What Sunday’s ELPD Parking Lot Video Shows about the Police Car Damaged

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ELPD Deputy Chief (and now Interim Chief) Steve Gonzalez in his office in April 2019.

Responding to a Freedom of Information Act request, this morning East Lansing Interim Police Chief Steve Gonzalez showed me security camera video from Sunday’s protest. I also asked Gonzalez about this week’s two protests and the plans for this coming Sunday’s protest; more on all that below.

In today’s discussion as previous, Gonzalez emphasized that the role of the police when people are peacefully protesting is to support them by enabling their right to protest. That means staying out of their way and keeping at bay anyone who might try to come and harm protestors – for example, using police cars to block drivers who might want to use their own vehicles to attack protestors.

Gonzalez indicated today, as he has before, that he sees the George Floyd protests across the nation as positively transformative.

“Law enforcement is going through a sea change” as a result of these protests, he told me this morning. “I am so hopeful for lasting and positive change.”

Video footage showing what happened before, during, and after the car was damaged:

As I requested, today I was shown parking lot security camera video showing the period before, during, and after a small number of people smashed the windows of an empty ELPD cruiser.

I asked to see the footage to verify Gonzalez’s claim from Wednesday that the cruiser was not left as “bait” as about a thousand people were headed to ELPD to protest chiefly the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.

The security video is visual only – no audio. The footage shows ELPD officers hustling to move vehicles out of the ELPD parking lot minutes before the crowd arrives.

Officers are seen rushing to the extent that one comes close to hitting another officer with his car while pulling out of a parking space. In another case, an officer starts driving out of a parking space before his fellow officer has even closed his door.

The vehicle that was left in the lot and damaged was, according to Gonzalez, car #11, and it was the shift supervisor’s car. This is significant because the shift supervisor was working on multiple issues at once.

Gonzalez said this is why it was difficult for the supervisor to get the car moved before the crowd arrived. Officers are assigned specific cars that are their responsibility during the shift.

Before protestors arrive, the tape shows the shift supervisor coming out to get his rifle out of the car, as well as an object Gonzalez identified as “a less lethal weapon.” (The rifle is encased in a special locking system in the car so that someone who breaks into a car cannot just grab a weapon.)

The shift supervisor does not reappear for a few minutes after going in to the building to lock up his weapons. Gonzalez explained that that is because weapons have to be secured in the building in safes – you don’t just run in and drop weapons and run back out.

Alice Dreger for ELi

An ELPD vehicle was attacked, but no people were hurt or arrested, at a George Floyd protest at ELPD headquarters on May 31, 2020.

Could the shift supervisor have moved that car before the protestors arrived? In theory, yes.

In reality, there can be no question that there was a lot going on at that moment and the car was probably not the shift supervisor’s top priority. (Part of what was happening was a shift of command of the event from Lansing PD to ELPD. By everyone’s account, the crowd moved quickly from Lansing to East Lansing.)

Gonzalez emphasized that once protestors arrived, it would not have been safe to move the car because they were all around the car and those people could have gotten hurt. The tape bears that out.

Several people in the crowd were trying to keep the protest peaceful

Gonzalez pointed out in the tape that there were at least two people in the crowd who were very actively trying to stop protestors from engaging in acts that could be seen as not peaceful. He called these people “peacemakers” in the discussion and expressed gratitude for how they may have kept people from getting hurt.

One appears to be a younger African American man, another an older African American man. From my own reporting at the scene Sunday, I know there were at least two other people – one a young African American man in different clothing than the one on the tape, the other an older African American woman – who were very actively working to encourage everyone, including officers, to remain peaceful. There were probably others – maybe many others.

The two “peacemakers” visible on the tape actively intervened after two people used skateboards to smash the windows of the ELPD vehicle. Many other people scattered at that point, but these two people were actively trying to stop further acts of violence.

The tape makes clear just how unpredictable these events can be, and how fast things can change. At one point in the tape, for no apparent reason, the crowd suddenly surged east on Linden Street, then came back. Gonzalez says the police still can’t figure out what happened there. (He said it reminded him of what happened last April when a sports event-related “civil disturbance” occurred, in terms of unpredictability.)

It is not difficult to see why on Sunday the police were, according to Gonzalez, concerned that someone might attempt to move on to something more significant like we’ve seen in other cities (like setting police stations on fire). He said the police were worried, after the car windows were smashed, that someone might try to “ransack” the building and threaten the safety of the people inside.

He told me this morning that he believes Ingham Special Response Team’s approach, led by MSU Police Lieutenant Jon Martin, was well done – that the Special Response Team walked up to the protestors and talked with them to keep the peace, although Gonzalez also strongly credited individuals in the crowd who acted to intervene for peace.

No arrests have been made in conjunction with the damage to the vehicles, but Gonzalez said that if the individuals responsible are identified, they will be charged. ELPD has not publicly circulated images of those involved.

Gonzalez’s view of the protests

Sunday’s protest involved the vehicle damage, but all in all, Gonzalez saw it as turning out well because no one was hurt and about a thousand people were able to protest peacefully, safely moving where they wanted and expressing their views.

ELPD’s weekly police report appears to show ten arrests at East Lansing as a result of the protest. But no one was arrested in East Lansing in conjunction with the protest.

About that report, Gonzalez explains, “The arrests were made in Lansing, by Lansing PD. The individuals were brought here to our jail due to their jail being closed. We housed them for a few hours before we could transfer them back to LPD. Because of the way we have to document this, they show up on the weekly report.”

Tuesday’s protest, in his opinion, turned out even better than Sunday’s because for over three hours protestors were able to peacefully protest, including with spontaneous street marches, while police stayed completely out of their way except to block drivers from coming near them.

A “kneel-in” is planned at ELPD for this Sunday at noon. Gonzalez says the plan is the usual – to enable the right to peacefully protest.

I asked Gonzalez if he planned to join the protest as some police leaders have done in other cities.

He explained that because he is still functioning in two jobs – as Interim Chief and effectively also as Deputy Police Chief – he has to make sure he stays on top of his officers’ work during the protest, so he cannot leave his post and turn his attention away from the work for which he feels responsible.

“I don’t want any officers to do anything that might be a flashpoint – that might turn things violent,” he explained. “My responsibility is to follow operational plans.”

He reiterated the sentiments of his written statement from Tuesday, which said, “We fully support people exercising their right to protest over the brutal and senseless murder of Mr. George Floyd. Mr. Floyd’s legacy will lead to lasting, positive change of the law enforcement profession and how we interact with our community. I assure you: we are listening. We urge people to remain non-violent during these protests and treat each other with dignity and respect.”

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