ELPD Makes Public Report of 2016 Internal Complaint Investigations

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Tuesday, January 10, 2017, 7:01 am
Chris Root

At the Human Relations Commission meeting on January 4, East Lansing Police Chief Jeff Murphy gave the first-ever public report about complaints filed against East Lansing police officers during the previous year. This presentation implements a new policy that Murphy told the public he was considering at the ELPD’s forum on October 19 at the Hannah Community Center.

Chief Murphy circulated two written materials. The first, Policy and Procedure, Subject: Complaint Against Employee, describes the procedures that are used for “receiving, reporting, investigating, and adjudicating allegations of employee misconduct.” The guidelines are intended to build trust with the community and protect the reputation of employees from false allegations.

Murphy told the Human Relations Commission that he has decided to make most ELPD Policy and Procedures documents available to the public. He said he only recently became aware that members of the community wanted access to policy documents. They will be posted on the Police Department website once they have been reviewed, probably by mid-February.

The second set of materials given to the Commission included “Complaint Against Employee” (one-page) forms about each of six complaints against officers that were investigated during 2016.

A completed one-page complaint form names the employee, employee’s supervisor, and the investigating officer. Also on the form is the date, time and location of the incident, description of the incident, and the disposition of the investigation. All information about the victim or other complainant who is not affiliated with the Police Department is redacted when it is released to the public. Murphy told the Commission that the version of the form they received from him is also what will be given to anyone who submits a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request about a particular complaint.

Murphy explained that there are only a small number of complaints against ELPD officers each year – rarely more than ten. In 2016, there were seven complaints; one is still being investigated.

The ELPD’s 54 officers respond to about 46,000 calls per year. Calls include anything from a car break-in, to stopping a suspicious person on a sidewalk, to talking with a resident about a concern about a crime or policing issue. There were 2,339 arrests made in 2015, the last year for which complete data are available.

Murphy said he had spent all day reviewing the 2016 complaints, and he gave the Commission a much fuller oral report than what appears in the written forms. This sample from the complaints released at the meeting concerns an allegation of excessive force, a type of complaint that Murphy said the ELPD takes particularly seriously.

The incident involved a loud party on M.A.C. Avenue at around 2:00 a.m. on a Saturday night at the end of April. The complainant was arrested after apparently refusing to open the door when the police came to the house and then struggling with the officers. Murphy said that people don’t expect to be arrested for a noise violation from a party, but police officers have the discretion to do so after 11:00 p.m. if they believe that a warning is insufficient. (Noise violations more frequently are handled with a warning, Murphy said; only 10-12 such arrests are made each year.)

In this case, the person who was arrested filed a complaint the next day alleging excessive force, assault, unprofessional conduct, failure to communicate by police, and former use of marijuana by one of the police officers involved, whom he knew. Murphy said that the complainant stopped cooperating with the investigation once he was told that an internal complaint is handled separately from the legal process concerning his arrest. Nevertheless, a complaint is investigated as fully as possible once it has been made, and this one involved multiple interviews that produced about 100 pages of transcripts. The final decision was that, while the incident was difficult, the officers had not violated any policies or procedures; therefore, they were exonerated.

Another complaint involved an officer who was pursuing a car carrying suspects of a liquor robbery from a grocery store. The pursuit was called off after eight minutes by the supervisor on duty. Apparently frustrated by being prevented from apprehending the suspects, the officer punched the computer in the police car and broke it. He did not report his damage to the equipment until a day later. This complaint, initiated by an ELPD Captain, was sustained, and a reprimand was placed in the officer’s file.

Murphy stated that the ELPD takes investigating complaints very seriously and that they are worth the significant amount of time they require. Several times, he told the Human Relations Commissioners that it is best to identify and address problems with an officer as early as possible. Investigating and addressing a fairly minor complaint might avoid a more serious complaint later.

Three of the six complaints that were presented were made by members of the public. In two of these cases, the officers were exonerated. The third complaint was decided to be unfounded; the officer who was named had not been hired yet at the time of the alleged incident, which was more than ten years ago.

The other three complaints were made by ELPD officers; two were sustained and one was marked for “policy review.”

Murphy told the Commission that City Attorney Tom Yeadon had advised him that this was a good time to begin to release information about internal complaints, as a move toward greater transparency, and that information about individual complaints should be released in a limited form.

The forms that Murphy brought to the Commission match the form specified in a settlement between the City of East Lansing and plaintiff Evan Stivers in the Ingham County Circuit Court regarding what information the City must release in response to future FOIA requests about citizen complaints against police officers.

This court case emanated from an arrest for excessive noise at a party in 2015. Stivers was represented by the MSU College of Law Civil Rights Clinic and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Fund of Michigan, and the agreement was drafted by City Attorney Yeadon. ELi reported on this settlement in May 2016.

This settlement agreement provides context for Yeadon’s recommendation to Chief Murphy that now is a good time to release complaint forms to the Human Relations Commission. Murphy did go further than this by explaining the complaints in more detail at an open meeting of the Commission. He also told the Commission that he would be willing to consider adding a sentence about possible further recourse to the letter that is sent to complainants to inform them of the final disposition of their complaint. The letter might say that people could ask for review by the City Manager or that they can express their concerns to the Human Relations Commission.

Murphy said that his goal is that people feel they got listened to, that there is legitimate review, and that the ELPD will try to correct things.


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