Results of a survey of East Lansing citizens’ perceptions of ELPD’s policing show that African Americans here are less likely to trust or be satisfied with the work of ELPD when compared to the general population.
But EPIC-MRA – the company that was hired for $19,750 by City Manager George Lahanas to conduct the survey and produce an analysis – has not provided the raw data. Responding to a request for the raw data, Lahanas’s assistant Nicole Mosteller told ELi that the City only received the analysis that was presented to City Council on March 23 by Bernie Porn, president and partner at EPIC-MRA.
At that meeting, Lahanas said his goal is to track trends using the same survey in coming years to see if interventions in policing are resulting in improvement. But without the raw data, the only tracking that can happen will be based on the analysis provided.
And, hearing that analysis from Porn, City Council members pushed back against some of it. An MSU faculty member who is an expert in polling also has questions about the conclusions delivered.
The survey did show that African Americans perceive policing in East Lansing more negatively than the general population.
The survey, conducted by EPIC-MRA in early March by phone, was largely similar to a survey put forth by the federal Department of Justice. That’s because Lahanas and Police Chief Kim Johnson intended for the survey, similar to the DOJ’s, to ascertain how people of color, particular African Americans, view policing. In this case, questions focused on ELPD, its officers, and the perception of its policing practices.
For the survey analysis, EPIC-MRA included 500 responsive citizens of East Lansing, 51 of whom identified themselves in the survey as African American. Porn explained that African Americans were intentionally over-represented in the survey compared to the general population, because of the City’s desire to know more about the perspectives of that segment of the community.
In his presentation, Porn stated that, “The majority of African Americans [in East Lansing] DO NOT believe the ELPD or its officers treat people of color, specifically black people, fairly. All residents [when taken together] are largely split on the question or are unsure.”
According to the analysis presented, African Americans are also significantly less likely than the East Lansing population as a whole to trust ELPD or be satisfied with its work. Porn also said that “younger residents, MSU students and residents who rent or lease” also tended to be relatively more dissatisfied with ELPD and its work.
ELi asked Dr. Matt Grossmann, Director of Michigan State University’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, for comment on the survey. He responded that, “The survey [presentation] does not explain how the respondents were contacted, the response rate, the refusal rate, or how the oversample was obtained so I cannot fully evaluate it.”
Porn suggested that national debates over policing following the killing of George Floyd may have led to the negative perceptions of ELPD.
In the written analysis submitted to the City, Porn questioned “whether the views of East Lansing residents – and more specifically African American residents – were influenced by the year-long intense national debate about police departments in general, and discussions about excessive force in police interactions with African Americans, especially African American men.”
Grossmann told ELi that it is common practice to include “untested hypotheses about the case” in descriptive analysis. But, he cautioned, “Including a question about a potential cause also would not demonstrate causality.”
For their part, at the Mar. 23 meeting, Council members pushed back against the notion that community dissatisfaction was informed solely by national and not also important local events.
Council member Dana Watson countered Porn’s suggestion by saying, “East Lansing has experienced some calls because there has been excessive force in our actual community.”
In early 2020, it was discovered that ELPD Officer Andrew Stephenson had used the same techniques to restrain two Black men, leaving them with similar injuries to their faces. These findings roiled East Lansing, resulting in a bevy of actions, including the sudden retirement of ELPD Chief Larry Sparkes a year ago.
Watson also pointed out that asking people about their interactions only in the last 12 months, as the survey did, might skew results since people were more likely to stay at home and less likely to interact the police during the pandemic.
Council member Lisa Babcock said she shared Watson’s skepticism that national debates were the primary driver of local concerns among African Americans in East Lansing. She pointed out that the survey confirmed what Council already suspected: People of color and lower income residents have less faith in the police here.
Council member Ron Bacon concurred, saying that ELPD has a “brand problem” and a “reality problem.” He said the interactions of friends and families with ELPD shade how African Americans view the local police.
Mayor Aaron Stephens argued that one doesn’t need to ascertain what influenced the results to know that the City must press on with police reform.
Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg agreed with the consensus that the survey reiterated what Council has already heard from the community – that African Americans are overpoliced.
Council members voiced additional concerns about the survey and its results.
According to the survey analysis, in the sample of 500:
- 76 percent identified as white;
- 10 percent as African American;
- 5 percent as Asian;
- 3 percent as mixed race;
- 1 percent as Hispanic or Latino;
- 1 percent as “other” races;
- 4 percent did not self-identify using these categories.
However, the analysis did not specify responses by race and ethnicity, with the exception of responses from African Americans. In fact, Porn’s presentation to Council and analysis focused on percentage-based comparisons between the “all” group –inclusive of all 500 respondents, including the 51 African Americans – and the 51 African Americans. Presenting the data in this way would reduce the gap between, for example, white respondents and African American respondents by mixing the African American responses into the “all” average.
According to Grossmann, the raw “results could also be compared across African-American and other respondents,” and doing so “would likely show slightly larger differences” in perceptions among racial and ethnic groups.
At the March 23 meeting, Babcock voiced her skepticism particularly over the survey result that concluded that 100 percent of African Americans were satisfied with their interactions with ELPD during traffic-related issues. She opined that Council does not have a 100 percent satisfaction rate with ELPD. (Babcock told ELi over the phone after the meeting that no organization has such a high approval rating.) Porn explained that the small number of African American respondents meant that the margin of error for their responses came to +/- 13.9 percentage points.
During Council discussion on the matter, Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg said that it appeared as though most respondents who indicated they have been stopped by ELPD for traffic issues were African American, but explained that she had not yet worked out all the math to verify that. Grossmann told ELi that some numbers could be “roughly calculated” using just the percentages. But the information as presented to Council leaves it up to others to do that work by trying to reverse-calculate raw numbers.
So, how will these survey results be used going forward?
During Council discussion, Council members made clear that they had already viewed police reform as an important priority regardless of the survey results, and that the information can provide a baseline to gauge if reforms are working over the next few years.
Speaking to ELi by phone last Friday, Stephens said that he viewed bringing on social workers to assist ELPD, reforming the disorderly conduct code, and the drive to form an Independent Police Oversight Commission as major steps toward improving policing and keeping reforms in place as Council changes membership with the November 2021 election.
Responding by email, Bacon pointed out that the survey focused on residents while people drive through, visit, or work in East Lansing every day, sometimes also interacting with the police. Like Stephens, he pointed to the work the City is already undertaking to improve policing and called the survey results a baseline to build upon.
Babcock and Gregg also told ELi that the survey could be used as a baseline for gauging the efficacy of reforms. In emailed comments to ELi, Gregg emphasized that the City has work to do but said she is “confident that we are moving in the right direction by emphasizing a community policing model,” after learning that those who had interactions with the police were more likely to view them favorably.
In her emailed comments, Watson called the survey results “helpful information going forward as we continue the hard work of rethinking police.”
Watson also expressed appreciation that the survey sampled a larger number of African Americans that would be represented in a random survey of 500 citizens, telling ELi that “people who look like us, come to town to do business, see friends/family, or drive through town are over-policed. This impacts our economy, is unjust, and it impacts the health of our city.”