The Study Committee on an Independent Police Oversight Commission met Monday to continue its work gathering information on the process for complaints lodged against ELPD, viewing presentations from Deputy Chief Steve Gonzalez and Liz Miller – a commission on the Human Rights Commission – about the topic.
Gonzalez’s presentation offered ELPD data from 2014-2019, including the overall number of complaints, the types of complaints filed, and the outcomes of each one. During that six year period, there were a total of 59 complaints lodged — 35 from the public and 24 internal administrative inquiries.
Of the 35 public complaints, only two incidents were classified as “sustained,” which according to Gonzalez’s presentation means “there was sufficient information to justify a reasonable conclusion that part or all of the alleged act occurred.” Of the 24 administrative inquiries, 13 were sustained during this period.
The ELPD data classifies complaints into various categories, including traffic violations, policy violations, use of force violations, and discrimination.
While most public complaints were concerned with the general “demeanor” of officers or policy violations, in both 2016 and 2017 there was one use of force complaint annually. Both complaints were classified by ELPD as “exonerated.” In 2018, ELPD received two public complaints concerning “discrimination,” which were also both exonerated.
Gonzalez also outlined the complaint process itself, from the methods of initiating the process through to the potential arbitration process between the alleged offender and the City of East Lansing. Criminal complaints are likely to be investigated by an outside party, and Gonzalez pointed to the Michigan State Police as the entity often doing that work.
The committee had several concerns in relation to Gonzalez’s presentation, including the involvement of the Michigan State Police.
Committee member Kelli Ellsworth-Etchinson expressed an interest in further exploring the role the state police play in investigating local complaints as she doubted their neutrality. Committee member Chris Root echoed that sentiment and called for more data on the role of the state police and how often they overturn recommendations from the ELPD.
Questions were also raised about the future commission’s role in the discipline process in relation to complaints.
Committee member Erick Williams shared his “hesitations” with the future commission being involved at all in this process after seeing both ELPD data and doing research on exoneration rates nationwide. He doesn’t want the Oversight Commission to be in a position of explaining exonerations of officers to the public.
“If you have an Oversight Commission that has a role in this process,” Erick Williams said, “the commission is going to be associated with exonerations…and that’s going to play havoc with its reputation in the community.”
City Manager George Lahanas cautioned the committee from reading too much into the high percentage of unsustained complaints against the ELPD, stating that, “the fact that there are not a lot of complaints that are founded does not mean the process doesn’t have integrity.”
Lahanas continued on to emphasize, in regards to the data shared by ELPD: “I would just leave people open to the fact that perhaps there are not that many complaints that are founded.”
The committee also heard from Liz Miller on her experience with ELPD transparency relating to complaints and the disciplinary process during her tenure on the HRC. Miller’s presentation echoed the concerns of many members of the study committee, citing inconsistency in how the ELPD shared data with the HRC and with the public.
Miller emphasized, when describing the HRC’s relationship with the ELPD, that over the last three years “it feels like an uphill struggle to get consistent information or follow-up from questions in a timely manner.”
Miller said that in 2018, ELPD shared redacted complaint reports with the HRC during an annual presentation from the police, but that in 2019 the information shared was much more “limited,” amounting to a one-page internal document from an audit of the complaints from that year.
This was representative of a pattern of the HRC not receiving requested information from ELPD, according to Miller. The HRC requested information on previous complaints filed against officers, reviews of body camera footage, and other data pertinent to their commission. Miller told the Study Committee that the HRC did not receive this data from ELPD.
She ended her presentation stressing the importance for communication between the City, the public, and the police. And the role a future Oversight Commission plays in facilitating this relationship.
The Study Committee will meet again next week on Monday, Dec. 14, to conduct its final meeting of the year.
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