Citizens are split on how they see the East Lansing Police Department and the work of the Independent Police Oversight Commission, with tensions persisting around issues of race and resourcing.
That became evident at the “Virtual Listening Session” held Sept. 28 by the CNA Corporation. Residents and non-residents of East Lansing were invited to the event to share “suggestions and recommendations to improve policing in East Lansing,” in the words of the CNA session coordinator, Dr. Rachel Johnston.
Around 30 people attended the session, which Johnston characterized as a time for CNA to hear from a “cross-section” of the community about their perceptions of policing in East Lansing.
This session is part of a long process.
Council approved ELPD’s request to contract CNA in July of 2021. The corporation was set to run a year-long study about policing in East Lansing for about $110,000 that would include listening sessions with the community.
At the corporation’s website, CNA describes itself as “an independent, nonprofit research and analysis organization dedicated to the safety and security of the nation.”
According to Johnston, CNA has already gathered and reviewed data on ELPD arrest records, traffic stops, uses of force, policies and procedures, and also interviewed some members of ELPD staff.
Here’s what Eli learned from observing the online listening session:
Racial disparities in policing are still contentious.
Bev Baten, an East Lansing resident and former City Council member, referenced the broader, national context of police reform spurred by the murder of George Floyd in 2020. But she suggested East Lansing does not need similar reforms and she doesn’t see policing here as a “Black and white” issue.
Amber Teunis, a social worker who formerly worked with ELPD, said she believes police do not choose to target certain people, but instead answer the calls that come in to them, stating she “trusted” ELPD.
Others pointed out that Black people were more likely than white people to be stopped and arrested in East Lansing, referencing the ELPD’s own data on the issue. And some shared their personal experiences with what they viewed as racial disparities in policing.
A person who identified himself only as Alexander W. shared his experience with ELPD and police as a Black man, saying he did not feel safe and “tensed up” when he encountered an officer due to past engagements.
In response, some participants questioned the data presented and wondered if any of the disparities were due to ELPD interacting mostly with non-East Lansing residents. A man who gave his name only as Mark and claimed to be a former long-time ELPD officer said most of the problems caused in East Lansing were from people coming into the city, not residents.
“So, the fact that we have a lot of arrests that are, you know, of color, it’s not the citizens of East Lansing we’re arresting,” Mark said.
Chris Root, vice chair of the Independent Oversight Commission, commented on the ELPD data about racial disparities, calling it “accurate.” She said East Lansing should care about racial disparities in police interactions, regardless of if those interactions are with non-residents.
“I believe Black people when they speak about their experience,” Root said. “The least I can do is believe what people are telling me.”
Some had concerns about the inclusion of non-East Lansing residents in the conversation about policing at all.
“Why are non-resident concerns treated equally to those of the residents?” Debbie Horn wrote in the chat, specifically referencing another participant in the discussion. “ELPD is responsible to the citizens of their community.”
Worries about non-residents expanded beyond the CNA discussion. Baten questioned why the Independent Oversight Commission has two seats available for non-East Lansing residents, saying she was “not in favor” of this practice.
A majority in the conversation voiced support for ELPD.
Many who spoke at the meeting, both aloud and in the chat, voiced their support for ELPD. Patricia Miller called ELPD “professional” and careful about using force. Baten told CNA she believes the police do a good job regulating the activities of a college town.
When asked what can be done to improve policing in East Lansing, participants offered a few suggestions that included more police engagement with the community, like meet-and-greets and picnics. Others suggested more transparency from ELPD.
There were also numerous concerns with what some see as a lack of police ability to properly patrol East Lansing due to ELPD being understaffed. As ELi recently reported, ELPD’s funding has not gone down, but the department has had trouble recruiting and retaining officers and social workers, like many departments nationwide.
In the chat, a person who identified only by the name Kay said, “More officers are necessary for the safety of the community as well as the safety of the few remaining officers at ELPD.”
Kathryn Rodgers said she saw increases in crime in East Lansing as being caused by having too few officers on staff and called the Independent Police Oversight Commission’s scrutiny of ELPD “unconscionable.”
Teunis, the social worker who until recently worked for ELPD, told the group that police recruiting and retention was made difficult because police “have been made out to be basically monsters by City Council.”
But not everyone at the session was onboard with praising ELPD or calling for more officers.
Alexander W. said hiring more officers would bring “strife and contention” to the community and shared his own personal experience about a negative interaction he had with police.
The CNA corporation’s study into East Lansing is still ongoing. ELi will bring you more information about the group’s research when it is made available.
Disclosure: Chris Root has been a voluntary reporter for ELi, most recently on the library millage. (She does not report on the commission on which she serves.)