Police Chiefs and Human Relations Commission Discuss Complaints Against ELPD Officers, Talk about Racism and Trust

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Friday, February 14, 2020, 4:40 pm
Alice Dreger

Editor’s note: This article was in process when news broke earlier today of an allegation of assault by East Lansing Police officers against a black man. No mention was made at the meeting of this incident, which occurred four days before the meeting reported on here.

The conversation at the East Lansing Human Relations Commission meeting this Wednesday evening wasn’t easy. Pointed questions were raised, some tears shed, skepticism and frustrations expressed, and differences of worldviews grew evident.

But what the people in the room seemed to have in common was an understanding that there’s positive work happening and that there’s more work to be done in terms of community relationships involving the police in East Lansing.

The occasion for the discussion on the evening of Feb. 12 was the annual report by ELPD’s administration to the Human Relations Commission. The HRC is appointed by East Lansing’s City Council and tasked with monitoring civil rights in the City borders, and this is the fourth year such a report and review by the HRC has occurred.

ELPD has been steadily responsive to requests from the HRC and indeed seeks guidance from the group on issues like training and policies, as at the Feb. 12 meeting.

Above: HRC Chair Talyce Murray and Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens at the meeting (photo by Gary Caldwell)

Review of 2019 complaints against ELPD officers:

In 2019, the year under review this week, there were six complaints made against officers by people outside the department, and none made internally. The six complaints came in the context of somewhere between 34,000 and 40,000 contacts between citizens and ELPD officers.

That means there was about 1 complaint filed for every 6,000 interactions between ELPD officers and citizens.

The complaints and the dispositions of the complaints were explained, to some extent, in a memo from the police chiefs to the HRC, a memo which City staff provided to the Commissioners but not the public in advance of the meeting. (See the memo here.)

This year as in years past, none of the complaints from citizens were found upon police internal investigation to have had at their base inappropriate actions by ELPD officers. While HRC members accepted that the police sometimes had evidence that contradicted complainants’ memories, the fact that no complaints were found justified created some skepticism among HRC members.

“As much as I love East Lansing,” said HRC Chair Talyce Murray, “I can’t believe that [ELPD officers] are that perfect.”

Above: ELPD Chief Larry Sparkes answers questions from HRC members (photo by Gary Caldwell)

But Chief Larry Sparkes and Deputy Police Chief Steve Gonzalez explained at the meeting the absence of negative findings in part by the extensive review process involved in hiring officers to ELPD – a process meant to weed out potentially problematic officers before they ever join the force. They also explained cases in which policing standards call for practices that some complainants might have perceived as biased or otherwise problematic.

Asking passengers for ID:

Of particular interest to the HRC was the fact contained within complaint 19-04 that, after an officer stopped a car for a headlight being out (videos obtained during the investigation confirmed the light was out), the officer asked a passenger in the car for her identification.

Sparkes and Gonzalez explained that officers sometimes ask for IDs of passengers because they are trained to understand who they are dealing with in any given situation. But several people at the meeting indicated this only seems to happen when a passenger is a person of color.

In response, a discussion ensued about whether officers make clear to passengers that they are not legally required to provide ID in such circumstances, and the chiefs indicated they thought it was a good idea to make sure officers convey this.

This discussion then tied in to a larger conversation about how ELPD can collect demographic data to try to understand better where there might be bias in terms of things like this kind of discretionary request.


Above: HRC Commissioner Quentin Tyler (right) speaks at the meeting while Commissioner Thasin Sardar (left) listens (photo by Gary Caldwell)

ELPD begins collection and reporting of demographic data of all people stopped by the police:

In conjunction with the annual report, Sparkes and Gonzalez provided the big news that on Feb. 1, 2020, the police department started “tracking demographics on all officer-initiated contacts. This effort will capture the race, sex, and reason for contact on every interaction that an East Lansing Police Officer initiates without a dispatched call for service.”

This should provide much more rigorous results than what ELPD has been able to obtain through monthly supervisor spot-checks of body-worn cameras aimed at detecting unprofessional behavior and/or evidence of systemic bias.

Until now, ELPD has been viewing just a sampling based on random calendar days chosen retrospectively by the HRC. ELPD administration had been reviewing one day a month, but frustrated by the lack of data, several months ago they asked HRC to select two days a month.

Above: ELPD Deputy Chief Steve Gonzalez at the meeting (photo by Gary Caldwell)

At Wednesday’s meeting, Sparkes and Gonzalez presented the body-worn camera data which showed a higher percentage of police-initiated contacts with African-Americans than would be expected if officers stopped people of all races equally in East Lansing.

The data also showed that 29% of white males subject to officer-initiated contact had enforcement action taken against them, whereas 24% of African American males did, with African American females coming in at 18%, below the 20% for white females. (See that data here.)

All that said, Sparkes and Gonzalez made clear they find this sampling to be inadequate to understanding what’s happening. The random sampling of body camera video could, for example, completely miss review of one officer’s work for years. So they are seeking the complete data set.

The challenge of tracking “race”:

One challenge of demographic data-collection will be figuring out how to catalogue citizens who end up in officer-initiated interactions. Commissioner Chuck Grigsby noted that in cataloguing whether someone is Hispanic under “race” confuses ethnicity with race, and suggested it makes more sense to think in terms of ethnicity than “race.”

Above: HRC Commissioner Chuck Grigsby reviews materials provided (photo by Gary Caldwell)

That still leaves the question of how to ascertain people’s demographics. Chief Sparkes explained at the meeting that he believes asking a stopped individual “what is your race?” could be interpreted as hostile and even racist. But some citizens at the meeting thought asking was better than not asking.

That said, allowing self-identification raises another problem: it isn’t a person’s self-identification but officer’s assumptions about a person’s identity that, even when wrong, are at the root of any implicit or explicit bias. The person’s “real” identity doesn’t matter in this instance – what matters is the officer’s subjective perspective.

So, it might make more sense for officers to record what they think a person’s demographic identity is. A problem with that, however, arises when officers “cheat” by marking a person’s race or ethnicity as “unknown.” The use of body camera review can greatly help with data confirmation.

HRC members expressed appreciation for the work ELPD administration is doing to collect much more data about potential bias and to correct for bias.

ELPD goals for carrying out recommendations on Twenty-First Century Policing:

Sparkes and Gonzalez also shared a table (see it here) showing the department’s work on the six pillars of Twenty-First Century Policing. This is an organized national effort to bring a more community-centered and just approach to policing in America.

The shared table shows the ELPD’s activities aimed at building trust and legitimacy, conducting community policing and crime reduction strategies, working on anti-bias efforts, and attending to officer wellness and safety. As part of this work, ELPD plans to bring in training from Fair & Impartial Policing, LLC, and to continue to conduct special educational interventions.

Providing an example of special training, Sparkes noted that ELPD officers recently went through a special training on working with citizens who are autistic. Commission Pat Cannon asked about a training for dealing with drivers who are deaf, and Gonzalez said that is something the department will pursue.

Above: East Lansing School Board Member Kath Edsall (standing) speaks of two of her black sons' negative experiences with police officers (photo by Gary Caldwell)

The chiefs noted a number of other points where the department still has work to do, for example in the area of creating closer relationships with immigrant communities. Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens, who is Council’s liaison to the Commission, said that undocumented immigrants are “scared to drive in East Lansing” and agreed work is needed on that front.

Assessing training of ELPD officers about the policing of protected classes:

In addition to in-house trainings, ELPD has been having officers take proctored tours of places like the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State and the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn. Deputy Chief Gonzalez noted that officers have indicated these trips are “very impactful.”

Commissioner Quentin Tyler said that that kind of feedback is meaningful, and encouraged ELPD to think about developing metrics to measure the effectiveness of anti-bias training. Commissioner Liz Miller suggested reflective evaluations, which could include responses to questions about reactions to training and suggestions for improvements in the training.

Above: Commissioner Liz Miller at Wednesday's meeting (photo by Gary Caldwell)

Part of the challenge in all this work is staffing. Because of budget problems in the City of East Lansing, ELPD continues to operate with a very small number of officers compared to national standards for a city this size, and every training hour takes an officer off the beat.

Police leaders see a civilian oversight commission as potentially very helpful to their work:

At Wednesday’s meeting, Chief Sparkes and Deputy Chief Gonzalez made clear they look forward to a potential Citizen Public Safety Oversight Panel as a way to further the goal of more citizen-centered policing. In particular, they named wanting to develop a way that such a group will be ready to help with transparency and review in cases of “critical incidents” – for example, if an officer shoots someone, or someone dies in detention.

The chiefs said they want to rely on the public safety oversight board to establish a sub-group that can “review any serious incidents” and provide legitimacy to investigation of critical incidents. About the possible citizen oversight board, Sparkes said, “We are looking for ways it is going to help us do our job.”

Regarding the status of designing a review board for the City, Mayor Pro Tem Stephens reported that Mayor Ruth Beier and he are working on a revision of the resolution sent to Council by the HRC. Beier told Council the night before that they want to appoint an ad hoc group that will study approaches to oversight commissions in other communities, so that Council can adopt something that will work in East Lansing.

Stephens said that the revised resolution will accomplish pretty much what the HRC’s resolution would do, and that the HRC will be able to review the revision at their meeting on March 4. The Council is expected to consider the resolution at its discussion-only meeting on March 17.

Above: HRC Vice Chair Karen Hoene at Wednesday's meeting (photo by Gary Caldwell)

Looking to diverse hiring and accreditation:

Commissioners asked about progress with regard to hiring officers of color, and the chiefs talked about the efforts ELPD is making in that regard, including trying to recruit young people of color as cadets. This allows the department to instill “the East Lansing way of policing” – talking with people, deescalating, and creating open lines of communication.

According to Sparkes, an African American man and a Latino man will soon be joining ELPD as sworn officers. This came as welcome news to the HRC.

But Sparkes said he hopes for more diversity in hiring: “We are making some progress, but not the progress we would like to see.”

It isn’t easy, he noted, because police forces throughout the state are eager at this point to hire officers of color.

The ELPD also decided to undertake the lengthy process of seeking Michigan Law Enforcement Accreditation, which will entail a review of all of the department’s policies. This is expected to begin in the summer of 2020.

At the conclusion of the discussion on Feb. 12, the chiefs had a list of follow-up questions and suggestions from the commissioners and an understanding that they will keep checking back. They expressed thanks to the HRC for the in-depth help with their work.


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