With Protest Planned for Noon, East Lansing Police Chief Says: “We are listening.”

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Gary Caldwell for ELi

Tito Gasito at a protest in Lansing on Sunday. In February, Gasito accused ELPD officers of assault, and his case has led to ongoing sharp scrutiny of ELPD tactics.

East Lansing Police’s Interim Chief Steve Gonzalez says he has this message in advance of the protest planned for noon today at ELPD headquarters:

“We fully support people exercising their right to protest and have their message heard in earnest. I assure you, we are listening. We urge people to remain non-violent and treat each other with dignity and respect.” 

Mayor Ruth Beier told ELi by phone this morning that she will be at the protest, although she says she will have to leave if she cannot remain 6 feet away from people because she has a medically vulnerable family member “and I can’t bring COVID home.”

Beier told ELi today that the conversations happening around “the murder in Minnesota by the police of George Floyd” have helped her understand what needs to be done in East Lansing, namely a large culture change that results in much less aggressive police tactics.

Referring to the two known cases of ELPD Officer Andrew Stephenson, who is white, leaving black men bloodied from arrests, Beier said neither situation should have elevated to arrest, and that neither man should have been taken to the ground.

In December 2019, Stephenson’s actions injured the face and head of Andrew Loggins Jr., a slightly-built 62-year-old man, and in February 2020, Stephenson’s actions similarly injured the face and head of Uwimana Tito Gasito, who was 19 years old.

Video recently released shows Stephenson with his knee held on the neck of Loggins after Loggins was handcuffed and face-down. Beier said today this was the wrong move to use, especially “on a 120-pound old man.”

About the other case, she said, “They could have held [Gasito] until Gasito was not combative. He was just yelling at them. They never had to touch him. That’s the kind of thing I would like to see.”

Council member Jessy Gregg sent out a message on social media yesterday that she will be at the protest distributing sanitized masks to anyone who needs one. (Gregg has been organizing a local mask-sewing initiative.)

Gregg told ELi this morning, “A lot of people in our community are grieving right now and a lot of people are angry that their voices still aren’t being heard. I share the grief over the death of George Floyd but it is not as personal for me as it is for our African American residents. I’m going today so that I can listen and so that hopefully people feel more comfortable approaching me with their concerns in the future.” 

Protestors on Sunday moved from Lansing to East Lansing, to protest specifically at ELPD. (Photo by Gary Caldwell for ELi.)

Council member Mark Meadows told ELi today, “I support the right to protest and the murder of George Floyd has resulted in voices rising to say enough is enough. It seems as though the needless death of young and old African Americans in the most non-dangerous circumstances like jogging, or answering your door, or letting the Police know that you have a concealed weapon permit is a headline every week.”

Meadows continued, “That is not to say that the inappropriate use of force only happens when an African American is involved but it does happen disproportionately to African Americans. Hopefully, the result of the protests will be systemic changes that re-establish appropriate limitations on use of force and the provision of greater transparency will result in a reduction of the deproportionate policing of black and brown persons.”

Today’s protest is not being organized by one of the established civil rights groups, and concerns have arisen that some people might use the protest as an opportunity to cause mayhem, particularly after a small number of people at a large protest in East Lansing on Sunday smashed the windows of an empty, parked ELPD cruiser, leading to a tense situation.

The protest on Sunday drew about a thousand people carrying homemade signs, chanting, and expressing grief over the killing of George Floyd and other Black people by police officers. The protest group was confronted by the Ingham County Special Response Team members who were dressed like SWAT officers and carried large guns.

That Special Response Team includes officers from ELPD, MSUPD, and other local policing jurisdictions and used an armored vehicle owned by Michigan State University.

Regularly-uniformed ELPD officers were also at the scene but stayed about a block away for most of it.

In March, Gonzalez was named ELPD’s Interim Chief when his predecessor retired following the revelation of the second case of Stephenson’ injuring a black man during a take-down arrest. An investigation by Michigan State Police exonerated Stephenson, saying he had acted according to acceptable police procedures when he used maneuvers that injured Loggins and Gasito.

Citizens have been calling for Stephenson to be fired, but City Manager George Lahanas has said that won’t happen because of contractual due process rules. Lahanas did not respond to request for comment on today’s protest.

Update: At 10:40 a.m., Lahanas issued a statement.

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