State Police Investigation Exonerates ELPD Officer with History of Bias Complaints

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Photo by Raymond Holt

Michigan State Police investigator Lieutenant Erik Darling has finished his review of two “use of force” incidents in East Lansing – both involving the arrest of black men, both involving the take-down by East Lansing Police Officer Andrew Stephenson, both involving injuries to the arrested men’s heads and faces – and Darling has now concluded that, in both cases, ELPD officers acted appropriately.

According to Darling’s reports, which were released today, Anthony Loggins Jr. (arrested in Dec. 2019) and Uwimana “Tito” Gasito (arrested in Feb. 2020) were injured because they challenged and resisted arrest.

Says Darling, the “use of physical controls” by police were justified because of verbal and physical resistance and the “totality of the circumstances.”

ELPD Officer Stephenson, who had been placed on paid administrative leave in March, will now be reinstated.

After City leaders announced in March of this year that a pattern in Stephenson’s actions had led them to take extraordinary actions – including asking for the State Police review, putting Stephenson on leave, and ordering charges against Gasito dropped – ELi reexamined records and found that Stephenson had been the subject of 5 of the total of 12 complaints made by members of the public against ELPD from January 2018 through February 2020.

Gary Caldwell for ELi

Tito Gasito (photo by Gary Caldwell for ELi)

All of those complaints against Stephenson, including three that did not center on use of force, were lodged by men of color.

Longitudinal reporting by ELi has also shown that, in the four years since ELPD has been releasing its findings of investigations into complaints made against ELPD officers by citizens, ELPD investigators have determined that only one was legitimate. (Complaints lodged by ELPD personnel against officers have sometimes been found legitimate.)

Today’s announcement about investigation by a higher authority continues that general pattern. Meanwhile, data released a month ago have provided evidence of a cumulative racial bias in stops made by ELPD officers.

Plans for Citizen Review Panel for complaints against police will move forward

Talks about a citizen oversight panel – whose primary role would be to review complaints against the police – have been going on in East Lansing for over a year. But this February, concerns about police bias and use of excessive force came to a rolling boil when Gasito posted images of his face, injured during his arrest, and accused ELPD officers of assault against him.

On Feb. 13, Tito Gasito posted images of his injuries to Facebook.

A subsequent internal investigation by ELPD Captain Chad Connelly found that Gasito’s complaint was neither proved nor disproved by the evidence available. The way that that investigation and the presentation of the findings played out only inflamed tensions, and an extraordinary demand was subsequently issued by East Lansing’s Human Relations Commission (HRC) that all charges be dropped against Gasito.

Things got even more tense days later when East Lansing Police supervisors discovered that Stephenson, who had been the officer “stabilizing” Gasito’s head when he was injured, had used a similar maneuver two months earlier against Anthony Loggins Jr. In that case, Loggins head and face were similarly injured.

Supervisors had failed until that point to realize there was an apparent pattern, even though Loggins’ complaint against Stephenson had been processed in January and given to supervisors three days before Gasito posted publicly about his experience.

In March, the sudden revelation of Loggins’ injury and earlier complaint outraged several City Council members and also members of the HRC and public. The City Manager then gave the City Attorney an order to drop the charges against Gasito. Police Chief Larry Sparkes retired amid the turmoil. And Stephenson was put on paid administrative leave.

Today’s findings by the State Police could be seen as throwing doubt on those moves, although Beier tells ELi there are not plans to bring charges against Gasito.

In a press release issued this morning by the City of East Lansing along with Darlings’ findings, Beier indicated she is still committed to creating a Citizen Oversight Panel for complaints made against the police here.

Raymond Holt for ELi

Mayor Ruth Beier at the Feb. 27, 2020, presentation of ELPD’s investigation into the arrests at 7-Eleven (photo by Raymond Holt for ELi)

“In light of these arrests and the subsequent investigations, as well as the officer-initiated contact data and the community feedback we have received, we remain committed to moving forward with a public safety oversight commission as quickly as possible, and ELPD has also committed to implementing several departmental changes, some of which have already occurred,” Beier is quoted as saying. “We will continue to work to make all necessary changes so that everyone feels safe and welcome in the City of East Lansing.”

The plan is to hold a public hearing on that matter at Council’s meeting on May 26.

What we now know about the December 2019 arrest, injury, and subsequent complaint:

Before materials were released today, we had little information about the December 2019 arrest of Anthony Loggins Jr. on December 28, 2019. We now know that, according to the police, Loggins was stopped by ELPD Officer Austin Nelson because Loggins allegedly pulled out of the Marathon Gas Station on Lake Lansing Road without using a turn signal.

Checking Loggins’ records, Nelson determined Loggins was driving with a suspended license. Officers Andrew (Andy) Stephenson and Evan Siemen came to assist Nelson, and the police moved to arrest Loggins.

Loggins challenged the arrest, saying “Come and get me.” He was, according to an ELPD report, “taken to the ground,” such that he “sustained some injury above his [left] eye.” Paramedics took Loggins to the hospital by ambulance from the ELPD jail.

Loggins subsequently filed a complaint on Jan. 3, 2020. He included medical records showing his injuries.

ELPD’s internal investigation of that complaint was conducted by Sergeant Tom Blanck, who issued his report on Jan. 14 of this year. Blanck said he did not find evidence to support Loggins’ claim that officers “slammed his head into the ground three times after he was taken down.”

ELPD Sgt. Tom Blanck

Blanck did find that Stephenson “did have his knee on [Loggins’] upper back while assisting in effecting the arrest but there was nothing outside of ELPD’s training guidelines in doing so.”

Significant portions of the ELPD internal investigation report by Blanck have been redacted with regard to Loggins’ claims, but ELPD did not redact sections indicating that “Ofc. Stephenson sustained minor injuries during the arrest” including “the result of a bite to the wrist.”

Blanck concluded in the case of Loggins’ arrest that nothing went wrong: “The recording showed officers acting professional during the entire encounter and within the ELPD Training guidelines.”

The review by Darling of Michigan State Police concluded the same: “In my training and experience, the officer’s use of force was completely appropriate to the suspect’s level of resistance and in light of the totality of the circumstances.”

Today’s press release indicates that “ELPD leadership is currently reviewing the technique of ‘head stabilization’ as a method to gain physical control over a resisting subject during an arrest. There has been informal direction that this technique has been shown to cause harm to arrestees and it should only be used in extreme, articulable circumstances.”

ELPD plans to retrain all officers when the pandemic allows for in-person training sessions.

ELi has a special section dedicated to our current reporting on East Lansing Policing. See it here.

Find an overview of our reporting on police oversight here.
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