Data newly released by the East Lansing Police Department shows that in the last four months of 2020, the average African American resident of East Lansing was almost three times as likely to be stopped by an ELPD officer as a white resident.
ELPD’s new Chief, Kim Johnson, is calling the situation “unacceptable” and says he is determined to identify the causes for the disparity and to “take all necessary corrective actions within our agency” if further review of the data bears out the apparent pattern.
Johnson, who is African American, was hired into the position in October, following months of turmoil in ELPD arising from complaints of police brutality from two Black men injured in encounters with the same white officer. Police investigations of the cases found no wrongdoing by the officer but have led to a wave of policy and methodological reforms in ELPD.
On Wednesday evening, Johnson told East Lansing’s Human Rights Commission that he was hoping the numbers of Blacks stopped by police would be less disproportionate after he came on board and started instituting specific changes, but he’s not seeing that.
From September through December of last year, 62.8% of all police-initiated stops by ELPD officers involved white citizens, while 24% involved African Americans. When the data is broken out by residents and non-residents stopped by ELPD officers, it shows that 17.5% of East Lansing residents stopped were African American, while the last census indicated that only 6.8% of East Lansing residents are African American.
What these newly-released numbers tell us is that, in the last four months of 2020, a white resident of East Lansing had about a 1 in 167 chance of being stopped by an ELPD officer, while an African American resident had about a 1 in 59 chance.
The data was made available to the Human Rights Commission (HRC) by Johnson in conjunction with the HRC’s annual review of complaints made against ELPD officers.
It was then further analyzed in a memo provided to HRC by Chris Root, Vice Chair of East Lansing’s Study Committee on an Independent Police Oversight Commission. (Disclosure: Root has been a reporter for ELi on these issues.)
“If using the official U.S. Census demographic data is the correct indicator of how many people of certain ethnic races we should have contact with,” Johnson said in his memo, “then our current police contact numbers for 2020 are unacceptable.”
City Council member Ron Bacon, who is the Council liaison to the HRC, said at Wednesday’s meeting that he’s worried about how the new data could inflame already-existing tensions.
“I think what happens in a culture when data like this comes out, and we already have a branding problem, we want officers to get home alive,” Bacon told the HRC. “We want the stopped person to get home alive. Now with this type of data that confirms many people’s fears, now you have a heightened encounter. You’re coming into the community on high alert and the encounter’s already heightened and now it’s heightened in a different way.”
Bacon called the situation “the reason to change,” because, he said, “we don’t want [police officers] having heightened encounters either, when every single person who encounters them is assuming bias, assuming an unrighteous stop.” He said he worried about East Lansing having a racially-charged incident that would end up on CNN.
Three officers have left since Johnson became Chief.
Johnson told the HRC that, since his tenure as Chief began in October of 2020, he has been working with his command officers to make changes to the structure of ELPD in hopes of addressing issues of racial disparities in policing. These follow on changes instituted while Deputy Chief Steve Gonzalez was Acting Chief.
Besides changing policies about when license plates are run through the state Law Enforcement Information Network (LEIN) system and working on de-escalation methods, Johnson is also pushing his officers to use a community policing approach that requires more frequent, intentionally-positive engagement.
But, Johnson said, one challenge is that so many officers in ELPD are either new or newly-promoted and so are still on probation in their current positions: 25 out of 49 sworn officers currently on staff have been hired since Johnson retired from the force in 2012. Seven of the sergeants in ELPD are new to their positions.
Until recently, the force had 52 sworn officers, but three officers left the ELPD when Johnson was appointed as chief last fall, with two transferring to neighboring jurisdictions.
When asked why they left, Johnson told the HRC that it was his “gut feeling” that they felt ELPD was no longer a good fit for them. He said that two had specifically left to take police jobs in more “conservative” jurisdictions.
The three officers are not being replaced. Instead, the money that had funded their positions is going to fund social workers and neighborhood resource specialists under a new ELPD program.
The City Manager and Police Chiefs want an outside expert to analyze the data.
At the Jan. 25 meeting of the Study Committee on an Independent Police Oversight Commission, City Manager George Lahanas said about the officer-initiated stop data, “On the face of it, the number does concern me and does require a deeper look…at some point, if the numbers don’t fit with where they should be, then you have to look back at individual officers and hold people accountable.”
Johnson and Gonzalez are of the view that the situation needs to be further considered quantitatively and qualitatively.
In his Feb. 1 memo to Lahanas, Johnson wrote, “We have assigned a full-time police officer to the Police Administration to work with Capt. [Chad] Connelly to conduct a thorough review and assessment of the Officer-Initiated Contact percentages. At the same time, they will explore the various research firms and educational institutions that would be able to create an objective analytic study for the department, which will identify and report on all police actions and contacts made with the public.”
Gonzalez is also calling for an external expert to be hired. Gonzalez said at the Study Committee’s most recent meeting, “We really do need to pursue some sort of a study with people who are experts in this…to be able to tell us where is our benchmark here in East Lansing? Quite frankly, we just don’t know right now.”
Monday’s upcoming agenda for the next meeting of the Study Committee now shows the draft RFP and a plan to discuss it.
But some feel more data or data analysis will just reiterate what has already been described by Black residents for years.
Like several Study Committee members a week earlier, several HRC Commissioners at Wednesday’s meeting were skeptical of the need for a study to prove what they see as already clear from the data provided by ELPD.
HRC Vice Chair Liz Miller argued: “We don’t always need stats to know the culture…the anecdotes that have consistently come out from both residents of color and those that either drive through the city or work in the city and their experience with policing or over-policing feel like they’re really supported with the contacts and the percentages.”
She suggested that ELPD need not wait on an outside body to conduct an analysis to know there’s a problem: “I would encourage the police department to not start with the question of what should those numbers be, but with the assumption something’s broken here.”
HRC and Study Committee Chair Chuck Grigsby agreed. “When it comes to this data, and we talk about stories…I don’t feel like we need to get an outside benchmarking process, we don’t need to understand more data to understand that if you live in East Lansing, you are two-to-three times more likely if you’re an African American person to get officer-initiated contact. If you’re not from East Lansing…it’s three-to-four times.”
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