In a move the likes of which we’ve never seen in six years at ELi, an East Lansing police officer is requesting under the Freedom of Information Act “any and all emails and electronic correspondence” between Feb. 17 and Feb. 20 among the five members of City Council, City Manager George Lahanas, and Police Chief Kim Johnson.
The request specifically asks for communications regarding the ELPD annual award ceremony.
The ceremony was slated to be held virtually and open to the public on Feb. 17. It was cancelled at the last minute after members of Council pushed back over specific concerns about the awards, after being notified of them a day before, on Feb. 16.
Members of Council were primarily opposed to giving an award to Officer Andrew Stephenson, the central figure in two high-profile cases of alleged excessive use of force against black men that came to light approximately a year ago. Stephenson was exonerated in both those cases and currently is assigned to an office job with the police department.
Also slated to be honored was former City Attorney Tom Yeadon, multiple members of Council confirmed. Yeadon’s office handled prosecutions under East Lansing’s ordinances until the three senior members of the current Council — Aaron Stephens, Jessy Gregg, and Lisa Babcock — voted to fire Yeadon on July 14, 2020.
That move that led to the immediate resignations from Council by then-Mayor Ruth Beier and Mark Meadows. Stephens, Gregg, and Babcock later appointed the other two current members — meaning that the current Council is as it stands specifically because as a result of the three members firing the attorney ELPD sought to honor.
Mayor Aaron Stephens called the decision to publicly honor Stephenson at this point “tone deaf.”
“I don’t have any control over those awards and obviously wasn’t involved in them besides getting that email,” Stephens said. “What I said — and probably what will come out in the FOIA [response] — which I still stand by, is just that we had marches to our doors regarding this. And, you know, it’s — I think it’s a little bit tone deaf and disrespectful of the community at that point.”
Speaking with ELi, the other four members of the present City Council shared Stephens’ general sentiment. No one on Council directed the police explicitly to cancel the ceremony, Council members said. Council members indicated they believe City Manager Lahanas only became aware of the ceremony when they did. It’s unclear what ELPD Chief Johnson knew, and when.
The email alerting Council to the ceremony came from Nicole Mosteller, Lahanas’ assistant.
Johnson, Lahanas, and ELPD Sergeant Jeff Thomas — the officer who filed the FOIA request, using his ELPD work address, email, and phone number — all did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Council member Lisa Babcock said the original reaction from herself and Council colleagues was to question the process of picking who was honored and ask who, exactly, is conferring the awards. The City? The police union? The police department itself?
Babcock and other members of Council have since made it clear to ELi that the City is not giving these awards, but it’s unclear who, exactly, is.
“Nobody could quite answer that,” Babcock said.
Babcock went on to say there may have been events in the past year making Stephenson worthy of recognition. But it “seemed to contravene a very painful experience” to honor him now.
“Unfortunately, without context, the awards suggested — and the manner of issuing these awards suggested — that the city of East Lansing and its employees and its residents are utterly indifferent to an experience that we need to learn from,” Babcock said.
Council member Ron Bacon — who was appointed in July after the twin resignations, along with Council member Dana Watson — first learned of the event when he got the notice of it a day before it was scheduled.
“I felt like it was really late arriving,” Bacon said.
He also expressed concerns about the tone being struck by honoring Stephenson, particularly as the City tries to enact police reforms in response to the allegations that had been made against him. Bacon is the current Council liaison to the Human Rights Commission and the Study Committee on an Independent Police Oversight Commission.
“So, in lieu of the processes, particularly with me working on a lot of the issues around police reform and those types of things, it just — the tone and timing just felt not good for everything that seems like we’re working on and the type of trust we’re trying to establish right now between each other,” Bacon said.
Watson said she was surprised at getting the notice so late, particularly since Stephenson was set to be honored, and wondered about the process leading to that. She also found she had to look hard at the materials to see that his name was in there.
“In my mind, I’m just seeing an email. I’m seeing an attachment. I’m seeing a police awards ceremony. I’m like, ‘OK, we’re privy to it.’ You needed to actually open up the document, go through all the names and figure out that he [Stephenson] was getting awarded for something,” Watson said.
All the members of Council knew there’d be significant backlash from honoring Stephenson, regardless of intent, and they didn’t want to bring that upon the City. They sought to avoid it, mainly because of their collective desire to not have any arm of the City revisit or emphasize the tumultuous events that led to the current spate of police reform efforts.
For her part, Babcock made clear to ELi that it’s the City Council, not just the police, who should be facing criticism going forward.
“Many of us, myself included, were cowards and stood back and let the officers take the blame without recognizing the responsibility goes up,” Babcock said. “So. I take that now on my shoulders, it is our responsibility to set policy and standards. And that it is the officers who follow them.”
Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg said keeping the ceremony out of the public eye would also be to Stephenson’s benefit, noting that he was exonerated in both cases and has recently settled back into a role with the ELPD,
“To have it happen in a public sphere would just invite criticism back on the whole department and kind of reopens everything just as things are starting to calm down for Mr. Stephenson and his new role,” Gregg said. “But it was likely to cause a commotion.”
Regardless, the event came to light — and ELi’s attention — due to Thomas’ FOIA request.
Council members indicated they had no problem with Sergeant Thomas’ request of their communications — “it’s always someone’s right” to use FOIA, Babcock noted — but their opposition to the ceremony was mostly out of a desire not to create a firestorm for the City.
Gregg’s perspective is that the FOIA stems from a feeling that Council members might be simply trying to punish the police, which she said is not the case.
“I think the interest is probably just to make sure that it wasn’t punitive,” Gregg said about the opposition to publicly giving Stephenson an award. “That we were just — you know, that there was a deeper reason for it.”
Note: In response to a reader’s question, at 12:45 p.m. on day of publication, we added to this article that the email with information about the ceremony came from Lahanas’ assistant.