ELPD Chief Reports on Complaints Made Against Officers

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Tuesday, January 9, 2018, 7:33 am
Chris Root

On January 3, 2018, East Lansing Police Chief Larry Sparkes (photo above) delivered to the East Lansing Human Relations Commission the second annual report of complaints filed against East Lansing Police Department employees. Commissioners plan to follow up at their February 7 meeting with a discussion to further define the Commission’s role regarding facilitating and monitoring citizens’ complaints.

East Lansing’s Human Relations Commission is a volunteer governmental body which, according to the City, “protects and promotes human dignity and respect for the rights of all individuals and groups; establishes and implements procedures to receive, investigate, mediate, conciliate, adjust, dispose of, issue orders and hold hearings on complaints arising under the human relations ordinance” of the City. Members are appointed by the City Council.

In his report last week, Sparkes provided details on each complaint made in 2017 and reported its disposition, noting that there were 16 complaints in total, while there were 43,000 calls for service from the ELPD.

Eight complaints were made by citizens, and eight were initiated internally. Four of these incidents occurred in November and December and are still under investigation; these include three complaints made by citizens and one made within the department. Sparkes said he would report to the Commission on these complaints when the investigations are completed, rather than waiting until next year’s report.

Citizens’ complaints about East Lansing Police officers:

No disciplinary action was taken against police officers regarding any of the five citizen complaints on which an investigation has been completed.

Two complaints were considered “unfounded,” meaning investigators found that the alleged act did not occur. One of these complaints involved police responding to a domestic abuse case. A person involved in that incident complained of rude or unprofessional behavior by the officer, but a few third-party witnesses who happened to be present believed the officer’s response was appropriate. The second complaint involved a traffic accident in which the complainant said the officer was threatening.

In the case of two other citizen complaints, police officers were exonerated, meaning that investigators determined that they had acted within ELPD policies and procedures. One incident involved a person who was a possible suspect charging mistreatment when police responded to a call from a liquor store employee reporting that there was a possible “robbery in progress.” The second incident involved a minor accident between a car and a bicycle. In that case, the bicyclist complained that the officer engaged in partisan behavior favoring the driver of the car because the driver was a juvenile.

The fifth citizen complaint was “not sustained,” meaning the evidence was inconclusive in the eyes of the investigators. The citizen in this case complained of rude and unprofessional behavior by the officer during an arrest for Operating while Under the Influence of a Drug (OUID) and Possession of Marijuana.

Several Human Relations Commissioners and Director of East Lansing’s Human Resources Department Shelli Neumann, who is the staff liaison to the Commission, took note of the fact that, according to Sparkes’ report, in four incidents the citizen who initially filed a complaint with the department was unwilling to follow up. According to Sparkes, none of them was willing to come in to the ELPD office for an interview. Commissioner Dana Watson pointed out that an in-person interview at the ELPD might be intimidating. (The only complaint that did not involve a request for an interview by the ELPD was the domestic assault case in which third-party witnesses’ testimony was available.)

Watson also asked if demographic data are available about citizens who filed complaints and whether there are patterns about people who complain about police conduct or people who do not follow up on complaints. Chief Sparkes responded that he was unsure about whether this data is available. The complaint form used by the ELPD (on page 5 of this Ingham County Circuit Court stipulation) does not record any demographic data.

Internal complaints about East Lansing Police officers:

Sparkes told the Commission that full investigations are conducted about incidents initiated internally, as with citizens’ complaints, saying that if ELPD employees are doing something wrong, he wants it to be corrected.

Sparkes described as the most serious incident of 2017 a case in which an officer deactivated her body camera and turned off the dashboard camera in the police car during a traffic stop. This is way outside ELPD’s policies, Sparkes said.

He also pointed out that the cameras in use by the ELPD now are automatically activated and are more difficult to turn off. In addition, the traffic stop was outside East Lansing’s boundaries, where the ELPD has no jurisdiction. Further, the officer had arrested someone for a traffic violation outside of East Lansing before and had been warned not to do so again.

This officer was formally disciplined and no longer works for the ELPD. Sparkes reported in answer to a question that this officer currently is working for another police department, although Sparkes informed that department about the officer’s violations. He also noted that, although the officer’s behavior did not meet ELPD standards, it did not violate a law.

Sparkes told the Commission that it would have been helpful to have body cameras in several of the incidents investigated in 2017, but the ELPD did not yet have cameras for all officers at that time. This has now changed. As of the start of this year, all ELPD officers on patrol are to wear body cameras at all times. This will help facilitate investigations of complaints in 2018.

Two other internal complaints made against officers were determined to be unfounded. One involved an officer recording a higher blood alcohol content level on a drunk driving police report than the number that appeared on the test result. When the incident was investigated, the Chief determined that this was an unintentional mistake. The officer was counseled and documentation of the incident was placed in the officer’s file, but no disciplinary action was taken.

The second unfounded case was investigated because a citizen told a City Council member that an ELPD officer in an ELPD vehicle had been seen buying a gallon of milk at a store in Bath Township. Sparkes called in all the police officers who were on patrol at the time and asked if they were involved. He then went to the store and asked to see the videotape of the parking lot. Review of the videotape showed that the officer was from Bath Township, not the ELPD.

Internal complaints involving East Lansing Police cadets:

Four of the seven internally-generated complaints involved cadets. (By comparison, in 2016, none of the seven complaints were about cadets.) ELPD has generally employed eight cadets at a time, although there are fewer on staff at this time, Sparkes told Commissioner Liz Miller.

Cadets work at the front desk and answer calls to the non-emergency phone line. Sparkes pointed out that this is often the first job of a person who is simultaneously a student at MSU and that it is a demanding job, being the first point of contact with the department for people who are not always happy.

Formal disciplinary action was taken against three of the four cadets about whom internal complaints were lodged. Two of the cadets had inappropriately accessed information on the computer. (Sparkes noted that particularly sensitive cases are locked down and cannot be accessed without passwords.) A third case involved a cadet who was drunk and let himself into the department late at night, when he was not on duty. He was told he would be fired or could resign, and he chose to resign.


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