With possible revision of East Lansing’s disorderly conduct code under consideration by City Council since June 16, the debate became protracted thanks to a change of City Council membership and a tangled web of concerns regarding policing, civil rights, and crowd control in a university town where students have a penchant for burning couches following momentous sporting events.
At last Tuesday’s meeting (Sept. 8), the new Council ultimately decided to create a “task force” to further study the issue. It’s likely the matter will ultimately be resolved under the new City Attorney contract, which will involve a new prosecutor for East Lansing.
Also at last week’s meeting, three months after Council voted to form a Study Committee on an Independent Police Oversight Commission, Council named Kelli Ellsworth-Etchison as the last member of that committee, replacing Ron Bacon (who had been named to the committee before being appointed to Council). But members of the Study Committee still have not been polled about scheduling the first meeting.
This is all part of a pattern this year involving a lot of conversations but not a lot of visible changes in policing and prosecution in East Lansing.
The long, drawn-out process on disorderly conduct code reform has created some confusion at Council.
Council first took up the issue of revising the City’s disorderly conduct code at its June 16 meeting as part of efforts to address possible bias in policing and to move from more punitive measures toward problem-solving instead.
Council had planned to discuss the issue on Aug. 11, and the City’s Human Relations Commission – charged with overseeing civil rights – intended to review the ordinance and provide suggestions to Council before that.
But the HRC was not able to get that work done in time. Council then tabled the discussion, allowing the HRC to take up the issue at its Sept. 2 meeting.
Then, at the Sept. 8 Council meeting, Council was presented with two sets of revisions – one reflecting the HRC’s discussion and the other by City Attorney Tom Yeadon, which drew upon earlier discussion, including suggestions submitted by Council member Mark Meadows prior to his resignation.
In an unusual process, at last week’s meeting, recently-elected HRC Vice Chair Krystal Davis and former Vice Chair Karen Hoene participated by phone to some extent in the Council’s deliberations.
The main focus of last Tuesday’s discussion became sub-sections 10 and 31, which center on rioting.
In East Lansing, rioting has typically arisen from game-related celebrations that turn violent and destructive rather than as an outgrowth of politically-inspired protests.
In the discussion last week, City Attorney Tom Yeadon explained that the laundry list of possible riot-related crimes in the existing ordinance are meant to stop anyone from “advancing” a riot, not simply observing.
Davis told Council that the HRC had concluded that, since sub-section 18 of the Disorderly Conduct Code made it unlawful for anyone to obstruct police and firefighters from executing their duties, the sub-sections on rioting were really unnecessary.
The HRC had consequently suggested striking both sub-sections (10 and 31) on rioting to remove subjectivity from the law and to avoid the possibility of “stacking” – the bringing of multiple charges against one person for the same action.
Council member Bacon agreed that subjectivity is an issue, particularly with regard to when officials deem a gathering a “riot.” He was also concerned about “stacking.”
But Bacon spoke to national history as a reason to maintain some protocol for dealing with violent mob behavior, particularly as it may turn against a specific group or ethnicity.
Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg referred to an earlier conversation she had with Acting Police Chief Steve Gonzalez, who said this part of the code has been used in East Lansing solely to deal with out-of-control celebrations that have turned destructive.
But, Gregg acknowledged, the law as written did not limit prosecution to only that type of so-called “riot.” The sub-sections of the ordinance outline specific behaviors that can be charged, regardless of the motivation.
Council member Lisa Babcock, herself a lawyer, argued for keeping the sub-sections of the code on rioting to protect students from being subject to far more onerous felony charges at the state level.
East Lansing’s existing ordinance allows for up to 90 days in jail and fines at the misdemeanor level, and if there is no such local ordinance, Babcock explained, prosecutors can only charge under state law, which can entail a sentence of 5-10 years and a felony record.
Usually, persons in East Lansing who have been charged under these sections of the code spend a night in jail, pay bond, and then have a court appearance. Only the most egregious behavior results in more jail time.
ELPD could opt not to pursue any charges if all they have is the harsher state law as an option, but during major sports weekends, officers from multiple police departments (including county and state) are typically on duty here based on mutual aid agreements. Consequently, in the debate, Babcock argued for the protection of a less severe local code.
Davis still disagreed with the idea of keeping these riot-related misdemeanors in East Lansing’s law. She argued that the time for radical change was now and called for most disorderly conduct to result in a citation, not a misdemeanor.
Gregg thought citations were a good solution for some forms of disorderly conduct, but not for rioting.
A new grouping will tackle the issue next.
At the end of last Tuesday’s discussion, Gregg called for the formation of an informal task force to resolve some of the more contentious issues before bringing the ordinance before Council again.
“I’m not interested in saving time, I’m interested in doing this right,” said Gregg, as the discussion drew to a close.
The task force will consist of Gregg, Bacon, two members of the HRC, and City staff members. Yeadon clarified that because this was not a special group established by formal resolution, it does not need to follow the Open Meetings Act, so it can meet and deliberate outside of public meetings.