East Lansing Police Chief Retires Amid Turmoil

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Tuesday, March 17, 2020, 12:52 pm
Alice Dreger


Above: Larry Sparkes presenting at the special Feb. 27 meeting of City Council (photo by Raymond Holt).


East Lansing Police Chief Larry Sparkes has retired and Deputy Police Chief Steve Gonzalez has taken over the role of interim police chief.

The press release just issued by the City of East Lansing on the matter is short, making no mention of the turmoil that has rocked ELPD and the City following allegations of police brutality related to an arrest at the downtown 7-Eleven on Feb. 9.

Members of the City Council expressed dismay at their meeting on March 11 at the revelation that – shortly after a police investigation resulted in the Feb. 27 announcement that there was “insufficient evidence” to conclude that on Feb. 9 Office Andrew Stephenson has used excessive force during the arrest of Uwimana “Tito” Gasito – the police chief had discovered video tape showing that the same officer had used a similar type of force in an arrest, resulting in a similar injury, on another black man six weeks before Gasito’s arrest.

At the point of discovering that video on March 10, Chief Sparkes referred the case of the December arrest to the Michigan State Police for possible criminal investigation of Officer Stephenson.

Speaking at the March 11 City Council meeting, Mayor Ruth Beier said, “When the initial review was done of the complaint that we are now sending to the Michigan State Police, it was not considered to be an excessive use of force [by the police investigator]. It was not considered to possibly be an excessive use of force until yesterday.” That was when the December video “was looked at by more people . . . more slowly, and in slow motion.”

At that March 11 Council meeting, Council members expressed a combination of frustration, dismay, anger, and shame at the situation, with Council member Jessy Gregg saying, “if we have a pattern of interactions that is causing arrests that end in violent encounters, then that pattern needs to be investigated.”

Gregg said it was clear ELPD was now looking at “a pattern involving the same officer, in the same type of restraint.” Many asked why the police administration had not picked up on this sooner. Neither Sparkes nor Gonzalez were at that meeting.

The press release states that Sparkes’ retirement came on Sunday, March 15, the same day ELi published an investigatory report by Chris Root which found that one officer at the center of the Feb. 9 incident – Officer Andrew Stephenson – has been the subject of 42% of public complaints against ELPD officers since January 1, 2018, and that all of the complaints against Stephenson, who is white, were made by men of color. (Most ELPD officers have no complaints against them.)

The press release indicated that Sparkes has served for 33 years with ELPD. It ran through the roles he has played and quoted City Manager George Lahanas saying, “He will be missed by those who worked with him, but we wish him all the best in this next chapter of his life.”

Gonzalez, who identifies as Hispanic and who will now act as interim chief, has been with ELPD for 22 years and has a master’s degree in Emergency and Disaster Management.

Above: Steve Gonzalez at the Feb. 12 meeting of the Human Relations Commission (photo by Gary Caldwell)

It is the City Manager’s job to appoint the chief of police in East Lansing.

Tonight was supposed to see a meeting of the East Lansing City Council specifically dedicated to the question of creating a task force to move toward the establishment of a citizen review board for complaints against the police. But the State of Emergency has meant the cancellation of all City meetings.

ELi has produced a special webpage tracking our reporting on the East Lansing Police Department, including policies, complaint reports, and more. You can find that here.


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