East Lansing’s Human Relations Commission (HRC) met on July 1 for the first time in three months – months when many people locally and nationally focused on police violence against African-Americans because of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25.
At the meeting it became clear HRC is figuring out its role during a time of transition as City Council has embarked on a process of creating an Independent Police Oversight Commission.
The Council has yet to appoint members of a Study Committee to make recommendations to Council about establishing that oversight commission, which means the commission itself is still probably still at least nine to twelve months away. The Council voted to form the Study Committee on May 26 and then allowed time for applications.
Mayor Ruth Beier has told Council members that she has been putting together a recommended panel for the Study Committee from those who applied for Council to “be discussed, changed if needed and approve at an open meeting.” The Council meets next on July 14 and the members are likely to be chosen then.
At the July 1 HRC meeting, the HRC named Commissioners Chuck Grigsby and Quentin Tyler as its representatives to the Study Committee.
But the HRC is planning to do more than name committee members to follow up on concerns about policing. Many issues on this topic were discussed at the July 1 meeting, and it’s clear much more work by the HRC is to come.
HRC to seek information about recent use of force incidents
For four years, East Lansing’s Human Relations Commission has been reviewing public complaints against East Lansing Police Department employees, making it possible for the public to find out more about them than they otherwise could. ELi has been reporting on those reviews steadily.
At the July 1 meeting, Chris Root (who has been an HRC reporter for ELi) called in during public comment to ask the HRC to help the City and the public learn more about use of force by the ELPD. She suggested that the HRC request that the ELPD release case reports and video footage from selected instances in which ELPD used some type of force.
Root said the HRC’s taking this on would help the Council implement its resolution, adopted on June 9, to review and reform the ELPD’s use of force policy. She also pointed out that the HRC is well positioned to review such cases because of its experience with reviewing complaints.
Prior to the meeting, Root had given the commissioners a spreadsheet of incidents since January 2019 that involved use of force, which ELi reporting staff had compiled from public ELPD Weekly Arrest Reports and shared with Council members in May.
Vice Chair Karen Hoene moved that the HRC request that ELPD release case reports and videos of some use of force incidents since January 2019. Cases would be selected by a subcommittee of the HRC.
The eight current members of the HRC unanimously supported this resolution. Chairperson Talyce Murray, Hoene, and either Grigsby or Tyler will select the incidents about which to seek information.
Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens, the Council liaison to the HRC, backed the motion by saying he was also making this request as a member of Council. The City Charter gives any Council member the authority to request information from any City employee.
Recommendation to expand reporting in Babcock’s draft Council resolution
The HRC also discussed a City Council draft resolution, penned by Council member Lisa Babcock, titled “Resolution to Establish a Temporary Process for Review of Complaints About Police Conduct.”
While the request for information by the HRC contained in Hoene’s motion about use of force incidents seeks information from the recent past, Babcock’s resolution coming to the Council would establish an automatic reporting system going forward and continuing until the Oversight Commission is launched.
Murray called for amending Babcock’s resolution to add a reporting requirement of any injuries that occur in police custody.
“Even if it was because you threw yourself on the ground and [the officer was] seven feet away from you. Okay, we can all move on” in such a case, Murray said. But, if patterns emerged with certain officers — as apparently happened with two incidents involving similar excessive use of force complaints against Officer Andrew Stephenson in six weeks — this could be addressed.
Speaking to one of those two incidents, Stephens explained that Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon was not made aware at the time she considered whether to charge Anthony Loggins that he had filed a complaint of excessive use of force during his arrest. Siemon later dropped charges against Loggins when she watched the video footage of the arrest. (A special prosecutor has now been named to look into Stephenson’s actions.)
HRC unanimously adopted a resolution crafted by Carla McWherter to recommend adding to Babcock’s resolution reporting on “any injury sustained by an individual during interaction with a public safety official.”
Babcock’s resolution in its current form specifies that complaints be reported within three days of being filed, a departure from reporting to the HRC which occurs only after the investigation of a complaint is completed.
When asked about this difference, both Human Resources Director Shelli Neumann and newly-appointed Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Administrator Elaine Hardy said this may raise issues of due process for the police officers involved. Under the current system, ELPD conducts an internal investigation before the HRC is informed of any complaint.
HRC expecting answers to its follow-up questions to ELPD
The HRC also requested follow-up information on a number of issues it raised at its February 12 meeting with then Chief Larry Sparkes and then-Deputy Chief Steve Gonzalez.
Murray promised to compile what she described as “50 questions” and provide them to now-Interim Chief Gonzalez, asking for a response before their next meeting.
Murray said that she definitely believes that these issues, many of which involve racial bias in policing, continued to be within the HRC’s purview.
Status of hiring a new police chief
Prompted by a call-in comment from Farhan Sheikh Omar, a local anti-police brutality activist, Neumann gave an update about the search for a new Police Chief at the July 1 meeting.
No internal applicants were submitted. (That means Gonzalez has not applied.) She also stated that the job posting had been shared with the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement (NOBLE), and the City of East Lansing hopes to hire someone from within Michigan.
The first group of candidates has been selected, but due to their schedules, interviews have been delayed to late summer.
Hardy, Fire Chief Randy Talifarro, a member of MSU Police Department, and Chuck Grigsby (as a community member) will conduct the first round of interviews. Finalists will then meet with several City Council members and “a leadership team” of City staff.
HRC Commissioner Quentin Tyler asked whether members of the hiring committee will undergo specific anti-bias training. Murray agreed that this would be a good idea.