Tensions boiled over at Monday’s meeting of East Lansing’s Study Committee on an Independent Police Oversight Commission, as members openly expressed their frustration and disappointment to City Manager George Lahanas regarding the City’s lack of transparency with regard to the recent EPIC-MRA survey on the City’s policing practices.
By Friday afternoon (yesterday), the City had released the full set of raw data on its website. But the struggle to obtain the data has caused numerous Study Committee members to question City leadership’s commitment to transparency and accountability when it comes to East Lansing policing.
The survey, titled “City of East Lansing Police-Community Survey,” was conducted during the first week of March 2021 by EPIC-MRA at the cost of $19,750. (Back in 2019, Council voted to allow the City Manager to approve any contract under $20,000 without consulting Council.) The survey asked 500 East Lansing residents questions about their interactions with and perceptions of ELPD and also about their opinions on “police-community relations.”
EPIC-MRA’s Bernie Porn had presented some of the survey’s findings to Council on Mar. 23 but at that time, not all the data that had been obtained by the City was made public. Study Committee members were only able to obtain the data that had been provided to the City Manager’s office back on Mar. 11 because ELi filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request on Apr. 2 and shared the results with the Committee on Apr. 9.
When ELi reached out to the City on March 25 to try to get all of the data on the survey, Nicole Mosteller, Assistant to the City Manager, had told us in response: “We did not receive raw numbers from EPIC-MRA.” She referred ELi back to the what was made available to Council.
FOIA latter showed, however, that the City Manager’s office had received substantial additional information that was not released. On Mar. 11, Mosteller received cross-tabulation tables from EPIC-MRA. (ELi has made the cross-tab PDFs from EPIC-MRA available here.) As discussed below, the City Manager’s office had also received open-ended comments from respondents, none of which was shared with Council or the public until ELi obtained them through FOIA.
Study Committee members let Lahanas know they are not happy.
At Monday’s meeting (April 12), Study Committee members made clear they were not pleased that they received the cross-tab tables from a FOIA request made by ELi and not directly from the City Manager’s office.
“I’m extremely disappointed in what appears to be a lack of transparency from the City,” said Study Committee Member Cedrick Heraux. “It’s disturbing that we have to rely on a third-party filing a FOIA request for us as a committee to find things out that are germane to our discussions here.”
Heraux, an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Adrian College, addressed his concerns in the meeting and through direct correspondence to the City Manager, detailing the problems with the statistical analysis provided by EPIC-MRA.
He pointed to the categories utilized by EPIC-MRA as problematic, particularly their use of broad racial classifications. In an e-mail to the City Manager, Heraux wrote: “Throughout the report, comparisons are continually made between ‘all’ respondents and ‘Black’ respondents; in no way does this provide any meaningful information about potential racial differences in how East Lansing residents perceive the ELPD.”
Heraux also took issue with essentially using the category of “other” as a racial descriptor for everyone not identified as white or Black, arguing that it not only statistically obfuscates the myriad of other racial identities held by East Lansing residents, but that it also engages in a harmful process of “othering” valuable community voices.
The last available U.S. census (2010) found that Asians make up about 10% of East Lansing’s population. But in this survey, Asians represented only 5% of respondents, and in terms of EPIC-MRA’s conclusions, they were lumped in with people who identified with the study’s options of “mixed race,” “Hispanic or Latino,” and “other.”
Heraux noted also that EPIC-MRA treated “Hispanic or Latino” as if it were a racial category, forcing people who identify as Hispanic or Latino to either ignore their racial identification or count themselves as “mixed race” or “other.”
Study Committee Vice Chair Chris Root echoed Heraux’s concerns. At the April 12 meeting, Root said that the racial categories in the survey seemed to construct white people as the “norm” by which to compare other racial groups, instead of acknowledging that white people should also be understood as a racial category whose attitudes deserve examination. Citing the City’s position on working toward the goal of becoming anti-racist, Root said she found the survey’s methodology lacking.
Study Committee Chair Chuck Grigsby pointed out the potential importance of the survey data to the group’s work. “It’s very directly tied in to what we need to be doing in regard to getting information from the City in a way where we feel whole,” Grigsby said. “Information is power. This data, and being able to analyze it and have transparency is so, so important.”
Many have wondered why it has been so hard to get access to the rest of the data.
Along with the problems pointed out in the presentation of data made by EPIC-MRA, the Committee found itself fighting to receive the raw, numerical data – data finally released on Friday afternoon.
The necessity of seeing the full data set is made clear by some previously-unreleased data obtained in the FOIA request. The FOIA-obtained documents include verbatim responses to Question 30 of the survey, which asked, “Is there anything else you would like to share about your experience with, or impressions of, the East Lansing Police Department?”
The hundreds of responses (made available now, by ELi, here) include a wide variety of statements, including these:
- “A lot of the officers are rude and not forthcoming as to the reason I’m being pulled over.”
- “All of my experience has been exceptional, more ongoing training regarding bias would do everyone good.”
- “I wish their cars weren’t so dark and menacing looking, they look scary.”
- “I’m from Detroit originally and East Lansing police are way better at improving the racial issues we had at first when we moved here.”
- “They don’t take sexual assault cases.”
But the document containing these open-ended responses simply listed all the statements alphabetically, providing no indication about the demographic background for each, effectively rendering them useless in terms of comparisons of perceptions.
At the April 12 meeting, City Manager George Lahanas was defensive when fielding frustrated questions and remarks from committee members.
“I’m a little distressed,” he told the committee. “I was away for one week and now all of a sudden everyone says we’re not giving information. I’m just a little surprised by that.”
Lahanas said the Committee had seen the questions before the survey, and he pointed to his lack of expertise in statistical analysis. He referred several times to a meeting set for Friday afternoon with Heraux and Chief Kim Johnson to address what specific data needs to be obtained from EPIC-MRA. (This meeting had been set in response to the emails Heraux sent to Lahanas before the April 12 meeting.)
Rejecting Lahanas’ portrayal of the situation, the Committee continued to press Lahanas on his and the City’s commitment to sharing information.
“We shouldn’t have to fight to get that data,” Heraux said at Monday’s meeting, with evident irritation. “I don’t need a half-hour or forty-five minute meeting to have this kind of discussion. These are fairly simple points. Either EPIC didn’t do what they were contracted to do or something else went wrong during the process.”
Lahanas asked Heraux to e-mail him the specifics of what the Committee wants in terms of raw data from EPIC-MRA so he that he could request it from them.
“I’m baffled that the raw data isn’t already in your hands,” Heraux remarked on Monday.
Both Heraux and Committee member Kelli Ellsworth-Etchison said they had never heard of a business or government ordering a survey from a consultant and not getting the complete set of data in a form that could be further analyzed by others.
On Tuesday, ELi reached out to the City Manager with questions aimed at understanding the choices made by his office up to this point. He did not respond to the questions, saying only the data would be posted when available.
On Monday, the Committee not only took issue with the problems in the survey and the necessity of getting the raw data, but also the City’s handling of the entire affair and what it presages for the future Independent Police Oversight Commission.
“The posture that is being taken tonight from the City Manager, to me, seems indicative of what’s to come for an oversight commission in how difficult things might be in this transparency quest that this group will be going on,” said Ellsworth-Etchison. “If there’s going to be this hard line in the sand, if there’s going to be this fight to get anything, then we’re no better off than we were before the City Council even placed this group before the community.”