Police Oversight Study Committee Finally Meets, Begins Daunting Task

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A screenshot of the Oct. 12, 2020, meeting of East Lansing's Study Committee on an Independent Police Oversight Commission. With 18 people at "the table," the group was so large, not all could be seen on the screen.

East Lansing took another step toward establishing independent police oversight on Monday evening with the first-ever meeting of the long-awaited Study Committee on an Independent Police Oversight Commission. 

The meeting, which lasted over two hours, involved a Zoom discussion among 18 people: one Council member, 10 of the 11 committee members, and seven members of City staff, including four from ELPD. In split votes, Chuck Grigsby, an African American man and Chair of the Human Relations Commission, was elected Chair, and Tonya Williams, an African American woman and former ELPD officer, was elected Vice Chair. 

The Study Committee was created via a May 26, 2020, resolution passed by City Council, and its 11 members have been appointed by City Council after applying for the positions. They are Grigsby, Williams, Cedrick Heraux, Chris Root, Erick Williams, Helen Josephson, Kelli Ellsworth-Etchison, Noel Garcia Jr., Quentin Tyler, Sade Callwood, and Sharron Reed-Davis.

The committee’s mission, per the resolution, is to delve into “methods by which other communities review complaints of police misconduct with a special emphasis on racial and ethnic injustice, to review best practices based on national standards and to propose to City Council a framework for a Police Oversight Commission in East Lansing.”

The resolution expects the committee to have a recommendation prepared for Council within six months of its first meeting — though it can be granted a six-month extension by Council, if needed. Ultimately, Council will take the recommendation into account but holds the final say on any police oversight body, although their decisions are apparently limited by bargained contracts with police.

Based on the daunting scale of the task — creating a recommendation for a new public body with the sole purpose of police oversight — and the differing experiences and perspectives of those involved, the path to creating the recommendation will almost certainly not be linear.

“I wouldn’t say it was the most efficient first meeting,” City Council liaison Ron Bacon, who is a non-voting member of the committee, told ELi on Tuesday, “but I don’t think it couldn’t have gone any other way. Because I don’t think — being in a newly formed group, they needed to find out what the capacity of the group was. But I think the capacity is there to do great work.” 

Bacon during an August meeting of City Council.

The goal of Monday’s meeting, per the agenda, was to review the Council’s authorizing resolution, discuss a work plan, and also set a meeting schedule. After introductions from each of the appointed members and numerous City staff representatives, the conversation moved to discussing the work plan.

At that point, the discussion grew broader, as ideas were bounced around about forming subcommittees, bringing in experts, and getting ELPD data. Other questions about the limits of the group’s work under the State of Michigan’s Open Meetings Act also came up. 

Most of the members seemed to be in support of getting their hands on some ELPD data with regard to things like the race and gender of people stopped by police, but there were some open questions about what data they wanted and the best way to get it. 

City Manager George Lahanas offered a presentation of ELPD data at the next meeting, an idea with which ultimately the group agreed. 

Lahanas also told the group that the City staff are there to help the group in whatever ways they need: “Tell us what you want to see and know over the coming months and we will get that information for you.”

In response to a question about all members using Google Docs or a similar platform to work out drafts, Lahanas noted that would be a violation of the OMA. 

He told the group that information they wanted to bring forward can be compiled by Diane Shafer, an administrative assistant for ELPD, who will then make sure those things get brought forward at the next meeting. But it isn’t clear the group will be interested in having ELPD staff in charge of developing materials.

Along with Shafer, new Police Chief Kim Johnson attended the meeting, as did Deputy Chief Steve Gonzalez. Lahanas also brought Director of Human Resources Shelli Neumann and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Administrator Elaine Hardy.

Speaking to ELi after the meeting, both Bacon and Grigsby agreed that there has to be a certain level of buy-in from the police themselves, but neither were worried about the ultimate independence of whatever they recommend. 

Grigsby said the police, as a stakeholder and ultimately the group being overseen, are necessary to the process.

“So as jarring as it may seem and look” to have so many ELPD staff at the table, Grigsby said, “I think at least some of that element has to be in there in order for us to do that, in order for us to get to a truly independent, community-based oversight commission. So, you know, it’s kind of one of those things where you take a little, you give a little.” 

Raymond Holt for ELi

Grigsby speaking at the Feb. 27, 2020, Council meeting.

Along with providing police data and offering City staff for research, Lahanas suggested he’d share a list of proposed speakers for the group at their next meeting. 

By the end of discussing the work plan, Agenda Item 2.1, the meeting had gone on for nearly two hours, and in the moment, it didn’t seem clear that anything was prepared for the next meeting.

“One of the things that came up with was yeah, we don’t really have very much going on for the next meeting, which in fact is not true,” Grigsby said after the meeting. “We have a review set up. We have some data analysis that we’re going to be starting to formulate. We’re having a discussion about how we want to go forward.”

One member of the group, Chris Root, strongly recommended the group consult existing literature on police oversight commissions, particularly the work of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, which provides guidance to people looking to establish these types of commissions. (Disclosure: Root is a voluntary reporter and editor for ELi.)

At Monday’s meeting, the group decided on bi-monthly meetings, on the second and fourth Monday of each month, starting at 6 p.m. As required by law, the meetings will be open to the public and will allow public comment. Grigsby highly encouraged the public to take part.

“It’s going to be so, so crucial that we get as much public input from the community, stakeholders, and especially from people who are affected by some of these policies and procedures,” Grigsby said.

One member of the committee, Kelli Ellsworth-Etchinson, wanted a “hard stop” for each meeting at 8 p.m., but other members of the group indicated they expect long meetings as the work ahead is substantial. Limits on public comment may be used to prevent meetings going even longer than they otherwise would.  

Ultimately, both Bacon and Grigsby indicated that Monday’s meeting wasn’t ideal, but neither was put off by the many different points and perspectives brought by different people on the committee nor by the heavy presence of staff. 

“I don’t think people appreciate how challenging it is,” Grigsby said, “to come together and do something that’s never been done before.”

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