The Study Committee on an Independent Police Oversight Commission held its final meeting of 2020 Monday evening to discuss new agenda items as well as persistent concerns among committee members about the reach of the future Oversight Commission.
Though the mission of the Study Committee is to make “open-ended recommendations” for the scope, make-up, and duties of the Oversight Commission, according to Council Member Ron Bacon, many Committee members expressed concern about how much oversight power the Commission will be allowed in actuality.
Some of these concerns relate to the Commission’s ability to intervene in the ELPD disciplinary process, how evidence will be shared with the Commission, and whether the Commission can cultivate community trust.
One of the critical discussions focused on what person or public body will have final say over officer discipline. Committee member Kelli Ellsworth-Etchison said she’s “struggling” with how to strengthen community trust in ELPD when this process appears to boil down to “the police policing the police.”
Committee member Erick Williams agreed with Ellsworth-Etchinson’s point about the bias inherent in the disciplinary process, saying he was “despondent” about the odds of the Commission exercising power if they were only an advisory body. Williams also brought up concerns about the investigative powers of the Commission, arguing that the city budget will ultimately dictate the capacity of commissioners to gather evidence.
Chair Chuck Grigsby hoped that the recommendations from the Committee would be “applicable and realistic” and based on an up-front understanding of what recommendations are likely to be accepted. He also expressed concerns about the Oversight Commission being perceived as embedded within the system of policing in a way that makes people distrust their independence.
Members of the police force also weighed in on what they saw as the goals of a successful Oversight Commission.
Police Chief Kim Johnson argued that he saw it as “an opportunity to learn and an opportunity to grow” for the ELPD. He added that the Commission will broaden the perspective of the force, stating “people who see things from a different standpoint can only help our department serve our community.”
Deputy Chief Steve Gonzalez echoed Johnson’s support of oversight, also speaking about the importance of including different perspectives, one’s that are not just from officers and the police administration.
Despite the responses from Johnson and Gonzalez that spoke of attempts for inclusion and better communication between the ELPD and the community, there was still some skepticism about the ultimate power the oversight commission will wield.
“I will be surprised if we propose something where people will believe that the police are no longer policing the police in East Lansing because of this new Oversight Commission,” Committee member Chris Root said.
The Committee also continued ongoing discussions about surveying East Lansing residents to understand their perceptions of policing in their communities. City Manager George Lahanas updated Committee members on the work City staff has done to put this project in motion.
Lahanas said that he and his staff have been working on designing survey questions that will “get a sense of what our residents know, or what our residents want to see in terms of the future of our department.”
He emphasized his concerns with diversity, equity, and inclusion as they discuss both survey content and future distribution to residents.
Ellsworth-Etchison reiterated points she’s made in the past about surveying not only East Lansing community members, but also conducting a survey within the ELPD to see how officers interpret the “internal culture” of their department.
Johnson informed the Committee that the ELPD has already begun work on such a survey, one he hopes will provide a “snapshot” of this internal culture.
According to Lahanas and Committee discussion, these surveys will be initial steps in an ongoing process that will evaluate the wider community’s trust in and knowledge of the ELPD and policing in East Lansing. Future surveys will continue to track change over time and inform both the work of the City and the eventual Oversight Commission.
Agenda for 2021
The Study Committee will resume meeting in January 2021. Erick Williams proposed three motions, two of which passed, that would bring in speakers with particular expertise to address the Committee in early 2021.
Robert Sheehan from the Community Mental Health Association of Michigan will be contacted by the Committee to provide insight into the efficacy of utilizing “mobile mental health response teams” to supplement, or respond in lieu of, armed police officers, when appropriate.
The Study Committee also approved the motion to meet with a representative from the Ingham County Prosecutor’s office to discuss “charging decisions for low-level offenses, such as resisting and obstructing, and other initiatives at the county level.”
Other possible speakers include both the City Attorney and the City labor attorney. Due to the Committee’s interest, Lahanas agreed to tentatively schedule them to attend a meeting in either January or February of 2021.
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