Concerns about Racial Profiling Underlie Citizen Interest in New East Lansing Board

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Monday, June 10, 2019, 7:00 am
Dan Totzkay

In response to a drafted plan to create a new citizen board to review citizen complaints made against East Lansing police and fire officers, numerous citizens came forward to East Lansing’s Human Relations Commission last week to speak personally about local experiences of racial profiling.

Collectively their remarks called for a strong and empowered citizen review panel, not like the one envisioned in a draft ordinance brought forward to Council last month.

As ELi previously reported, Council member Aaron Stephens had an ordinance drafted by City Attorney Tom Yeadon after a meeting of Stephens, Yeadon, East Lansing Police Chief Larry Sparkes, Human Resources Director Shelli Neumann (staff liaison to the Human Relations Commission), and City Manager George Lahanas.

But that draft ordinance was roundly criticized as weak, uninformed, and inadequate at the June 5 Human Relations Commission (HRC) meeting.

In response, Stephens told the HRC that he will ask Council to put off any decisions until HRC can work on a new design. (Stephens serves as Council liaison to HRC.)

Now the HRC will create a committee that includes community stakeholders, ultimately providing recommendations on a new review board structure and function that is informed by public need, expert guidance, and research about similar programs implemented in other cities.

Much of the critique by the public and Commissioners revolved around a lack of power given by the draft ordinance to obtain information about an investigation sufficient to form an independent judgment when police officers have been accused of bias or misbehavior.

A sticking point in this whole process may be how East Lansing police employment contracts limit what the City can do in terms of investigations and disciplinary action. Those contracts are currently set to expire at the end of this month and are being actively renegotiated now.

East Lansing citizens speak of experiencing racial profiling in police stops

At the June 5 meeting, the HRC took comment from six members of the public. Kath Edsall, an East Lansing resident and East Lansing Public Schools Board of Education Trustee, spoke first about her experience as the mother of Black children who have been frequently stopped by both East Lansing and Michigan State University police officers.

Below: Kath Edsall with several of her children.

Edsall recounted having heard many times, including recently, that East Lansing is described as a “sundown town,” meaning it is “not a place for Black people to be after sundown, primarily due to the possibility of getting stopped and/or arrested by police.”

Edsall continued that ELPD has a lack of data on possible racial bias, as officers do not keep accurate records of the race of the people they pull over and ticket. She said that, in one case, her child received a ticket that listed their race as “unknown.”

Edsall says these are “attempts at avoiding being called out for racial profiling by simply not keeping the data necessary to prove racial profiling.”

Edsall called “ludicrous” the plans for a Review Board that only sees information the ELPD deems appropriate to show it. She said that for a Review Board to have impact, it must be independent – without Police Chief appointments – and must be able to interview witnesses, review audio and video recordings, and must require ELPD to collect and produce relevant data.

Also speaking at the HRC meeting was Jeffrey Wray (below), an East Lansing resident and MSU professor who has been a prominent figure in local discussions of racial injustice. In 2016, Wray participated on a panel about racial bias in East Lansing policing and has written about how even his credentials as an MSU professor have not prevented him from being profiled and stopped by police.

Speaking as a Black man and the father of two young Black men, Wray said he agreed with many of Edsall’s points. He characterized ELPD as partaking in “overzealous policing” especially when it comes to Black men.

Wray said he believes East Lansing is a good community but that it needs “work and attention to become a great community for all of its citizens.” Specifically, he noted that the action now seen on the part of ELPD and City government is “not out of the goodness of their heart,” but instead because “the community demands it.”

Wray called for the formation of a review board using a method that would “create public trust in the process, in origins, and in design” and said it should be proactive rather than reactive. He said it matters who is “in the room” when decisions are being made.

He concluded that when something like this “comes up short,” it affects “people of color, homeless folk, people of certain sexual orientations,” and said that coming up short here “is not a casual thing.” He says police and government “have to be pushed” and that he “doesn’t believe in waiting for people to be good.”

Citizens recommend a more empowered board of review

Ralph Monsma, an East Lansing resident and former Council member, told the HRC last Wednesday that while ELPD has made great progress in terms of community relations, the proposal drafted by Yeadon at Stephens’ request “does not do a good job” at providing for citizen oversight of the police. Monsma provided a list of recommendations which revolved around greater information provision.

Chris Root (below), an East Lansing resident and long-time racial justice advocate, spoke to the specific details of the ordinance and said that the overall goals of this process should be increasing trust, decreasing bias, and acknowledging that “there have been too many instances over too many years of police bias and people of color being vulnerable and scared and harassed and feeling unsafe.”

In its current form, Root says, the proposal for a review board would decrease trust. She echoed Wray’s statement that this proposal is more of a first draft, but went a step further to say the proposal as it had come forward at City Council was simply “too weak to tweak.”

In what Yeadon drafted, Root noted, the information made available to the Public Safety Review Board would be no greater than what the HRC currently has, and would in fact be less than what a private citizen can obtain using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

In the ordinance drafted by Yeadon (below), the Review Board would only receive information through oral statements from the ELPD Chief or their designee and would have no access to “any portion of the investigative file,” which means no access to audio recording or police body/dash camera footage.

Root said this is what is already provided to the HRC through the existing annual complaint report system, which they have said was inadequate.

Root noted that important information, including information about the police officer who is the focus of a complaint, would not be provided to the Review Board in the model proposed at Council, but would be provided to any private citizen who submitted a FOIA request. Root also noted that video from ELPD dashboard cameras “relevant to an incident” can be requested by the public, per ELPD’s website. (Read Root’s written comments here.)

Looking to other cities for models

Root and others called on the HRC to pay attention to research provided by East Lansing-based attorney Erick Williams showing that many other cities have worked to create stronger review boards. Williams had been specifically invited to comment by Director of Human Resources Shelli Neumann.

Williams said in submitted comments that, above all, East Lansing should conduct sufficient research before moving forward and that the Review Board needs to be proactive.

He referenced the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, which names more than 150 civilian police oversight agencies in the country that could be reviewed as possible models for East Lansing.

Williams seeks establishment of a Review Board that can “exercise independent judgment” and that can obtain access to information it needs to function optimally.

He referenced other cities that have given oversight boards such power, which include giving a board the ability to subpoena witnesses – in the case of Knoxville, TN, and St. Paul, MN – and access to files, reports, and other relevant materials to investigations – such as in the case of New Orleans, San Diego and St. Louis.

Williams cited a number of cities’ review boards that are able to help improve policies – ideally preventing problems. He referenced the board in Berkeley, CA, which can make recommendations about law enforcement operations, the board in Albuquerque, NM, which has to spend half of its time making policy recommendations, and the board in St. Louis, which can make recommendations on policy and operations without reference to a specific complaint.

Williams also stressed the importance of developing a system where City employees can come forward with complaints and be protected in their whistleblower capacity. (East Lansing is currently being sued for wrongful termination by a whistleblower it fired.) He referenced Chicago, which prohibits retaliation or intimidation against those who cooperate with the oversight board.

Lastly, Williams said a Public Safety Review Board needs to have an independent voice and the charge to issue public reports on complaints it receives. He named Atlanta as a model, noting that it can issue public reports and recommendations at its discretion, and Knoxville, which requires an annual publication of complaint summaries and statistics.

LaShawn Erby of Black Lives Matter Lansing weighs in

Neumann also invited comment from LaShawn Erby (below) of Black Lives Matter Lansing, who also took part in the 2016 public panel discussion organized by the ELPD.

Erby was the last member of the public to address the HRC last Wednesday. She thanked Stephens for taking action, saying, “you gotta have someone on the inside to make these things happen.”

Erby said she shared many of the same concerns as the others and was glad to see something happen, especially given East Lansing’s history of racial discrimination, with housing only formally being opened to Black residents 50 years ago.

Erby echoed Root’s concerns that the Board, as it had been proposed, would look like a “bait and switch” to the public. She said she had “serious concerns … especially around access to information.” Erby said asking questions about an incident would be impossible “if you don’t even know what happened.”

Erby asked if there was a particular need to rush to create this body and asked what power the HRC had already.

In response, Stephens explained the HRC is purely advisory and has no enforcement power. He said that his motivation for the Review Board was to create something that did have power.

Erby cautioned that “haste makes waste.” She said East Lansing has a great opportunity here and hopes she and members of Black Lives Matter in East Lansing can provide input going forward.

Human Relations Commissioners largely agree with public criticisms

After hearing from the public, commissioners largely concurred with what they heard, with Commissioner Liz Miller ultimately moving to create a more inclusive advisory group that would better explore what an effective Review Board might look like.

Specifically, Miller called for a subcommittee that would be “tasked with recommending the structure and function of a public safety review board,” which would be comprised of members of both the HRC and the University Student Commission, as well as members of the public “who are most impacted by policing and those who have expertise in public safety oversight, which doesn’t necessarily mean people who are working for police and fire departments.”

Only Vice Chair Carla McWherter voted against Miller’s motion.

Miller said the charge of the subcommittee should be to listen to the public and reach out to other cities to hear about their process for implementing such oversight boards, much like what Williams recommended.

She also shared the Guidebook for Implementation of New or Revitalized Police Oversight, saying that East Lansing is likely “not the only city that has run into issues around union contracts and worked with that language and figured out the scope.” She suggested the subcommittee “figure out which model fits our community the best” and present the different models to the public for feedback.

Miller also noted that the HRC was given no prior knowledge of the ordinance that was introduced at the May 14 meeting of Council and noted that there had been no formal endorsement on the part of the HRC.

Commissioners Talyce Murray (who joined via video call), Karen Hoene, and Pat Cannon all called for allowing the process of proposing an effective Review Board to take as much time as necessary, with Murray saying time needs to be taken to sit down with members of the public to first understand their needs and find the “intersection of what the people want” and what the HRC is able to do.

Hoene also called for legal consultation to help “interpret some of [the police contract] verbiage” and potentially find ways around what they perceive as limitations currently, while also not “reinventing the wheel.”

McWherter stressed that representation was crucial in this process and said that the right members of the public need to be invited and made aware of this process occurring. She admitted to “intellectual laziness” in that she assumed the proposed ordinance had been reviewed by people whose input she valued.

McWherter said that the HRC needs to be “sure that folks who are most impacted have a seat at the table, and there is not gatekeeping going on, however unintentional that may be.”

She suggested that one option for dealing with the police collective bargaining agreements could be to not propose a body that pursues a punitive process against an individual officer, but instead to create a body that can make changes to policy to attempt prevention of problems.

Lastly, a soon-to-be Commissioner, Sean Perry – recruited by Stephens to fill one of the vacant HRC seats – shared his own experience with racial profiling in East Lansing.

Perry said that he many times is pulled over for what he perceives as a police officer just trying to find a reason to arrest him, using “the discretion they are given to discriminate against certain people.”

Perry said there is absolutely no trust in the system and that what they need to do is “solidify our foundation to build trust on.” He said that the police cannot be trusted and have to be monitored from the outside.

Stephens agrees that starting over makes sense

In response to hearing public criticism for the ordinance Yeadon drafted at his request, Stephens (below) thanked those commenting and said that if the drafted ordinance “doesn’t meet the mark, it doesn’t meet the mark.” He said that he does not “have a rushed agenda on this,” other than that he believes East Lansing needs “something in place.”

Stephens said that, as a person of color, he feels this is an issue near and dear to his heart, especially given his own interaction with police in the past, and that it is not something he takes lightly. He also stressed that this “hasn’t been discussed in East Lansing before” and that he thinks it is “important that we start to have this conversation.”

The HRC has scheduled a meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 2, for a more in-depth discussion of the composition and duties of the to-be proposed committee. ELi will continue to cover this story.


You may also be interested in this reporting from ELi:

Citizen Review Proposed for Complaints Against EL Police and Fire Officers

Complaints Against East Lansing Police Reviewed by Commission

Community Members Talk Racism in East Lansing

Historic East Lansing Battles Over Racist Housing Discrimination

City Settles FOIA Lawsuit on ELPD for $4K

ELPD Promises More Transparency But Accountability Concerns Remain © 2013-2020 East Lansing Info