East Lansing’s Independent Police Oversight Commission convened for the first time last night, Nov. 8, to decide procedural issues, debate how their independence informs their relationship with the East Lansing Police Department, and review use of force incidents from October.
The eleven-member Commission, which ELi introduced last month, unanimously elected administrative judge Erick Williams as the Commission’s Chair after a nomination from Noel Garcia, who is a retired Lansing Police Department officer. Both Williams and Garcia served on the Study Committee on an Independent Police Oversight Commission, which set the groundwork for how the current Independent Police Oversight Commission will function.
Kath Edsall and Garcia were both nominated for Vice Chair, though Edsall ultimately won the seat in a split vote. (In addition to being on the Oversight Commission, Edsall also serves as a trustee on the East Lansing Public Schools Board of Education.)
Council member Ron Bacon and Mayor Pro Tem Dana Watson were both in attendance, and both may continue to serve jointly as the Commission’s Council liaisons, depending on whether the election of the Mayor and Mayor Pro Tem among the new City Council at tonight’s Council meeting shifts their roles.
Bacon welcomed the new commissioners, and spoke of the “challenging” nature of forming a Commission that would deal with sensitive and politically-charged issues. He called the process of forming the Commission a “labor of love” and told the group that East Lansing was “grateful as a City” for their service.
Questions of police presence at meetings opened robust debate.
Divisions in opinion became apparent during the Commission’s discussion about whether to invite members from ELPD to formally attend meetings.
In general, most commissioners agreed that having a police presence at meetings could be useful, but how often the officers should attend and what their role would be in meetings was a point of contention.
Garcia was among the first to endorse inviting an ELPD member to attend meetings on a regular basis, if not every meeting.
Edsall was in strong opposition to a constant police presence at Commission meetings, arguing that people may be intimidated to speak frankly in front of the police.
Edsall received strong pushback from Shawn Farzam, an account executive for an insurance agency, who argued that all present were adults and should be able to speak their minds regardless of who was present at an open meeting.
Other commissioners expressed ambivalence about a police presence, pointing out the utility of having an officer available to answer questions and offer clarity on use of force reports, while also highlighting their hesitancy at having officers present at all times.
Commissioner Amanda Morgan, who is a social worker, said having officers at meetings would be a time for the police to hear concerns from the public, and Commissioner Robin Etchison, a retired General Motors employee, said it would be good for officers with the “authority” to implement changes to hear recommendations from the Commission.
Commissioners also raised questions regarding transparency and how a perceived adversarial relationship with police could affect their work.
Commissioner Ernest Conerly, a middle-school teacher, argued that the Commission should be careful not to “alienate” the police and instead work to build a bridge between the community and officers, saying that officers were community members as well.
Edsall questioned what it meant for the Commission’s independence by having a police officer in the room while the Commission looked at sensitive topics like complaints against the police. She said that police presence could be viewed by the community as problematic.
“How is that transparent?” Conerly said in response. He argued the police need to give their side on complaints and that the police perspective should be integral to their processes as a commission.
After a lengthy debate, the Commission did unanimously agree to a motion that would invite an administrative member of ELPD to attend meetings to respond to specific agenda items, with the understanding that this may be amended in the future if the Commission decides the process isn’t fruitful.
ELPD’s use of force reports were widely criticized by the commissioners.
Several members of the Commission came prepared to critique how the use of force information was presented to the panel – both in terms of format and what information was provided.
The names of the officers involved in the use of force incidents were not included in the report. Several commissioners pointed out that the absence of that information was in violation of Ordinance 1503, which established the Police Oversight Commission and set certain guidelines on how the Commission would function.
According to the language of the ordinance, “The [use of force] report shall include at a minimum, a brief description of the incident and the names and demographic data about the officers and members of the public involved in the incident.”
Several Commissioners found the absence of officer names problematic and argued that recognizing patterns in officer behavior would be helpful to their mission. Commissioner Sharon Hobbs, who is a clinical psychologist, pointed out that if four out of 19 incidents involved the same officer, then that would be something the Commission would need to investigate further.
Etchison summarized the discussion; “I think we all agree; this here’s not going to work.”
Shelli Neumann, the City staff liaison to the Commission, said that the format of the report was identical to what ELPD gives to City Council and that the process to compile the data is labor- and time-intensive since there is no database from which to pull the data. Neumann told the Commission that this was a “first try” and that it would potentially be possible to tweak reports for the future.
The format of the reports was also a problem for commissioners. Each incident is listed with a brief description of the event, the date, and the gender and race of suspects and officers involved. Twenty incidents of use of force were documented during October 2021, with 18 involving human suspects. (The other two involved officers discharging weapons to put down wounded deer. ELPD classifies any instance where an officer unholsters their weapon as a use of force.)
Commissioner Benjamin Hughes, an education specialist, pointed out that this format did not make it easy for the Commission to evaluate patterns, so he compiled a spreadsheet to better analyze the data.
Edsall, among others, suggested that ELPD utilize a specific form for recording use of force incidents to make it easier for them to collect data and thus easier for it to be studied for useful analysis.
The Commission also asked for other information to be provided, including the ages of those involved in incidents and whether a social worker was present on scene.
They asked Neumann to pass along their requests for corrections and to invite a member of ELPD to speak at the next meeting on how the use of force policy is applied in East Lansing and where ELPD is in the process of implementing an early warning system (a database that can help the department identify patterns of officer behavior).
The Police Oversight Commission will meet again on Monday, Dec. 13, to discuss the use of force reports from both October and November and possibly to hear from ELPD on these matters.
Correction notice, Nov. 10, 4:45 pm: The original version of this article indicated that Edsall was awarded the position of Vice Chair in a split vote. The vote was done with hands raised rather than a roll-call vote and led to confusion. This article was then corrected due to two people telling ELi that Garcia was actually voted in as Vice Chair. Now City staff have responded to our request for clarification and they tell ELi that Edsall won in a 6-4 vote. Therefore the original statement, indicating that Edsall is now Vice Chair, has been restored.
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