Ruth Beier declared herself now “fully woke.” Aaron Stephens said he wants a social worker in the police department, and less aggressive policing. Mark Meadows reminisced about hearing Martin Luther King Jr. speak, and defended his claim that “good cops don’t protect bad cops.” Jessy Gregg was moved to tears while calling for defunding ELPD. And Lisa Babcock was largely silent, as she has been on this issue.
Last night’s East Lansing City Council’s discussion of racism in East Lansing and America went on for over two hours, including public comment from many citizens who called on the Council to defund and/or radically alter the policing system that East Lansing now has. Here is a synopsis, and you can watch the full recording here.
Reform? Defund? Reinvest?
Calling in to make comment at the virtual meeting, East Lansing resident Dustin Hunt urged Council to “defund, not reform, ELPD” based on what he has seen. He told Council that ELPD has a history of targeting Black and Brown residents, students, and visitors, and he said that people who are Black and Brown are afraid to come visit him at his East Lansing home for that reason.
“Police reform is always on the horizon for ELPD,” he said, “and that is not enough.” Recognition of implicit bias and diversity training is not going to “get to the core of white supremacy,” Hunt told Council.
Anna Fisher, whose petition to fire ELPD Officer Andrew Stephenson has reached over 6,700 signatures, effectively agreed with Hunt, saying that numerous procedural reforms in the Minneapolis police department “didn’t save George Floyd.”
The problem, Fisher said, is the culture of American policing, adding that it is time to ask ourselves what we want public safety in East Lansing to look like.
Shedding tears while speaking of what happens to Black and Brown families, Gregg read into the record a statement she later shared with ELi specifically speaking to how to change East Lansing’s budget to begin to defund armed policing and to put money to the City’s stated priority of “Health, Welfare, and Community Development.”
Referring to the subject of a January 2018 report she herself wrote when she was a reporter for ELi, Gregg said that police in East Lansing wouldn’t be stretched to the breaking point if armed police weren’t the first responders for so many things that could be dealt with by unarmed and more appropriate specialists, like social workers.
She said the question needs to change from “Do we have enough police to respond to every crime scene?” to “Why are we having police respond to things that aren’t crimes?” Gregg also called for a formal retreat of City Council to discuss these problems, a call others supported.
Mayor Beier said while she would not mind seeing more human services provided, she wasn’t sure how much of the policing budget could be shifted to other things. She called instead for the community to “embrace change,” to “root out racism,” to “confront implicit bias,” and to “not over-police people of color.”
Like Beier, Stephens called for less aggressive policing. He also called for immediatly hiring a full-time social worker in the police department, having police write appearance tickets instead of arresting people for minor offenses, and having unarmed PACE officers respond to things like party bonfires.
But Beier remarked that PACE officers are not trained to deal with “angry residents.” She said armed officers are not necessarily the right approach but “you need more authority than PACE when you go to a drunk crowd to say ‘put out your fire.’” Beier said the police department had tried to hire more officers of color but that there just aren’t enough to hire.
For his part, Meadows said he had a problem with the word “defunding” because he thought what people are really talking about is reforming the police department to categorize workers in a different way – having social workers for domestic violence cases, unarmed personnel for traffic issues, and highly trained armed officers for violent crimes.
What happened to Loggins and Gasito is influencing the conversation
Speaking about the need for change, Beier said last night that until recently her “privilege” made her assume racism wasn’t a big problem in East Lansing, but that the “bubble was burst” for her at the Lansing area MLK lunch this January when ELHS student Conner Long read a poem about the terror he felt when stopped by police on Burcham Drive.
But then, referring to the cases of two Black men arrested and injured by the actions of ELPD Officer Stephenson, Beier said the case of Tito Gasito in February did not cause her to understand the scope of the problem of East Lansing policing. In fact, at the Feb. 27 presentation in which ELPD said they could not find evidence to support Gasito’s claim of police brutality, Beier read a statement praising the police – outraging many.
Last night Beier said it was the case of Anthony Loggins Jr., in which Stephenson wounded Loggins, that caused her to be “fully woke.” This was the case that came to light in March.
Beier openly stated that she now believes Stephenson was making false statements about Loggins’ supposedly aggressive actions during the arrest as a way of Stephenson “talking to the camera so he can justify what he’s doing.”
Beier suggested the video does not bear out what Stephenson claims – suggesting she believes Stephenson was using the body cams to set Loggins up for criminal charges for things he did not do, including assaulting a police officer, a felony offense.
Do better policies really make a difference?
Steve Gonzalez, appointed by Lahanas as Acting Police Chief since Larry Sparkes retired during turmoil over police brutality allegations, told Council last night that he has changed or is looking to change a number of procedures and policies, including possibly immediately sharing with prosecutors dash-cam and body-cam footage of arrests rather than just giving them the written reports from police – something Mayor Pro Tem Stephens said he wants to have happen to avoid “miscarriages of justice.”
Gonzalez also said policy has been changed to now require officers to intervene when they see excessive use of force. Past policy instructed them to do so only “when feasible.”
At Council’s meeting, Gonzalez made a presentation explaining how East Lansing’s policies compare to the “8 Can’t Wait” project of Campaign Zero, a project aimed at getting police departments to immediately reform policies in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
But Gonzelez explained in a memo and his oral report that much of East Lansing’s policies already conform to that list. This was a point echoed by citizen Nell Kuhnmuench during public comment.
Kuhnmuench said the “8 Can’t Wait” list involves “nice-sounding words but policies violated so frequently that they really mean nothing.” She said she was tired of failed measures and called for going beyond conventional reform measures to investment in Black communities.
Beier explained in response that looking at “8 Can’t Wait” was her idea, as mayors around the U.S. had been asked to consider it. She also asked Council to pass a resolution based on the Obama Foundation’s call for commitment to action on changing policing in America. (That resolution passed.)
Beier said she wants to give ELPD a “chance to improve” and reiterated that she believes dealing with “implicit bias” will create deeply meaningful change.
Activists speak about private meeting with City Manager and Police Chief
Activists Farhan Sheikh-Omar and Edmund Rushton spoke to thank Lahanas and Gonzalez for meeting privately with them yesterday for several hours at the Hannah Community Center.
Rushton said this closed-door meeting left him feeling like East Lansing now has a city government fully behind addressing police brutality. He called on the City to next address problems in the Ingham County jail.
Like Rushton, Sheikh-Omar sharply criticized Meadows, reminding him he had won by only two votes and castigating him for his comment at the Feb. 27 meeting of City Council that “good cops don’t protect bad cops.” Meadows responded that a good cop who protects a bad cop becomes a bad cop.
Asked at Council’s meeting by Sheikh-Omar about the process of hiring a new police chief, Lahanas said he has been trying to attract a diverse pool and will consult on the applications with a combined panel of community members and senior leadership. He will then interview candidates, have them meet with Council and members of the police department, and then make his decision on who to name as East Lansing’s next Police Chief.
Lahanas says he wants to “dismantle systematic inequalities” in East Lansing government
Just a few hours before Council’s meeting, in a surprise move, Lahanas issued a “Statement Regarding the National Conversation on Racial Inequality.”
It called for empathetic listening; facilitating dialogues on race, equity, and inclusion; creating a full-time Diversity, Equity & Inclusion administrator position; anti-bias and diversity training; and working with an Independent Police Oversight Commission that is still at least eight months from being created.
No one on Council addressed this special “statement” last night.
Pressed at the Council’s virtual meeting during public comment by Chris Root to explain who exactly participated in developing this seven-point plan that calls explicitly for “dismantling the systematic inequalities in City Government,” Lahanas said he worked with East Lansing Fire Chief Randy Talifarro and Community Center Coordinator Elaine Hardy, both of whom are African American.
Lahanas told Council the statement was put out by an unnamed “strong group of employees.” Today, Lahanas’ communications staff said that, in the statement, Lahanas “is speaking on behalf of the City staff.”
ELi has a special section dedicated to our current reporting on East Lansing Policing. See it here.