UPDATED: Monday, April 19, 2021, at 10:44 a.m.
A series of emails and text messages between members of the East Lansing City Council, the City Manager, and the Police Chief – spanning roughly 24 hours across Feb. 16 and 17 – reveals how and why several members of Council pushed back when notified that ELPD would be honoring Officer Andrew Stephenson and former City Attorney Tom Yeadon at the 2020 police awards ceremony.
The ceremony, slated to take place virtually and to be live-streamed on YouTube on the evening of Feb. 17, was ultimately canceled. Stephenson was set to receive a Letter of Commendation. Also slated to be honored with a “True Blue Award” were Erin Housefield of the Ingham County Prosecutor’s office and former City Attorney Yeadon, who prosecuted a large portion of ELPD cases as City Attorney.
Stephenson was the central figure in two separate incidents of alleged excessive use of force against Black men in December 2019 and February 2020. Stephenson was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing in both cases and continues to serve with the ELPD.
ELi has previously reported the cancelation of the police awards ceremony, a controversy that came to light after ELPD Sergeant Jeff Thomas used the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to see what City leaders had said to each other about the matter. Now, the City’s response to Thomas’ FOIA request provides more information.
The whole saga began with an email under the subject line “It is a different year for Awards!”
That’s what Nicole Mosteller, assistant to City Manager George Lahanas, wrote when she informed Council on Feb. 16 that the ceremony would be taking place the following evening.
“The annual Police Award Ceremony will be held virtually and will be streamed via YouTube tomorrow, February 17 at 7 p.m.,” Mosteller said at 1:03 p.m. on the 16th.
Included in the email was a list of people being honored, organized alphabetically by first name. The first name appearing on the list is Andrew Stephenson’s.
At 9:49 p.m., following a City Council meeting, Council Member Lisa Babcock replied to the message, but only to Lahanas.
“I am surprised to see Detective/Officer Stephenson being rewarded for merit. I honestly don’t know how we square that with the past 12 months,” Babcock wrote.
About an hour later, Mayor Aaron Stephens replied all with a question for Mosteller: “Who decides these awards?”
Five minutes later, though, Stephens replied to say “never mind” and that he’d seen the list of names at the bottom. The attached materials included a list of the members of the 2020 Board of Awards, all ELPD employees: Lieutenant Chad Pride, Sergeant Travis Bove, Officer Steve Whelan, Officer Asheley McMath and Jeremy Truax.
Then Babcock responded again at 11:42 p.m., this time to Lahanas, Stephens, and Police Chief Kim Johnson.
Babcock’s email opened as such: “I wrote too soon. I am actually OUTRAGED by several of the names on this list. Stephenson? Nelson? Woodruff? AND TOM YEADON, WHO WAS FIRED BY COUNCIL FOR — among other things — ISSUING RACIALLY DISPARATE CHARGES!?!”
Babcock concluded with the following paragraph: “This is DISGUSTING. It will be absolutely humiliating to this council and this community if this ceremony occurs tomorrow. It will damage us, internally and externally, beyond control. Please cancel this immediately.”
Five minutes later, Babcock also texted Stephens.
“Check your city email. I want this ceremony cancelled immediately,” Babcock wrote in the first message. “This is going to be so, so bad. ELPD is just outrageous. If George [Lahanas] can’t make this not happen, I want a personnel review of his ASAP,” she wrote in the text.
Babcock then forwarded her most recent response to Council Member Dana Watson.
Stephens responded to Babcock’s latest email about 20 minutes later, at 12:01 a.m., on Feb. 17.
His emailed response at the time was the same as what he’d recently texted to Babcock.
“We don’t decide those awards, George doesn’t either,” Stephens wrote. “We are going in a new direction, whether folks on that committee like it or not. The change necessary is the issue we should focus on, and the direct problems we can address and policy we can change, not an award ceremony that is given by their department in my opinion. And the change is in our control. Not theirs. I don’t think that cancelling their ceremony outright will assist with that. I think it will further divide the situation while we go through and create an entirely new system for police oversight. Although I have not had much time to think, so I will think it over. These are very initial thoughts on my part. I will follow up with you tomorrow on this. I am not comfortable with the situation either.”
Babcock replied to Stephens over text with a series of messages.
“No one will believe we’re changing if this happens. Put another way: if ELPD had an annual ceremony to perform in blackface, would we demand they cancel it or just call it part of their tradition and department? Or any other loathsome, vile tradition? No. We’d stop it as soon as we learned about it,” Babcock wrote to Stephens across several text messages.
At 12:06 a.m., separate from other email threads, Watson replied to Mosteller and Stephens, with the rest of Council copied on the message.
“I don’t understand,” Watson wrote. “I see nominee, award and Stephenson? Please clarify.”
The emails continued into the wee hours of the morning, and no one seemed to know why Stephenson was getting an award in the first place.
At 12:44 a.m., Stephens sent another message, this time saying it was wrong to honor Stephenson.
“I have thought about this a bit more. I have no issue with the Yeadon award. However, I can’t rationalize honoring someone in this way. This community has asked us to change, this council has pushed for change, we had marches to our doors for this. I don’t care how it looks on us. If folks want to disagree with the direction we are going, so be it. But for the city to issue [an] award to the central target of those marches in East Lansing is not only disrespectful to the community, it’s wrong.”
At 1:00 a.m., Lahanas emailed Johnson directly, saying the two should discuss it in the morning. At 1:29 a.m., Lahanas emailed Johnson again, requesting that “per our conversation today, please let me know what you found regarding the awards process.”
Then at 1:38 a.m. Lahanas emailed Council, telling them he was looking into the matter with Johnson.
“I asked the Chief how we arrived at this process and what the recognition was for,” Lahanas wrote. “He was not aware of the details when I spoke with him earlier, but was going to look into it. I will follow-up with Council as soon as I learn more.”
The following morning, the ceremony was cancelled.
It wasn’t until just after 8 a.m. that ELPD Chief Johnson replied, agreeing he and Lahanas should talk and noting he was free after 8:30 a.m. At 8:46 a.m., Babcock simply said “thank you” to Lahanas for looking into the matter.
Finally, the matter effectively ended when, at 9:48 a.m., Johnson emailed Stephens, Babcock, and Lahanas to tell them the ceremony was canceled. Stephens forwarded that message to Watson, Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg, and Council Member Ron Bacon shortly thereafter.
“I have taken your concerns into consideration and will be canceling our Awards Ceremony for tonight,” Johnson wrote. “We are already in the process of changing how awards are bestowed on our employees going forward.”
He continued: “I apologize if this planned event caused you to lose sleep last night and that was not our intention. Thank you again for sharing your thoughts with me.”
Later that day, at 1:10 p.m. – almost exactly 24 hours after Council was notified of the ceremony – Johnson emailed the police department and announced the awards were cancelled due to “several unforeseen circumstances.”
“My heartfelt apologies goes out to all, especially to the 2020 Board of Awards committee for all of their hard work and determination in getting our annual Awards Ceremony off of the ground during these unprecedented times,” Johnson wrote.
The materials provided do not answer the questions of who was on the awards committee and what the rationale was behind the various awards.
Correction: A reader notified ELi that the FOIA’ed materials did, in fact, identify the members of the 2020 Board of Awards, which decided who was honored. This story has been updated to reflect that information.