On Monday afternoon, ELi published a report about what happened to a local man of Arabic descent who was charged in December 2020 with multiple crimes by the East Lansing Police Department only to have the county prosecutor’s office drop all the charges in February 2021, after ELPD provided key recordings of the event. Now, two local leaders who have been working to address bias in policing have reacted to Monday’s ELi report, while the Deputy Police Chief has promised some reform.
As we reported Monday, East Lansing Council member Lisa Babcock demanded investigation into the matter – particularly with regard to the truthfulness of one officer’s report – and police investigation found support for her complaints. While the matter didn’t get talked about explicitly by Council members last night, the case clearly was at play in shaping the discussion of ELPD’s budget and operations.
Late on Monday night, ELi received a message — sent also to Babcock and Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon — from Thasin Sardar. Sardar indicated he was writing in his capacity as a trustee of the Islamic Center of East Lansing. He also serves on the City’s Human Rights Commission and as a member of ELi’s Community Advisory Board.
Sardar’s message began by specifically praising Babcock’s actions.
“On behalf of the members of the Islamic Center of East Lansing and Arabic-speaking community of Greater Lansing,” Sardar wrote, “I am extremely grateful to you for your leadership and pursuit of justice for the Arabic-speaking East Lansing resident who was excessively charged and egregiously maligned and defamed by way of the press release and picture, name, and ethnic identification.”
Sardar continued, writing that he personally does not know the man accused in the case or whether the man is associated with the Islamic Center or Muslim community in East Lansing, but “as a resident of East Lansing he deserved fair treatment, with dignity and respect, that should be afforded to anyone regardless of their race, religion, ethnicity, or color of their skin.”
He added that he was grateful to Babcock for her push for accountability in this case.
Sardar also thanked Siemon and her staff for “doing due diligence in reviewing the recordings of the case and recommending dropping the charges which could have otherwise led the accused to spend the rest of his life in prison.”
Finally, Sardar thanked ELi for challenging the initial ELPD press release in the case.
“I am copying this message to fellow board members at the Islamic Center and our worship leader, Imam Sohail Chaudhry, so that they can further disseminate to other community members our appreciation of your good and caring work, and sincere leadership,” he wrote.
During public comment at the City Council meeting last night, East Lansing resident Kelli Ellsworth-Etchison also spoke about the report. Ellsworth-Etchison is a member of the Study Committee on an Independent Police Oversight Commission, which is working to bring recommendations to Council about a formalized system for independent review of complaints made about ELPD officers.
Speaking to what happened in the case reported by ELi on Monday, she told Council, “There are still some very serious issues within the police department and it needs to be reimagined. It needs to be done differently than it is today.”
ELi contacted ELPD with questions about this days before publishing our report, but it was only after publication that we received a response from Deputy Police Chief Steve Gonzalez. Gonzalez said that all six of Babcock’s concerns were investigated and that two violations of policy were identified.
Materials about the case and complaint, released to ELi under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, did not make clear what exactly police investigators found and what actions were taken as a result.
A partially-redacted form showed that the investigation centered on Babcock’s concern about “the truthfulness of the report completed by Sgt. Jeff Thomas.” But in her complaint, Babcock laid out six intertwined concerns, including about Thomas’s claims, how the charges were brought, prejudicial media releases, problems of bias, and the treatment of accused individuals who have not been found guilty.
“The violations pertain to the current Media Relations policy and Code of Conduct policy,” Gonzalez wrote.
Gonzalez was willing to say that there was a reprimand of Thomas, but didn’t offer specifics.
“Discipline resulted in adherence to the progressive discipline standard,” Gonzalez wrote.
He did say that there will be some changes in the department with regard to media releases: “Namely, the identities and photographs of those accused of a criminal charge will no longer be included in a press release even after an arraignment has occurred,” unless it is requested through FOIA.
Another change Gonzalez shared is that officers are now required to double-check their report narratives “prior to their submission for supervisory and prosecutor review.” That change of practice will result in an extra layer of oversight to ensure narratives are accurate, Gonzalez said.
At Tuesday night’s Council meeting, without specifically referring to this case, Council members Babcock, Dana Watson, and Ron Bacon expressed significant frustration with the fact that last night’s discussion of the police department’s budget and structure came just one week before Council is set to vote on the next fiscal year’s budget.
Watson asked why special staff presentations had been made on the Parking budget and the Parks & Rec budget while she had to specifically request a discussion of the ELPD budget. Bacon said he had expected far more structuring of discussions and presentations through “an equity lens” than has been happening. And Babcock said she had become “preoccupied” with the police department’s budget and is disturbed by what feels like a lack of urgency in reform.
We will be bringing a separate report on that discussion, along with additional follow-up on Monday’s report as more public records are made available to our reporting team.