A black man or black woman was not elected mayor,” she said. “I was elected mayor.”

On this issue, Council member Lisa Babcock switched her vote from last time, voting with Aaron Stephens and Jessy Gregg to stop Beier from chairing the committee. Mark Meadows voted with Beier.

Some member of Council will be appointed as a nonvoting Council liaison to the study group, but Beier seemed to indicate last night she wasn’t interested in that position.

Another amendment, this time from Gregg, drew unanimous support – allowing the appointment to the committee of citizens who are not residents of East Lansing. In making the proposal, Gregg noted that people with residences outside the city limits also have to deal with ELPD.

Raymond Holt for ELi

Ruth Beier (left) and Jessy Gregg at the Jan 14., 2020, meeting of Council (Raymond Holt for ELi).

Before the final unanimous vote in favor of establishing the study committee, several council members hailed the new committee as a small but significant step in addressing and hopefully reducing negative encounters between the police and racial minorities.

About 140 other communities across the country have independent police oversight commissions. Beier said the ultimate goal was to help the police eliminate implicit or explicit racial bias and to provide a forum where incidents between police and civilians could be discussed.

“The idea is not to create a commission to punish the police,” Beier said.

Lansing community activist Farhan Sheikh-Omar once again upbraided the Council: “This committee being created tonight is not by the people for the people. It’s being created by the City Council for the City Council.”

The killing of George Floyd in Minnesota touches raw nerves here

The resolution to form the study committee was passed on a day when news came of yet another black man killed by the action of police – George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Floyd appears to have died of suffocation after an officer pinned him to the ground with the officer’s knee against his neck – a move that looks similar to the one East Lansing Police Officer Andrew Stephenson used on Anthony Loggins Jr., a black man, in a December 2019 incident that escalated after Loggins was stopped for failing to use his turn signal when exiting a gas station.

Body cam footage from Andrew Stephenson’s camera, showing Officer Austin Nelson speaking to Anthony Loggins Jr. before Stephenson took Loggins to the ground, handcuffed him, and held his knee on his neck or upper back.

Loggins head and face were bloodied by Stephenson’s actions, and six weeks later, Stephenson used a similar maneuver and left another black man bloodied – Uwimana “Tito” Gasito. Asked to investigate, Michigan State Police exonerated Stephenson, saying the actions were within normal police protocols.

In an email responding to questions from ELi about whether East Lansing’s police have in fact stopped using this maneuver, ELPD Interim Police Chief Steve Gonzalez wrote yesterday, “Placement of the knee across a person’s upper back/shoulder blades is an approved technique through Pressure Point Control Techniques (PPCT) training. Having a knee squarely across someone’s neck for seven minutes, as seen in the Minnesota video, is different. Upon conducting our department wide re-training effort of PPCT use we will be addressing knee placement as part of the program.”

Calls persist for firing Officer Andrew Stephenson

Anna Fisher, who organized a petition calling for firing Stephenson, told Council last night that she would be submitting the petition after the meeting, with over 400 signatures gathered.

But City Manager George Lahanas explained that while the East Lansing Police Department was revising the tactics used by Stephenson, the 10-year police veteran would not be fired by Lahanas or Gonzalez.

East Lansing City Manager George Lahanas at the March 11, 2020, meeting of City Council.

Lahanas said the police union contract laid out a progressive structure for disciplining officers, leading up to termination, but he was not allowed to fire an officer without due process. Lahanas said he is compelled to follow the Michigan State Police finding of no wrongdoing.

Meadows said Council’s hands were also tied: “We’re prohibited by the City Charter from telling [the City Manager] to fire someone or hire anybody.”

East Lansing resident and Human Relations Commissioner Chuck Grigsby pled with City leaders to act.

“This is not a labor issue,” he said, explaining that he is frightened of having Stephenson pull him over when he goes to the grocery store. He said about Stephenson, “it’s the intent behind the hold that is really concerning to me.”

Chuck Grigsby at the Feb. 12, 2020, meeting of the Human Relations Commission, the meeting between when Gasito was injured by police and he made his complaint publicly known.

“You think I believe I am safe? That I feel he has my best interest at heart?” Grigsby asked Council, with anger rising in his voice. “I do a lot in this community when no one is looking, and I should not have to feel threatened going outside my door.”

Mayor Pro Tem Stephens empathized Grigsby and other citizens who expressed anger and fear, saying the Loggins video scared him at how a minor traffic stop could escalate with a civilian pinned to the ground.

Stephens reiterated his strong desire to reform how the offense of “driving with license suspended” is handled, so that people will not have their finances or lives put at risk over an offense that might have at their root simply unpaid parking tickets.

ELi has a special section dedicated to our current reporting on East Lansing Policing. See it here.

Find an overview of our reporting on police oversight here.
  
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