External consultants hired to study the East Lansing Police Department (ELPD) have produced a report recommending the revision of a number of policies, the addressing of tensions within and around the department, and better data collection, including on the use of force by officers.
The report shows officers on average do not feel substantially supported by City Council, the city manager, the police chief and prosecutors.
It also brings forth data suggesting some degree of racial bias in East Lansing policing.
The 146-page report conducted by CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis corporation, was presented at the Tuesday, Dec. 6, City Council meeting by CNA Project Director Rachel Johnston. The report highlighted 72 findings and 92 recommendations for ELPD based on these findings.
CNA’s team based the results on surveys distributed to ELPD staff, staff interviews, document reviews, a community listening session and data analysis.
ELPD Chief Kim Johnson said ELPD has already been working to address many of the findings of the report and will continue to do so.
“Since January of 2021, we have been heavily involved in becoming accredited through the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police and many of the [policies that are the subject of] recommendations mentioned in the report have already been revised or are in the process of revisions,” Johnson said in an email responding to questions from ELi.
“We expect to hear on the status of our accreditation in February 2023,” he explained. “We are confident that the majority, if not all, of the recommendations mentioned in the report will be completed and implemented by December 2025.”
CNA recommends ELPD review how policies are written.
CNA found ELPD policies that are poorly written and recommended the department stop using boilerplate language, instead writing policies specific to ELPD.
“For example, the use of language such as ‘If reasonable and appropriate’ should be replaced with language to make clear expectations,” said CNA’s representative Johnston.
Policies the report recommends be revised include those on protecting people with mental illnesses, interacting with juveniles, civil disorders and department social media use.
The report also said some policies include language that can help officers dodge accountability. The report gives the example of a policy related to de-escalation that states, “If reasonable and appropriate, utilize the concepts and tactics learned through department sponsored non-escalation/de-escalation training sessions.”
CNA recommends eliminating “If reasonable and appropriate” from the policy, as it should always be expected that officers try to de-escalate scenarios.
Low morale is one of the cultural problems in ELPD.
The report highlighted cultural issues within ELPD. Only about 30% of department respondents believe policies on internal decision making – like who receives promotions and who is disciplined – are applied fairly. Additionally, 71% say desirable assignments are given based on who you know.
The report said morale in the department is low and “Several ELPD survey respondents noted that they often do not feel supported by community groups and local stakeholders.” Additionally, “The community perceives a disconnect between the ELPD and the City Council and Independent Police Oversight Commission.”
Only 3.9% of ELPD survey respondents said they “often/always” feel supported by City Council. The mayor, a member of City Council, scored higher than the group, coming in at 15.9%, just above the City Manager’s rating of 14%. The chief fared not much higher at 17.6%
By contrast, 73.9% of department respondents said they often/always feel supported by local judges. But only 8.9% feel supported by prosecutors.
The disconnect between the oversight commission and ELPD was discussed earlier at the Wednesday, Nov. 2, Oversight Commission meeting, where multiple commissioners expressed a desire to grow the bond between the Commission and ELPD.
At that meeting, ELIPOC Vice Chair Chris Root recommended ELPD work with the oversight commission to implement recommendations from the report, instead of hiring a third party agency to oversee the process.
“I don’t think we need a long-term consultant to help us decide on priorities to improve fair and impartial policing,” she said.
Root acknowledged ELPD and commissioners have conflicting opinions on some topics, but thought collaborating to implement changes was a good opportunity to forge a bond.
In responding to questions from ELi, Chief Johnson did not say exactly what the implementation process for recommendations will look like, but did express a desire to grow ELPD’s relationship with the oversight commission and City Council.
“It is the police department’s intention to follow through on the CNA recommendation to have a better working relationship with the City Council and the [oversight commission],” Johnson said in the email. “A major portion of joint cooperation between all three entities will be the numerous opportunities available over the next few years for all of the parties to review the policies and other recommendations in the report and provide valuable input, suggestions and specific recommendations to implement the CNA recommendations.”
ELPD’s use of force policy has come under question.
CNA is recommending changes to ELPD’s use of force policy. The policy does not clearly describe the complaint intake and management process.
The use of force policy also allows for head stabilization, which is problematic, according to the CNA report. Head stabilization became a hot-button issue in East Lansing in 2020 following an officer’s use of this technique resulting in facial injuries to two Black men in two separate incidents.
The CNA report showed that eight ELPD officers (18% of the force) were involved in at least three complaints each between January 2016 and December 2020. Additionally, 22% of officers were involved in more than 7.5 use of force incidents per year over the same time period.
CNA’s Johnston explained differing roles may result in some officers being involved in use of force more often than others, but said these officers’ actions should be reviewed.
Root told Council on Dec. 6 she would like for the use of de-escalation techniques to be stressed in a new use of force policy. She said currently officers are trained in de-escalation techniques and using the techniques should be required in ELPD policy to prevent use of force whenever possible.
CNA’s report shows Black drivers are pulled over disproportionately more often.
CNA’s report said ELPD’s traffic enforcement policy is “very comprehensive and provides good direction to officers.” The report also said traffic stops among Black and white drivers declined at a similar rate from August 2021 to July 2022.
Still, a racial gap existed in traffic stops over the same timeline. White residents make up about 68% of the East Lansing resident population and 54% of traffic stops. Black residents make up about 12% of the resident population and 25% of traffic stops.
However, the report cautioned against jumping to conclusions based on the raw data, pointing out that some factors are unknown. These factors include the racial breakdown of people who drive in East Lansing, including those coming from other communities.
The report notes officers do not always know a person’s race when they make a stop. To try to get to the question of possible racial bias, CNA did a “veil-of-darkness” analysis that examined traffic stops at different times of the day, to see if officers were more likely to pull over Black drivers during daylight hours when they could see drivers more clearly.
The analysis method, described on page 26 of the report, found that Black drivers are pulled over only slightly more than non-Black drivers.Responding to the CNA presentation at the Dec. 6 meeting, Councilmember Dana Watson wondered if the racial disparity in traffic stops is due to officers targeting certain types of vehicles.
“Sometimes, if you look at certain types of cars and certain builds of cars, you find that maybe predominately Black people drive that car,” Watson said.
CNA’s representative Johnston said there is no data on the types of cars that were stopped.
Independent Police Oversight Commissioner Kath Edsall also questioned the veil-of-darkness analysis.
“We know, in the later graph, that we are stopping Black people at twice their existence in the mid-Michigan area,” she said at the Council meeting. “To somehow use the veil-of-darkness and statistical analysis to say that there is not racial bias is problematic.”
Black residents are also arrested and subject to use of force disproportionately. While Black residents make up about 12% of East Lansing’s residents, they are the subject of 37.7% of arrests and 37.4% of use of force incidents. White residents make up 68% of the population and are the subject of 44% of arrests and 35.4% of use of force incidents.
ELPD needs to improve data collection, transparency
Johnston said that CNA had significant issues gathering data and the team had to combine multiple data sets to make the report. She said relations between ELPD, the community and city entities could be improved with increased transparency, which would be boosted by better data collection and reporting.
In her remarks to Council, Root said it has long been difficult to obtain good data from ELPD and recommended the department hire a technical expert to put new data systems in place.
“We have known about this problem, we have known about it since before the CNA contract,” Root said. “We can no longer delay addressing it.”
The report said ELPD’s process of manually entering data into an excel spreadsheet leads to inconsistencies with what is reported and errors like misspelling names of officers involved.
Specifically, the report highlights use of force data as being the area most in need of improvement. While the current system collects some important information like the date, time, officers involved, type of force used, community member demographics and the reason force was used, reporting falls short of what some other departments do.
The report said some larger departments utilize use of force reporting software to gather information on incidents. These departments record information like each officer’s use of force report specific to each event, the initial reason for contact and more details on why force was used. They may also record whether officers perceived that a community member had a weapon or exhibited irregular behaviors and whether anyone (including officers) were injured.
ELPD looks to ideas from oversight commission
The oversight commission met on Dec. 7, the night after CNA presented its report to Council. While the commission’s agenda included discussion of the report, the group failed to meet quorum and as a consequence did not discuss it in depth.
But ELPD Captain Chad Pride, who regularly attends the commission’s meeting, told the commissioners present that he had spoken to Chief Johnson about the report, and, “We want to work with the oversight commission to look at these policies and changes.”
“If there is something specific that the oversight commission wants us to work on” in response to the report, Pride said, “we are all ears.”
Note: Alice Dreger contributed the reporting from the Dec. 7 oversight commission meeting. Chris Root sometimes reports and edits as a volunteer for ELi, but not on matters of policing since being named to the Oversight Commission in 2020.