Four years of data just released by the East Lansing Police Department shows that ELPD officers have employed “use of force” against more Black people than they have used against white people in those four years combined.
ELPD’s just-released use of force data shows that out of 468 cases from 2017-2020, 184 Black people were subject to use of force from ELPD officers (39.3% of all cases), while white people were subject to use of force 179 times (38.2% of all cases).
These data released by ELPD don’t include whether people were residents of East Lansing or non-residents. But in East Lansing, whites outnumber Blacks by over 11 to 1, according to the last available U.S. Census data, and even in the City of Lansing – the most racially diverse municipality within Ingham County – whites outnumber Blacks by about 2.4 to 1. That more Black people have been subject by ELPD to use of force than white people shows the racially disproportionate use of force.
This finding comes not long after other new data releases showed a heavy racial skew in arrests made by ELPD officers, with Black people many times more likely as whites to be arrested by ELPD officers when compared to background population.
And, just last week, data was released by ELPD showing that Black East Lansing residents almost 3 times as likely to be stopped by ELPD as white residents.
All of this new information is emerging because of questions being asked by a special ad hoc committee appointed by City Council, the Study Committee on an Independent Police Oversight Commission. The group is tasked with making recommendations to City Council about establishment of an oversight commission – an issue City Council is expected to decide this year, prior to November 2021 elections, where three Council seats will be up for grabs (those currently held by Mayor Aaron Stephens and Council appointees Dana Watson and Ron Bacon).
Speaking to the data at the Study Committee’s public comment period on Monday night, East Lansing Public Schools Board Treasurer Kath Edsall called East Lansing “a sundown town” — a term used to denote a place where Blacks are harassed and roughed up by police after dark.
“Black people in this community have considered East Lansing a sundown town since I arrived in 1978,” she said.
“I’m not surprised at all by the data,” Edsall said, “and neither are most of the Black people I have spoken with.” She added, “What’s frustrating is that we continue to have commentary that we are shocked about this.”
Edsall and her wife have raised eight African-American children in East Lansing. On Monday, she spoke as she has before on the pernicious persistence of problems in East Lansing policing. She called for action: “I’m tired of lip service; I want to see change.”
Study Committee member Sharron Reed-Davis said that she did not find the data shocking given what she has personally experienced, but she said she wants work that “actually means something.” She told the committee that she isn’t sure what the group can do to “change the heart of the police department,” but that change must come as the police are “risking their lives and risking our lives.”
Coming into Monday’s meeting of the Study Committee, City Manager George Lahanas wanted to issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) to hire an outside expert consultant to determine whether racial bias exists in stops initiated by ELPD officers.
But Lahanas’s proposal was met with sharp criticism from several Study Committee members.
Committee Vice Chair Chris Root raised issues with the purpose of the proposal, arguing that the time and expense to gather more numerical data could be a way for the city to avoid addressing clear issues City officials are already well aware of. (Disclosure: Root has been a reporter for ELi.)
The draft RFP presented by Lahanas and his staff referred to similar studies already conducted in Lansing, Ann Arbor, and Portland, and Root noted their literature reviews didn’t need to be repeated again. She cautioned against East Lansing hiring of an outside expert as a gesture of performative action rather than to affect actual change.
Defending East Lansing “from claims that we’re racist is not a good goal to have,” Root told the Committee. “I don’t think this study is about helping to reduce racial disparities.”
Root had vocal support from Study Committee members Kathy Boyle and Cedrick Heraux.
Boyle, a retired labor attorney, pointed to flaws in the RFP’s stated purpose – “to determine the extent of racial disparities in officer-initiated contacts”— and said that data released by ELPD already proves this.
“That extent has been already demonstrated by the work already done,” Boyle argued. “So perhaps [East Lansing should be] working on some other issues right now, before we put together an RFP that will be truly useful in addressing the disparities.”
Heraux refuted suggestions from City leaders that there is a statistically “correct” number of Black people that the city should be stopping, arresting, or using force upon.
A criminal justice professor with extensive knowledge of the type of analysis requested by the RFP, Heraux said on Monday, “If someone comes to you and says ‘this is where the numbers should be,’ then you’ve been conned. You’ve wasted your money. It’s not possible to make that kind of assertion.”
Heraux continued, reiterating what other Committee Members had said: “There’s a disparity here and we all know it….We know what the number is already. Let’s talk about why it’s that way, and therefore how we can change things to lower that number.”
In this discussion and prior ones, City Manager Lahanas has been quick to acknowledge that the ELPD data concerns him, but more hesitant to draw specific significance from it before getting outside expert analysis.
“I do think it’s important to have some sort of an objective look from someone outside the community, outside the organization,” Lahanas said Monday, “To say, yes, you are over-policing and let me tell you why. Let me show you the number of what it should be.”
But the Study Committee pushed City officials to acknowledge the legitimacy of focusing on the fact that there is an apparent problem and to thus look for causes to root out as well as potential solutions to solve it.
After hearing feedback on the RFP, Lahanas agreed to reconsider.
“Let’s take a bit of a pause and think about it,” Lahanas said, tabling the RFP for now until more work can be done.
At Monday’s meeting, the Study Committee continued to make progress towards its recommendation to Council, which it hopes to make in April. The group has decided not to pursue an investigatory type of Oversight Commission of the sort that exists in much larger cities with larger police forces and much bigger budgets.
Instead, the group expects to recommend a “hybrid” approach that provides review of complaints, seeks and tracks data, and makes recommendations about policing policies. At this point, they are looking to the approach of Albany, New York, as a possible basic model.
The committee is set to meet again on Monday, Feb. 22, and anticipates holding a special public discussion meeting on Tuesday, March 2, starting at 7:30 p.m.
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