An animated discussion during the Nov. 4, meeting of the Human Rights Commission about seeing police use of force videos revealed frustrations about what Commission Chair Chuck Grigsby characterized as “resistance, delays and the lack of cooperation” from East Lansing Police.
The Commission sought to work in concert with City Council’s June 9 resolution aimed at addressing police use of force. With the support of then Council liaison Aaron Stephens, in July, the HRC requested to see a number of use of force videos and case reports from ELPD.
A use of force subcommittee, consisting of Grigsby, HRC Vice Chair Krystal Davis, and Commissioner Karen Hoene, was specifically created to review this new information and report back to the entire HRC so the group could offer recommendations to City Council.
But it took from July until mid-September for the subcommittee to be presented anything, and once they did sit down with ELPD, what information they were presented was “whittled down” from the HRC’s original request according to Grigsby.
All told, the use of force subcommittee were shown two videos, despite requesting at least 12, and saw no written case reports. One of the two videos they were shown, Grigsby said, was not related to their request.
Grigsby explained that members of the subcommittee had waited until mid-September, operating under the assumption that police staff were compiling the body cam videos and case reports, making necessary redactions in light of HIPAA (the national medical privacy act) and pending litigation.
“None of that was really taking place,” Grigsby concluded.
It was only once the members of the subcommittee met with ELPD staff that they got explanations — HIPAA and open legal matters — about why they were being shown so little compared to what they asked to see. Hoene also said she just expected to be emailed the videos and case reports, not to have to go and meet with ELPD staff.
The conversation about the matter at the Nov. 4 HRC meeting was spurred on by Council member Ron Bacon, who took over for Stephens as liaison upon Stephens’ promotion to Mayor and Bacon’s appointment to Council on Aug. 1. At the recent meeting, Bacon started by asking the status of the request generally and seeing if the Commissioners were, in effect, done with it.
“If you’re asking whether we’re satisfied with that, the answer is no,” Hoene said about seeing just the two videos.
Bacon seemed to not understand the HRC’s intent for the information they’d requested — to learn how ELPD uses force, analyze that, and ultimately recommend changes to Council. Bacon suggested the Commission try to be narrow in what it was trying to do with the videos, but several Commissioners pushed back.
Some noted that they can’t really gauge what they need to look for in use of force videos until they’ve got a more general picture of what is happening, and that will take more than two videos.
“It’s not that difficult to understand what we’re doing and why,” Grigsby said.
Bacon didn’t disagree that the Commission should get this information, but from his perspective, it seemed like they weren’t clear on what they were after and what they would do with it.
Grigsby, Davis and Hoene all disagreed with that notion. Davis pointed out to Bacon an email she had previously sent him outlining the goals of the subcommittee and HRC. Grigsby said there is no “mystery” about what they’re after. Hoene acknowledged that a lack of a structure for getting this information and how it gets used isn’t ideal but believes the group is necessarily still working out precisely what it needs to see.
“Even though we might not have every detail figured out, exactly what our ask is —and I get that it feels more comfortable when we do — I still contend that this is something important and worthy of our time,” Hoene said.
Bacon suggested that the HRC needs to articulate a minimum number of videos they’d need to see. Hoene and others pointed out they can’t assess, exactly, how many videos they might need to see after seeing just two.
“It’s impossible to know what you don’t know and since this is new territory for us in doing this,” Commissioner Pat Cannon said. “I think the more we look at those videos the more we will understand what to expect, what we’re looking for.”
Grigsby and Davis said they had both spoken with Mayor Stephens — who had supported the request for video when he was HRC liaison — and both indicated he was upset with how the HRC had been presented relatively little information.
The ultimate endgame of the HRC reviewing use of force incidents, it seems, is to create a pathway for future public bodies, like a possible Police Oversight Commission, to get videos and case reports from ELPD.
“We want to have them set up to win,” Grigsby said. “If we’ve gotta go through the painstaking growth process of sharing this information, fighting for this and that, ultimately that’s part of the end goal. So [that] when we do have an independent oversight body, there is a process, there is a path, there is that transparency and trust for that body to be able to say ‘Hey look, can we look at this video?’”
Grigsby continued: “And we’ve done the work now, today, to have a process or a system or a culture within the department that this is OK. This is a great case study of why this is important. Because we’re working through the growth pain of asking for something that’s never been done before.”
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