Citizen Review Proposed for Complaints Against EL Police and Fire Officers

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Tuesday, May 21, 2019, 7:15 am
Chris Root

Above: Daniel Baum (left) and Aaron Stephens at City Council on May 14.

Council member Aaron Stephens has brought to the City Council an ordinance to create a five-person board to review complaints lodged by the public against East Lansing Police and Fire Department personnel.

But some local social justice advocates believe the process as it has played out so far has not adequately engaged vulnerable populations – especially African Americans, whose safety and dignity are the concern of national advocacy work aimed at scrutinizing encounters between officers and citizens.

Last year’s complaints against ELPD officers bear out the idea that the perception of racial bias is a key component of this scene, as three of four complaints made by members of the public included concerns about possible racial bias by officers.

The ordinance will next be discussed by the Human Relations Commission at its meeting on Wednesday, June 5, at 7:00 p.m. Mayor Mark Meadows has said that he expects that the ordinance will then come back to Council for further discussion and a vote later in June.

Origins of the proposal to create a new Review Board

At last week’s discussion-only Council meeting, Stephens outlined the draft ordinance and explained why it is being proposed. Because the proposed body has been expanded from an original focus on only police, rather than being called a Police Review Board, it is being called a Public Safety Review Board.

Stephens explained that the ordinance is intended to be a proactive effort to expand citizen engagement in the complaint process.

“The best part about having this conversation now is that we are not doing it because there has been an issue,” Stephens said.

For the past three years, East Lansing’s Police Chief and Deputy Police Chief – currently Larry Sparkes and Steve Gonzalez, respectively – have reported to the Human Relations Commission about complaints concerning Police Department employees during the previous year.

Above: Steve Gonzalez (left) and Larry Sparkes.

This oral report, delivered in January of each year, includes a summary of complaints initiated by both the public and from within the Department, along with the dispositions of the complaints. (Possible dispositions are defined in the Police Department’s “Complaint Against Employee” Policy and Procedure document.) Police officials also answer Commissioners’ questions.

Stephens, the Council liaison to the Human Relations Commission, said that, while it is positive to have the Police Chief report at a public meeting of the Commission, “we don’t have any weight behind those questions” in this forum.

A new, separate board would give greater weight to questions from the public, he said.

Daniel Baum, Chair of the Human Relations Commission, echoed Stephens’ statements, praising the transparency of the East Lansing Police Department but also acknowledging that the Commission lacks power to take any action regarding what they learn. Baum said he saw this review board as a step forward.

The Human Relations Commission discussed the idea of a new review board at its last few meetings, focusing particularly on the board’s composition. The Commission’s meeting on June 5 will be its first opportunity to discuss the text of the proposed ordinance. The ordinance draft only became available to Commission members and the public when it was attached to the Council’s agenda.

According to Stephens, the ordinance was drafted by City Attorney Tom Yeadon after a meeting of Stephens, Yeadon, Sparkes, Human Resources Director Shelli Neumann (who is also staff liaison to the Human Relations Commission), and City Manager George Lahanas.

Public concerns about the Review Board proposal

Comments from the public about the Public Safety Review Board have started to come in.

East Lansing resident Erick Williams, a lawyer and former chair of the Human Relations Commission, wrote to Council members saying that “The ordinance needs work.”

Writes Williams, “if we want to make sure that the Police Department gets meaningful advice (not just advice that it already has access to) then we need to reserve seats for stakeholder groups outside law enforcement,” such as people with a civil rights background, renters, members of racial minorities, noncitizens, and religious minorities.

Williams ended his letter with this: “There is a rich literature on citizen review of the police, many existing examples, and experts who specialize in this area. Right here in East Lansing we have experts.”

LaShawn Erby, a co-founder and leader of Black Lives Matter Lansing, who was a panelist at the community forum organized by the East Lansing Police Department in October 2016, also expressed concern about both the composition of the review board and how it is being created.

Responding to ELi’s request for comment, Erby reiterated what she had told Council member Stephens the day of the discussion-only Council meeting: “being proactive beats being reactive any day of the week . . . Now [the ordinance] needs to be cultivated by the people it is intended to serve.”

“What concerned me first was wondering who decided the composition and makeup?” Erby wrote in an email to ELi. “When you want to increase public trust, you don’t tell the public what is needed, you take the time to ask for public input with the intent to use it. That could mean a focus group or town hall for this purpose.” (The emphasis was included in the email.)

Composition and operation of the Review Board as proposed

The ordinance as it was presented to Council indicates that the Board would have five members. Two would be chosen by the Human Relations Commission and the University Student Commission from among their members. The ordinance provides that one additional member “shall be a resident who shall be representative of the population of the city, but preferably with a law enforcement, paramedic, law, criminal justice, firefighting background. The two remaining members shall be residents of the city, but preferably members with a diverse background.”

The draft ordinance suggests that the board would function in the following ways:

• The board would review complaints made by a member of the public or those made by a City employee that allege “inappropriate conduct toward a member of the public.”

• The board would meet quarterly, at which time the Chiefs of the Police and Fire departments would inform the board of pending complaints and present a written summary of each complaint on which a disposition was determined since the previous meeting. The summary would include the “basic factual findings of the Department.”

• The board could be advised of whether the complaint involves a person in a “protected class” as defined in the City Code. These include identity based on religion, race, color, national origin, age, height, weight, disability, sex, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, student status or the use of adaptive devices or aides.

• “The Board and individual Board members do not have the authority to review any portion of the investigative file,” in the vision of the draft ordinance. Board members could seek additional information by asking questions of the Chief or his or her designee.

• The Board could refer a complaint to the City Manager for review by a majority vote of a quorum, based on one of four possible findings concerning the evidence or procedures in the investigation or improper interpretation of a law, policy or procedure. The City Manager, after reviewing any part of the investigative file, could either sustain the original finding, send it back to the Police Department with instructions for further investigation, or instruct the department to change the determination.

Initial reactions for Council members

At the May 14 meeting of Council, members Erik Altmann and Shanna Draheim (below) asked the same foundational question about the proposed ordinance: Why create a new board instead of giving the additional authority named in the ordinance to the Human Relations Commission, which is already receiving an annual report of complaints against police?

Altmann asked if the Commission had discussed and ruled out this option.

Commission Chair Baum answered that he thought creating a separate board would do more to enhance the trust and independence of the complaints process. However, he noted that the Human Relations Commission would retain the role of making recommendations to the Police Department regarding policy and procedures.

Council member Stephens added that, when they were asking questions of the Police Chief, some Human Relations Commission members didn’t feel they had “the expertise or knowledge or comfortability” with this role.

Meadows said he saw the benefit of a board with a single focus.

“Other communities have adopted, I think, far more onerous processes that don’t really do justice both to the complainant and the police department and the good work that they do within a community,” Meadows said.

Ann Arbor’s approach to citizen oversight of police

Stephens pointed out that other cities have different models for oversight of complaints from the public against police and mentioned that Ann Arbor’s Independent Community Police Oversight Commission, created by the City Council there in October 2018. This body will both review complaints about police and make policy recommendations.

Ann Arbor’s Commission has eleven members, compared to five members in the proposed ordinance for East Lansing.

The Ann Arbor ordinance defines the diversity it seeks in several ways: (a) reflecting the City’s diverse population, “including income level, race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, and experience”; (b) ample representation of “segments of the community that are vulnerable and have been marginalized, and that tend to have significant negative interactions with the police”; and (c) including “members with a variety of skills, expertise, and life experiences bearing on the work of the Commission,” including “in the fields of mediation, conflict resolution, mental health, housing, homelessness, anti-racist and equity reform, and transformative justice, and people who have had significant experience with the police, law enforcement, and the criminal justice system.”

The Ann Arbor City Council appointed the first members of its Commission on March 19, 2019.

The design and functioning of the Ann Arbor Commission was heavily debated in a specially-appointed Task Force and in the City Council. The initiative was demanded by community members after a black woman named Aura Rosser was shot and killed in 2014 by an Ann Arbor police officer, who resigned in 2015.

How to weigh in

The next discussion of the Review Board proposal will be at the public meeting of the Human Relations Commission on June 5. Public comment can be delivered at that meeting. Email comment can be conveyed to the Human Relations Commission via this link.

City Council also accepts comment at its meetings, which are listed here. Email can be sent to Council via this link. © 2013-2020 East Lansing Info