Discussion on obtaining thorough and accurate information from the East Lansing Police Department took up a portion of Monday’s meeting of the Study Committee on an Independent Police Oversight Commission before the group moved ahead with forming two subcommittees to do research and report back to the Study Committee.
A public comment from Kath Edsall, Treasurer of the East Lansing School Board, brought focus to this lingering concern. Edsall said she and others have had significant trouble getting from the ELPD information that should be publicly accessible. She referred to what she sees as ELPD’s “long history of hiding information.”
Transparency and accessing this information, she stressed, is pertinent to the Study Committee’s mission.
Several members of the Study Committee agreed. They specifically focused on getting information about use-of-force incidents, complaints against ELPD officers, and the ELPD’s consideration of early intervention systems (EIS) designed to spot problematic trends.
During the Study Committee’s last meeting on Oct. 26, ELPD presented data covering arrests and officer-initiated contacts with East Lansing residents. On Monday, Chair Chuck Grigsby requested that ELPD provide the Study Committee more information related to this data.
“I’d like to know more about those numbers,” Grigsby said, “in regards to how many people were arrested, how many people were charged, how many people were let go, what kind of force was used in those situations. That would help us, I think, in regards to really then trying to advocate for not only those situations but how to make change with that information.”
Committee member Cedrick Heraux also requested more specifics relating to use-of-force tactics employed by ELPD, including the level of force deployed in each incident, how often force is applied, and specific departmental policies regarding these practices.
Police Chief Kim Johnson indicated that ELPD can provide that information. It was decided that at the next Study Committee meeting, on Nov. 23, ELPD will give about a 30-minute presentation of data relating to use of force. Along with that presentation, there will be another 30 minute presentation during a December meeting centering on how the department handles complaints against officers.
Johnson also agreed to share information on ELPD’s inquiries into various early warning systems when it is available. ELPD has not submitted any budget requests for such systems, Johnson said, but they are “looking into it.” The idea behind these systems is to alert command officers if there is an officer who, for example, is exceptionally aggressive.
Grigsby informed the Study Committee that systems like Guardian Tracker typically cost around $3500 to set up and between $1200 and $1500 for yearly maintenance, per his own research on the matter. According to City Manager George Lahanas, these costs would not be prohibitive to the City of East Lansing.
Lahanas stated that “several thousand dollars per year for a software does not scare us at all, if that’s something that people think is necessary or useful.”
Few concrete decisions made on a work plan
The Study Committee still struggled to define a specific work plan during its third meeting.
The April 2021 deadline loomed large as members debated methods and areas of focus. Study Committee members Chris Root and Sade Callwood presented “tentative” recommendations for how the group should move forward. Root expressed worries that the Study Committee still doesn’t have an agreed-upon work plan and hope that there could be “general agreement” on the plan at this meeting.
This sparked a lengthy discussion on the functionality and feasibility of subcommittees, about the ultimate goals of the Study Committee, and where to even begin. There was some disagreement on whether to clearly define desired outcomes up front or to jump into the process of information gathering and learning from presenters with experience in police oversight.
Council liaison Ron Bacon suggested the Study Committee decide on a “gold standard” of what they actually want the future Commission to be able to accomplish and then to create a work plan designed toward these specific goals. Bacon also mentioned looking at data from other cities so members don’t need to “reinvent the wheel.”
City Manager George Lahanas offered research prepared by City staff on “comparable” cities to East Lansing — similar in population, with a large itinerant student population, and so on — to the Study Committee. The Study Committee also generally agreed studying cities that are “non-comparable” to East Lansing is a viable way to gather information on how police oversight is conducted around the country and how parts of these policies might work for East Lansing.
Though there was a consensus reached on both the importance of data gathering and the goals of the Study Committee, there was discussion about how to begin this process. Some members, like Erick Williams, echoed Bacon’s point on starting with larger, structural concerns. Others, like Kelli Ellsworth-Etchison and Lahanas, argued for just jumping into the process.
Lahanas asserted that having a “simple schedule” that focuses on learning from speakers and experts each week will help the Study Committee formulate the “gold standard” Bacon suggested. Ellsworth-Etchison whole-heartedly agreed that the learning process should perhaps proceed the definition of an overarching structure.
“We are still learning,” Ellsworth-Etchison said, adding that having speakers on police oversight at meetings would allow them to “just start getting entrenched in knowledge, so we can really have a good, strong basis from which to build from.”
Without a specific work plan in place, the Study Committee did agree to a few steps to move them forward.
After discussing legal and transparency concerns relating to the Open Meetings Act, two subcommittees were formed, to the general excitement of the Study Committee. These working groups were tasked with completing data-gathering missions in between this meeting and the next.
Committee members Heraux, Erick Williams, Helen Josephson, and Sharron Reed-Davis will collect data on good practices in oversight commissions in cities of different sizes to East Lansing. Root, Callwood, and Noel Garcia Jr. will make up the other subcommittee that will consider how to structure the Study Committee’s recommendations to Council. (At the end of the six month period, the Study Committee will need to present a formal recommendation to City Council.)
Both subcommittees will report their findings to the larger group during the next meeting on Nov. 23.
Keep ELi’s reporting going.