After being convened a year ago, the East Lansing Independent Police Oversight Commission met with members of the public to get input on the Commission’s performance and goals for the future.
The Wednesday, Nov. 2, Oversight Commission meeting was dominated by the annual public input session, which is a requirement of the ordinance under which the body was formed by the East Lansing City Council.
Commissioner Amanda Morgan posed five suggested topics to the approximately 30 public attendees: How the Commission can address police accountability; whether the Commission is helping to make police actions sufficiently transparent; how the Commission can better interact with the community; how the Commission can build trust between the community and police department; and other improvements that can be made.
After introducing the questions, Morgan asked how the Commission might address accountability of ELPD as it relates to public complaints, police conduct and policy recommendations.
Multiple members of the public, who identified themselves only by first names when speaking, expressed a desire to see public input topics ahead of time because it was hard to answer such difficult questions on the spot. Morgan agreed and said the Commission would have questions available ahead of time for next year’s public input meeting.
One speaker, who identified herself by the name of Aislinn, said it was unclear what the Commission could do to hold police accountable. She said she would like to see a clear set of powers defined and what the Commission can do when its members’ opinions conflict with those of ELPD and legal entities.
Commission Chair Erick Williams agreed.
“I’ve been working on this for a year and one thing that has frustrated me is how there is so little oversight of the police and how little power local organizations or agencies like us have,” Williams said.
Williams went on to compare ELPD to a military operation the Commission was tasked with overseeing. Commissioner Shawn Farzam pushed back against this notion, saying the police department is not comparable to a military operation and framing it as such impedes progress. He said there needs to be mutual respect between the Commission and police.
“This is not a hate session,” Farzam said. “I don’t want it to turn into that.”
Morgan moved on to the second question, asking if the Commission can take steps to make its actions more transparent.
Multiple speakers said it would be helpful if meetings were recorded like City Council meetings, so people who are not able to attend can watch later. Commissioner Noel Garcia said recording the meetings has been discussed by the Commission in the past, but those discussions fizzled out without action.
Another member of the public recommended the Commission put more information online for people to read. They also said the city’s website is difficult to navigate and it would help to simplify the site.
Next, Morgan asked if there were ways the Commission can improve community engagement.
The first member of the public to comment on this question identified herself as Mary. She shared a personal story about how she was impacted by the April 25, 2021, police shooting of DeAnthony VanAtten at the Lake Lansing Meijer.
Mary said she does not live in East Lansing, but often shops at the Meijer and now has extreme anxiety when she goes to the store.
“I can’t imagine what members of the community with children in the parking lot on that day must be experiencing,” she said.
Mary went on to say she appreciates the forum the Commission gives members of the public to share their concerns.
Morgan also engaged in a dialogue with community members about the process for holding public hearings. She noted that, under the law that established the commission, if a petition requesting a hearing on a specific topic gathers 20 signatures and is submitted to the Commission, a public hearing will be held on the topic.
She said a petition with 33 signatures has been submitted, asking the Commision to look at national best practices for use of force policy and training and what is being done by ELPD. Morgan said the Commission is looking to hold an event on the topic in January or February next year, but there might be two hearings because of the topic’s importance.
Morgan clarified that the 20-signature requirement was put in place after reviewing what some other cities with oversight commissions require. She also emphasized every Commission meeting begins with a public comment portion and that the body is open to holding more interactive forums if there is public interest.
Next, Morgan asked how effective the Commission has been over the last year at building trust between the community and ELPD.
Commissioner Sharon Hobbs opened responses by stressing the importance of mutual trust between a police department and the community it serves. She said the Commission and ELPD are not where they need to be as far as trusting each other, and that relationship will have to strengthen for community trust to increase.
“We can’t help the community develop a relationship if we are struggling, and I think we are still struggling,” she said.
Hobbs offered an anecdote of running into ELPD Captain Chad Pride recently at a restaurant. Pride represents ELPD at Commission meetings. She said, despite their differing opinions on some topics, she talked to Pride about her grandson dressing as a police officer for Halloween, and the two exchanged a hug and laughs.
“There was a time when citizens of this city and the police had that kind of collegial sense that ‘This is our community,’” she said. “That has been disrupted.”
Hobbs said the Commission has spent much of its time in its first year looking at policies and gathering information, and not on building relationships. She has observed issues with how the police treat people of color in the community and stressed a need for a “human dialogue” between the community and police.
Another community member, who went by Ash, said in order for the community to trust ELPD, the department would have to address the root causes for the lack of faith. That would mean the department acknowledging actions that led to the division between the department and community members.
It was also suggested information be made more accessible by writing communications like press releases in more basic language. A community member pointed to the East Lansing Public Library’s style of communication using simple language and utilizing social media as a model of what they would like to see.
The last question asked during public input was simply what else the community would like to see from the Oversight Commission. In what was one of the more intense moments of the night, Commissioner Robin Etchison, who is Black, shared his concerning run-ins with ELPD.
Etchison started by pointing out statistics show ELPD stops people of color at a higher rate than their white counterparts. He highlighted his understanding about the challenges law enforcement officers face by pointing out he has two family members who are retired police officers and a granddaughter currently serving.
Etchison said he moved to East Lansing a little under seven years ago and has since had four questionable incidents with ELPD, none of which led to infraction charges. On one occasion, Etchison said, he was pulled over for no clear reason. Initially, officers said there was an issue with his license plate. But when asked for clarification, the officers said they’d received a call and left without explaining why he had been pulled over. Etchison worries he was profiled.
Another time, Etchison’s wife was pulled over because an officer said she was “drifting” and needed to check if she had been drinking. Etchison wondered if she was pulled over because their vehicle had tinted windows. After the incident, he went near the corner of Abbott and Saginaw and counted seven cars with tinted windows pass in five minutes.
“I couldn’t understand, what was it about my automobile that made them want to pull it over,” he said.
On the third occasion Etchisonsaid, he drove by a police officer on his way to get pizza. He said the officer did a U-Turn and followed him into the pizza parlor before looking around, seeing there was not a threat and leaving.
On the fourth incident, Etchison was driving down Saginaw Road and was passed by several white motorcyclists. Etchison said he knows the bikers were speeding because he usually drives five miles per hour over the speed limit and they were moving faster than him. Shortly after the bikers passed Etchison, the group drove by a police car. Instead of the officer pulling over the faster moving bikers, they followed Etchison.
“That’s why it’s hard for me to fully trust the East Lansing Police Department,” he said. “I want them to be accountable, just like they want me to be accountable.”
Etchison finished by stressing he is not against the police or attacking the police. He just wants the department to be the best it can be.
“This is the community that I reside in,” he said. “I want to be proud of my police department.”
Following the public input portion of the meeting, City Councilmembers Dana Watson and Mayor Ron Bacon spoke.
Watson said she would like to see a statement on the Oversight Commission’s agenda that makes it clear what the Commission does and what it stands for. She highlighted how the Human Rights Commission agendas list annual priorities and some groups cite their mission statement.
Several Commissioners agreed with Watson and expanded on the conversation to say Commissioners should also make it clear why they joined the group. Bacon liked this idea and said City Council intentionally selected individuals with different backgrounds and perspectives for the Commission. He also said it’s important the Commission is clear about its purpose.
“I don’t want any ambiguity about what this Commission’s about,” he said.