Much was discussed in the second meeting of the Study Committee on an Independent Police Oversight Commission on Monday, Oct. 26, but few concrete plans were agreed upon as to how the committee would move forward and meet its six-month deadline.
The committee was created after a City Council resolution passed in late May 2020 and is charged with preparing for Council a recommendation for forming a Police Oversight Commission. The committee is expected to present its recommendations to the City Council by the end of April 2021 — or seek an extension from Council. Some committee members fear the recommendations won’t be completed within the six-month time frame.
Human Rights Commission Vice Chair Krystal Davis (who is not on the Study Committee) called into the meeting to suggest that the Committee utilize a neutral party to facilitate discussions in order to make the Committee’s use of time more “productive” and “impactful.”
Committee members echoed her concerns about time constraints, both of individual meetings and of the six-month deadline that already seems to loom large.
Despite urging at the last meeting for community members to take part in the planning and discussion process, Davis was the only person to call in for public comment. A split vote at the opening of the meeting placed a three-minute limit on public comment.
More discussion of a work plan, but little established
At Monday’s meeting, committee members debated where to even begin as they discussed Agenda Item 3.1, which called for the creation of a work plan that would shape this committee’s structure, procedures, and goals. Study Committee Chair Chuck Grigsby proposed that the work plan be structured to “coincide” with the outcomes they hope the Commission will produce.
The group did not ultimately approve an official work plan at this meeting.
What those outcomes should be, and the ultimate scope of the oversight commission’s work, were debated in-depth. Committee member Cedrick Heraux urged members to consider budgetary restrictions that may limit both staffing capacity and City support before laying out the planned scope of the oversight commission.
Much of the discussion centered on just what role ELPD personnel and the Police Officers Association of Michigan (POAM) would play in both the committee’s ability to make actionable recommendations and the future Oversight Commission’s scope of involvement.
POAM, the union that represents the rank and file of ELPD officers, met with Deputy Chief Steve Gonzalez and East Lansing Director of Human Resources Shelli Neumann in June to talk about the committee process. It’s unclear what role the union will play in the process as the committee moves forward.
During that June meeting, Neumann, Gonzalez, and POAM representatives discussed the possible role of the Oversight Commission in reviewing the practices and policies of the ELPD. City Council will ultimately form the Oversight Commission and also participates in shaping contract negotiations.
Some Study Committee members expressed concern about the ability to access pertinent information regarding complaints against individual officers and disciplinary records. Erick Williams hoped that the Commission “has some ability to learn what the practices and policies” of the ELPD are more broadly so complex issues can be identified and corrected.
The Study Committee also discussed the merits of training Commission members in the operations of the local police. City Council liaison Ron Bacon emphasized the importance of each Commissioner being educated on the basics of policing in East Lansing.
Law enforcement instructor Noel Garcia Jr., a member of the Study Committee, broached the idea of having the Commissioners attend the Citizens’ Police Academy where “learning the role, learning the language, learning the culture” of the police department would be paramount.
Support for the Citizens’ Police Academy training was echoed by Gonzalez, Heraux, Grigsby, and Vice Chair Tonya Williams. They focused on the importance of the Oversight Commission engaging in this training in order for civilians to gain perspective on what ELPD officers experience on the job.
Tonya Williams adamantly supported this idea, stating that the Commission should be staffed with people with “open minds” and that understanding policing in East Lansing is not the same as endorsing it wholeheartedly.
“Even though we want to make change, we can’t necessarily make change by ignoring what’s already there,” she said. “That doesn’t work. It’s not practical for anybody.”
Some committee members were more hesitant to agree on the utilization of Academy training for future Commission members. Erick Williams asserted that while learning more about law enforcement and the police profession is a positive, he cautioned against “embedding ourselves totally in the policing system as it exists now.”
The Study Committee apparently will continue to address the matter at future meetings.
Police Data presentation
Deputy Chief Steve Gonzalez presented data from the ELPD focused on the training and evaluation processes for officers, and demographic data on crime statistics and staffing in the police department.
Gonzalez explained the process of becoming an officer. That includes 15-17 weeks of basic training and continued annual specialized training, along with trainings to update the force on changes in legal procedure or first aid. More recent training covered diversity, equity, and inclusion and cultural awareness.
Gonzalez emphasized that since 2016, ELPD officers have engaged in a variety of diversity awareness trainings, from visits to the Ferris State University Jim Crow Museum to classes on gendered power in the police academy. Gonzalez estimated that the ELPD has between $25,000 and $35,000 allocated in the budget for this type of trainings.
Gonzalez also shared data with the committee on the racial breakdown of crimes in East Lansing, officer-initiated interactions with the population, and the ELPD itself.
Data from 2017 through 2019 showed that Black people were over-represented in arrests in all categories relative to the demographics of East Lansing. Grigsby also commented that he had “big concerns” with the discrepancy between the percentages of people who are arrested who are Black and the percentage of African American officers on the police force (roughly 10%, or five officers).
Gonzalez fielded questions from the committee as to how the data was being analyzed and what ELPD is doing to address issues surrounding the upcoming accreditation process with MCOLES (Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards). This process, according to ELPD Chief Kim Johnson, will take between one and two years to complete and will involve an audit of the ELPD’s practices and procedures.
The Study Committee will convene again on Nov. 9, 2020.
A presentation from Black Lives Matter was broached by Grigsby and the listed topic on the proposed Work Schedule for that meeting reads “Black Lives Matter.”
Agenda Item 6.2, a discussion of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) models, was pushed to the next meeting due to time constraints.
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