The East Lansing City Council – meeting remotely via call-in video due to the pandemic – tried last night to hammer out the shape of a new task force to advise on the design of a Police Oversight Commission for the City.
The ultimate goal is to improve the East Lansing Police Department’s relationship with the public and deal with problems involving perceived racial bias, use of force, and especially distrust.
At its next meeting, May 26, the Council will hold a formal public hearing and is expected to pass a resolution establishing a Police Community Relations Review Committee. That eleven-member committee will then meet for up to twelve months to develop advice for Council on the creation of a permanent police oversight commission.
The call for greater citizen oversight of the East Lansing Police Department recently came to a swell following public anger over the arrest and injury of Uwimana Gasito, a 19-year-old black Lansing resident. But efforts to create an oversight board go way back – at least a year – and grow out of long-standing perceptions that ELPD officers are overly aggressive toward people of color, particularly African-American men.
The proposed committee would analyze the relationship that the East Lansing and MSU police forces have with different parts of the community and report back to the Council with recommendations after examining police oversight commissions currently in use in other cities. (The commission would only review complaints against ELPD.)
In last night’s discussion of the matter, Council member Jessy Gregg observed that the Council still could not seem to even name the problem. She objected to the draft resolution’s “whereas” clauses stating the reasons for the work, calling them “vague to the point of obfuscation.”
Gregg said that the Council has “heard from many black and brown residents who say they do not have the same positive relationship with the police force” that she generally enjoys as a white woman. She said she wanted to see the “whereas” clauses changed to acknowledge the issue of racial disparities in policing experiences.
Based on the drafted resolution and last night’s discussion, the temporary committee will likely be composed of one member of the City’s Human Relations Commission, one member of the American Civil Liberties Union, one member from another civil rights organization like the NAACP or Black Lives Matter, four East Lansing citizens, two Michigan State University students, the mayor, one non-police administrator from MSU, and more controversially, someone with a law enforcement background.
Two members of the Human Relations Commission (HRC), Talyce Murray and the Rev. Liz Miller, spoke out against how the resolution was drafted with regard to that last seat, arguing that including a member of law enforcement would chill discussion and immediately send the wrong message.
“It will destroy the foundation of trust,” said Murray, who is the HRC’s Chair.
But Council member Lisa Babcock generally rejected arguments from Murray and Miller, and said the committee could gain great insight from individuals directly involved with police work.
“Policing is a very different kind of job,” Babcock said. “Anyone with a law enforcement background would be an important part of this committee.”
Ultimately, Council replaced the resolution’s stipulation for one member of the committee to be “affiliated with the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards” in favor of one member “with expertise in law enforcement standards who is not an active-duty police officer.”
In a 3-2 vote, Mayor Beier and Council members Mark Meadows and Lisa Babcock voted to keep Beier as the Chair and as a voting member of the committee. Stephens and Gregg wanted to change that position to a non-voting Council liaison. (It is rare for a member of Council to be a voting member of another board or commission.)
Not everyone who spoke last night was focused only on the resolution. Farhan Sheikh-Omar, a friend of Gasito’s who helped organize protests against the East Lansing Police, asked again for more immediate action than a commission could provide, calling for consequences to be meted out against Officer Andrew Stephenson whose “use of force” injured Gasito.
In December 2019, Stephenson’s similar maneuvers resulted in the injuries of another black man, Anthony Loggins Jr. Earlier this month, Stephenson was cleared of wrongdoing by Lt. Erik Darling of the Michigan State Police, who declared that Stephenson’s actions were in line with police standards.
“The first thing we need to do is put this fire out. We need to hold Officer Stephenson accountable,” Sheikh-Omar told Council last night, referring to an investigation into complaints against Stephenson by ELi. “This police officer clocks in and clocks out to look for black people.”
Beier asked City Manager George Lahanas to respond. Lahanas did so by saying that by electing to have Michigan State Police investigate Stephenson, “from a labor perspective that issue has been decided.”
Lahanas said the City must abide by the findings of no wrong-doing. He said that the ELPD administration is working on retraining officers to stop using “that control of head technique” used by Stephenson against Gasito and Loggins.
Sheikh-Omar also asked for all video footage of the encounter with Loggins to be released. Beier promised it would be made public this week.
On this issue, Gregg said East Lansing Police could do better, a point echoed by other members of the Council. “I’m not particularly surprised by these results,” from the state police investigation, she said. “The use of force that is authorized is different than the use of force that is appropriate.”
All of the decisions made last night could still be changed, because the resolution itself is not passed. The draft was merely being altered in preparation for the public hearing on May 26.
Whatever the Police Community Relations Review Committee ultimately recommends will only be advisory to Council. Council will make the ultimate decision about how to change East Lansing’s laws to deal with these issues.