Don’t be like Amy Cooper.
That’s the message of a new East Lansing law passed unanimously last week by City Council.
Cooper, a white woman, is now infamous for a May 2020 incident in New York’s Central Park. She had her dog illegally off-leash, and when challenged and videotaped by Christian Cooper, an African American man (no relation to Amy Cooper) who is an avid birder, she told him she would call the police “to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.” She then proceeded to do so.
East Lansing’s Ordinance 1490, which “prohibits calling the police based on racial motives versus criminal conduct,” was introduced at the behest of Council member Lisa Babcock, as one of five proposals she floated starting in mid-June. All five were directed at dealing with possible bias in policing and prosecution.
Babcock brought forward this particular piece of legislation to codify what then-Mayor Ruth Beier had repeatedly been suggesting at Council meetings – namely that white people in East Lansing should stop calling the police when they see black or brown people in their neighborhoods.
Ordinance 1490, the law passed last week, is even broader, encompassing many types of bias in addition to racism. The law specifically states:
“No person shall knowingly and intentionally report to a City of East Lansing Police Officer, the City of East Lansing Police Department, a City of East Lansing Official or report to Ingham County 911, a complaint that a person has committed, or that the person may or will commit a crime or is otherwise acting suspiciously when such a report is not based on a reasonable suspicion or fear of criminal activity, but is rather based, in significant part, on the person’s status as a member of a protected class as defined in the Elliott-Larson Civil Rights Act . . . or their sexual orientation or identity.”
The Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination in Michigan employment, housing, education, and access to public accommodations on the basis of “religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status, or marital status.”
The inclusion of “age” as a protected class in this law means it is now illegal to call the police on a group of young people unless there is a reasonable suspicion or fear of criminal activity – a facet that could have implications for town-gown relations in East Lansing.
According to Mikell Frey, spokesperson for the City, breaking this law constitutes a criminal misdemeanor and carries with it maximum penalties up to a $500 fine or 90 days in jail or both.
Speaking to the law at last week’s Council meeting, Babcock said, “It is painful and shameful that this has happened in East Lansing” and said she “truly, truly hopes this [law] never gets used” – meaning that she hopes no one calls the police out of bias.
New Council member Ron Bacon, who is African American, added that he thought it important that people understand that this kind of “weaponization” of the police has “gotten people killed throughout our history” in America. He said that major racial killings and lynchings often began with unfounded and false accusations, a pattern he called a “devastating and disgusting history.”
Mayor Aaron Stephens added that the law would help stop police from being “in situations they don’t want to be in.”
At the same Aug. 11 meeting, a number of other items on the Council’s agenda also centered on concerns about equity and racism.
Council approved a resolution to acknowledge the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and a resolution to honor the life and legacy of Congressman John Lewis.
Additionally, Council engaged in extensive conversation about the disproportionate impact of the War on Drugs on people of color in relation to the licensing of marijuana retail shops in East Lansing.
Council put off a question of whether to change the name of East Lansing’s Human Relations Commission (HRC) – which deals with civil rights concerns and complaints – to the Human Rights Commission in order to give that Commission more time to contemplate possible changes to both its name and its stated duties.
Council also delayed action until September 8 on amending the City’s disorderly conduct code. The Council heard from a number of public commentators that the matter needs careful attention, and the HRC also requested more time to review the proposed changes.
The disorderly conduct code is an issue for the HRC because such charges can be quite subjective – allowing for the introduction of biases – and can be brought for minor issues like spitting or “jostling” that can in turn lead to a major cascade of trouble for the person charged.
At last week’s meeting, Council opted to table for at least a month another of Babcock’s five proposals which would have created a temporary process for review of citizen complaints against police officers while East Lansing moves towards creation of a permanent Independent Police Oversight Commission.
Tonight, Council is expected to discuss and possibly name someone to the last spot on the Study Committee that will advise Council on how to create that oversight commission. A vacancy on the committee was created when Ron Bacon was named to Council. (The group has not yet convened.)
City Council also approved the spending of about $153,000 for a contract with the Battle Creek-based Truth & Titus Collective for “Anti-Racism, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Training” for the City of East Lansing. Five proposals were received for that work following a two-week-long request for proposals, with significantly different proposals ranging in price from $43,000 to the $153,000 charged by the contract awardee.
Elaine Hardy, East Lansing’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Administrator, spoke enthusiastically about the Truth & Titus Collective, and told Council, “We really can’t afford not to enter into this kind of critical work.”