ELPD Officer Recently Accused of Assault Has a History of Complaints

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Sunday, March 15, 2020, 8:24 am
Chris Root

East Lansing City Council members learned on March 10 that Officer Andrew Stephenson, the focus of the excessive force complaint in the arrest of 19-year-old Uwimana “Tito” Gasito at the downtown 7-Eleven on Feb. 9, was also the subject of another, similar complaint of excessive force on a black man that had been submitted six weeks earlier.

Now a special investigation by ELi finds that Stephenson has actually been the subject of 5 of 12 complaints made by members of the public against ELPD since Jan. 1, 2018.

All of the complaints against Stephenson, who is white, were made by men of color. Three of the men who filed these complaints were identified as African-American or black, and one as Hispanic. Another man whose race was redacted by ELPD said in his complaint he "felt he was only stopped because of his race."

Asked for comment, Mayor Ruth Beier said, “As Council expressed at its last meeting, we were not aware of the complaints against this officer until now. That is our fault. We will never be in that position again.”

Above: Mayor Ruth Beier at the Feb. 27, 2020, meeting of Council (photo by Raymond Holt)

Beier intends to examine this matter closely: “I have asked for all reports, data, and video footage pertaining to complaints against this officer and all other complaints of excessive force. I will review them personally. We are also putting other measures in place to make sure we are aware of what is going on.”

Beier went on to say, “Once again, I apologize for assuming that our current practices of diversity training and de-escalation were sufficient. We clearly have a lot to do so that people of color feel heard, safe, protected, and welcome in East Lansing.”

The complaint by Gasito turns out to be the second in 2020 against Stephenson for use of excessive force.

The experience of Uwimana “Tito” Gasito on Feb. 9 came to attention on Feb. 13 when he posted to Facebook photos of his injured face and eye and an account of having been “assaulted” by ELPD officers. ELPD launched an investigation as a result on Feb. 14.

Stephenson became the focus of the ELPD investigation of the Feb. 9 incident because he was the person holding Gasito’s head and lying on top of him when Gasito was injured. Gasito’s crying out in pain and saying that his eye was bleeding were audible in the video from several body cameras recording the incident.

ELPD Chief Larry Sparkes concluded from the two-week investigation of that incident that “because the video footage does not show how the injury occurred, there was insufficient evidence to clearly prove or disprove the excessive force claim,” according to a press release from the City on Feb. 27. Therefore, the complaint was classified as “not sustained.”

Little visual information was discernable from the video footage partly because Gasito was on the ground, in the dark, with police officers all around him. Also, of the five officers involved in the arrest, body camera footage is missing from two of them. ELPD tells us that one of the involved officer’s body camera fell off during the arrests.

City Manager George Lahanas said at the March 11 Council meeting that the body camera of another officer was turned off the entire day of the arrest. That officer has been disciplined, Lahanas said, because he violated ELPD’s policy that requires officers to turn on their body cam whenever they interact with the public.

The earlier 2020 complaint has been forwarded to the state for possible criminal charges.

The pending Jan. 3, 2020, complaint against Stephenson from the entirely separate incident on December 28, 2019, was revealed only this past week. That has been forwarded to the Michigan State Police “for review and a potential criminal investigation.”

Stephenson is on paid administrative leave until that investigation is completed, and the City dropped charges against Gasito because of the finding of the pattern involving Stephenson.

So, what can we discern about the December 2019 event?

The “ELPD Case and Arrest Summary” for the last week of 2019 shows that the arrest Stephenson was involved in was for Driving While License Suspended (DWLS) and Disorderly Conduct. This report also notes that there was “Use of Force” by a police officer in this arrest.

We are unable to report information from the complaint form submitted about this arrest because, although we have asked for it in multiple ways, we have not been able to obtain it. We have been told that we cannot see it until after the state investigation is completed and the ELPD investigation is closed.

Summary of the five complaints against Stephenson

ELi compiled the following summary information about all the complaints against Officer Stephenson from (1) complaint forms we were able to obtain through FOIA, (2) memoranda on “Internal Complaint Audits” for 2018 and 2019 from ELPD Deputy Chief Steve Gonzalez to Chief Larry Sparkes that were provided to the Human Rights Commission (HRC), and (3) answers to questions from HRC members that we reported from HRC meetings in January 2019 and February 2020.

Complaints against Officer Stephenson in 2018 and 2019

The three earlier complaints against Officer Stephenson did not involve excessive force, as did the two complaints in 2020, but they all involved arrests of men of color, as shown in the table above.

The Hispanic man who filed a complaint in 2019 argued that there was no valid reason for the traffic stop, which resulted in charges of not wearing a seatbelt and expired registration. Stephenson said the driver was not wearing a seatbelt, but there was no body cam video to show whether or not this was the case. The ELPD concluded that the complaint was “unfounded,” meaning that ELPD said the allegation made by the complainant had no legitimate basis.

Regarding the traffic stop in January 2018, a young African-American man who was stopped for speeding complained that he was stopped because of his race, his license should not have been taken away from him, and it would not have been possible to measure the speed he was going because the police car was traveling in the opposite direction.

The ELPD investigator said that the Department’s equipment can measure the speed of an on-coming vehicle and Stephenson told the investigator that he measured the excessive speed when he was too far away from the complainant’s car to be able to see his race. Stephenson was found to be “exonerated,” meaning that his action was found to be consistent with policy of the department.

The complaint in April 2018 of improper detention and racial bias in an arrest for passing counterfeit bills was discussed at length between Chief Sparkes and Deputy Chief Gonzalez and the Human Relations Commission during the annual report of complaints in January 2019.

Above: ELPD Chief Larry Sparkes presenting to Council on Feb. 27, 2020 (photo by Raymond Holt)

In that case, police were called to a fast food restaurant in the north end of town by an employee who said a person had paid using counterfeit bills. During the 911 call, the employee described the African-American man in some detail while looking at him in the store. The description included that the man had a gun in his waist.

Two ELPD patrol cars arrived and proceeded to arrest the man using methods allowed for a “felony arrest” because they had been informed the person had a gun. The HRC was told that this arrest method calls for forcing the person to the ground in order to arrest him. When the man was handcuffed and put in a police vehicle, the store clerk realized that they were unsure whether the apparently counterfeit bills had been passed by this person.

The man “deserved a long explanation,” Chief Sparkes told the HRC, which he got. The police also confirmed that the man had a license to carry his gun.

The conclusion of this investigation was that the officers (Stephenson and three others) were “exonerated” because the department decided they had acted within ELPD policy for arresting a person carrying a gun.

We will follow and report on the Michigan State Police review and possibly criminal investigation of Officer Stephenson for the excessive force complaint in the December 2019 incident as it proceeds. You can find a new dedicated webpage that brings together our reporting on ELPD here.


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