News of major changes coming to East Lansing policing was somewhat overshadowed by the drama of this week’s City Council meeting concerning the resignation of two Council members and the termination of the City Attorney’s contract.
Earlier in the meeting, City Manager George Lahanas presented to Council plans for “police realignment” – including slightly reducing the number of ELPD’s armed officers and shifting how they are trained and evaluated.
The plan also will create a new branch of unarmed personnel within ELPD to respond to things like mental health crises, neighbor conflict resolution, and quality of life complaints such as party noise.
Lahanas said that this plan, which he called “Visioning Police 2020,” was created with the help of recently-appointed Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Administrator Elaine Hardy, Interim Police Chief Steve Gonzalez, Police Captain Chad Connelly, Human Resources Director Shelli Neumann, and Finance Director Jill Feldpausch.
Central to the idea is creating a new CAPS Division – “Community Assistance and Proactive Services” that would be staffed by unarmed “civilian” personnel who would be embedded in ELPD.
Lahanas wants to add two full-time social workers to the ELPD. Two people could be hired quickly because there are currently two vacant police officer positions.
In addition, the plan calls for hiring four part-time “Neighborhood Resource Specialists” who would deal with civil dispute resolution and provision of resources. Lahanas said these staff could be recruited through AmeriCorps Vista programs and the MSU University School of Social Work. The qualifications – and cost – of these staff was left unclear.
Lahanas talked about the need to reduce law-and-order style policing tactics in favor of “community policing measures.”
East Lansing’s police administration has been claiming to use a community-style policing philosophy for years under Chief Jeff Murphy, under Chief Larry Sparkes, and under Deputy Chief (currently Interim Chief) Steve Gonzalez.
Lahanas suggested that now community-style policing will be added to how officers are evaluated, which could require a change in the police contract.
The City Manager made clear that he still sees armed officers as the center of ELPD, as he talked about how he envisioned sending armed officers with social workers to keep everyone safe.
Lahanas said the plan would be “cost-neutral” in the short term, with the goal of moving about 10% of funding for sworn police officers to other types of personnel over time. After the two open officer positions are filled with social workers, other staffing changes would be accomplished through attrition of armed officers.
Lahanas also focused on working to change local police culture with climate surveys, data collection and feedback from data analysis, and special trainings. (This kind of culture change is notoriously difficult.) This training of ELPD personnel will be part of a large-scale anti-bias training of the entire City staff.
The concept is to make these changes in policing policy alongside changes in East Lansing’s laws in an attempt to reduce officers’ abilities to charge people with a host of “disorderly conduct” offenses that are minor but that can create a cascade of difficulties for the person charged.
An ordinance to reduce the number of disorderly conduct acts has been placed on the Council’s business agenda on August 11.
All in all, top City officials are hoping to create a system of policing that is perceived as and is less hostile to people of color, and one that is less oriented towards a fine-and-prosecution approach, and more towards a social problem-solving approach.
While the whole idea behind this plan seems to be community engagement with policing, Lahanas’ written presentation was made available to the public only a few hours before the meeting, allowing no real time for the public to read, digest, and comment on it before the presentation.
Immediately after his presentation, then-Mayor Ruth Beier told Lahanas that as City Manager he should go ahead and start implementing the changes he described, saying that doing so did not require Council approval.
Council member Jessy Gregg, who had spoken about “defunding” the police at the June 9th Council meeting, said she had been talking with Lahanas about this plan for the past several weeks. She commented that this plan was a good first step, going in a really positive direction.
Gregg said it would be important to carefully track implementation of the plan and how it changed who responds to 911 calls and how they are handled.
Also at Tuesday’s meeting, as part of the consent agenda – a section of the meeting in which measures are typically passed with no discussion – Council appointed a group of citizens to the Study Committee which will ultimately advise Council on how to create an independent police oversight commission for East Lansing.
The eleven people named are activist and Human Rights Commissioner Chuck Grigsby; attorney and ACLU member Erick Williams; criminal justice scholar Cedrick Heraux; MSU Black Students’ Alliance President Shannon Reed-Davis; activist (and ELi reporter) Chris Root; Greater Lansing MLK Commissioner and community leader Ron Bacon; Life and Leadership Coach Tonya Williams, who served as an ELPD Officer for five years; counseling doctoral intern at MSU Counseling & Psychiatric Services Sade Callwood; Human Rights Commissioner and MSU College of Agriculture and Natural Resources Associate Dean and Director for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Quentin Tyler; University Student Commissioner and MSU Criminal Justice student Helen Josephson; and retired Lansing police officer Noel Garcia Jr.
Not long before accusing the three remaining Council members of violating Michigan’s Open Meetings Act and resigning from Council, Beier explained that she had taken the applications for the Study Committee, had staff sort them into the categories and organizations Council had decided to draw from, and then sent them to Council members. For nine of the eleven appointments, Beier said, all Council members agreed. For one category, the University Student Commission slot, only one person applied.
As to the eleventh appointment (which Beier did not specify), five applicants had the same number of votes, so Beier sent that set back to Council to ask for ranking and the last person was chosen by Council that way. This type of multi-round balloting outside of a publicly-noticed meeting is questionable in terms of legality under the Open Meetings Act.
The first meeting of the Study Committee has not been announced, and the Liaison to the Committee from the City Council has yet to be publicly named. The group will be subject to the Open Meetings Act.