Chief Shares ELPD’s Game-Day Experience, Advises a Distressed Resident on Sexual Assault

Monday, October 31, 2016, 11:13 am
Alice Dreger

Above: 526 Sunset Lane this past Saturday, at about 11 a.m.

When I wrote to ELPD Chief Jeff Murphy and MSU President Lou Ann Simon yesterday, I was doing so as a distressed woman living in East Lansing’s Oakwood neighborhood, not as a reporter for ELi. But Chief Murphy’s response about the weekend—and the problems our police face on days like Saturday—seemed too important not to share. So, with his permission, I am reproducing it here for the East Lansing community.

By way of background, the Oakwood neighborhood is one of the smallest in the City and lies just north of Valley Court Park. Ours is a neighborhood mostly comprised of 1920s-1930s houses, many rented by students, many lovingly cared for by owners who live in houses built almost a hundred years ago by Michigan Agricultural College faculty and East Lansing merchants.

What I wrote to Chief Murphy and President Simon on Sunday was this:

“I’m writing to ask what people in my neighborhood, Oakwood, are supposed to do when we see what appears to be the makings of sexual assault during the drunken fests that surround MSU games and fraternity events. I understand you’re probably both equally ill at what goes on.”

I said I had read, that morning, a New York Times report on alcohol-fueled sexual assault at big colleges across America. I continued, “Then by 11 a.m. I was witnessing the usual, which was drunk young women being pulled into houses by men. I attach a video from 526 Sunset Lane yesterday. This is a block from our house, and just after I shot the video, I watched drunk women being led away by men into the house. I could not reach the police on the non-emergency number and I did not want to hold up the 911 lines. I texted the mayor who told the city manager who got a message to the police, and ELPD was there soon after.”

I told Murphy and Simon, “Living in Oakwood, I have been awakened at night to women’s screams, including, for example, of ‘leave me alone’ and ‘get off me.’ My neighbors and I have watched virtually unconscious women being loaded into vehicles and carried into houses. We have repeatedly come upon young women separated from their groups, too drunk to respond clearly other than to tell us to go away.

“Yes, calling the police is always an option—and we often do it—but in so many of these instances, the police system is overwhelmed and a ‘this might lead to sexual assault’ is understandably not an ‘emergency’ the way active cases of alcohol poisoning and car accidents are. Additionally, the women we try to help often tell us to leave them alone.

“So I’m asking — what exactly are we supposed to do? Just turn our eyes away and pretend we don’t see sexual assault very possibly in development? I feel utterly helpless on days like yesterday. I spoke yesterday afternoon to an officer who I got the sense felt the same way. We talked about women waking up the next day with their lives forever changed, some quite harmed. Are we supposed to just say this is college culture as we see it across America, and there’s nothing we can do about it?”

Chief Murphy’s response immediately follows, without quotation marks for ease of reading:

Days like Saturday are troubling to me because it seems there’s an attitude by many that, just because there’s a football game, none of the rules apply and common sense is not very common. Even more troubling are all the dangerous behaviors which seem accepted by some and even expected in some instances.

Capt. [Larry] Sparkes worked Saturday during the day and I worked Saturday night, and I think it's safe to say neither one of us have ever seen more people in East Lansing than on Saturday and we've both worked in this community for almost 30 years. All the people in East Lansing led to parking and traffic problems which we expect and are unavoidable, but the dangerous behaviors people chose to engage in are scary.

If you were in East Lansing between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m., you would have heard almost constant sirens. For the most part, these sirens were not the sound of public service officials responding to serious accidents, robberies or other crimes, they were the sound of our fire department responding to help people who had become incapacitated from consuming too much alcohol.

Most of the time police officers respond as well, to help and ensure the safety of the firefighter paramedics. When people put themselves in life-threating situations from drinking way too much, we need to protect them just like we would anyone else, but it seems so unnecessary. And while we're protecting people from the consequences of their own behaviors, who is protecting the rest of the city?

The reason I say all that is, first, because it makes me frustrated and, secondly, to tell you large parties are a priority. They're a priority for the reasons you talked about, because they cause quality-of-life issues in our neighborhoods and because large parties are often the place where people make the poor choices which cause them problems later.

We've had years of experience where we've learned that if we address noise complaints and nuisance parties early in the day, there are usually fewer problems later at night. We put out groups of officers specifically for this reason on game days and during other big events in East Lansing because we've seen huge benefits from it in the past and overall it keeps people safer. 

To address your specific question of "what are we supposed to do?", I'd say what you’re doing is great. It's impressive that, even though these huge parties are obviously frustrating when they're happening in your neighborhood, you're still worried about the safety of the participants.

You talked about calling the police non-emergency number, which is fine, but you'll find many times there is no one sitting at the police desk to answer that phone. The reason for this is because our cadets are pulled away to help in other areas of the police department, specifically the jail when things get busy. So if you do call the non-emergency (517-351-4220) number, it's best to select option #2 which puts your call into the county dispatch center. We want all calls for police or PACE service to go through dispatch if possible. Dispatch prioritizes the calls and tracks them for response times.

Back to the specifics of your question: If you were to call to report a large party, that's a priority #3 call and we know our average response time to priority #3 calls in 2015 was 8 minutes and 20 seconds. If you call on the same party and say men are dragging women into the house or forcing women into vehicles against their will, that information ups the call to priority #1, and our 2015 response time was 5 minutes and 1 second on average for all priority #1 calls.

Response times are figured from the time the phone is answered in dispatch, through the time the call taker gets the necessary information from the caller, transfers the call to the dispatcher, the dispatcher then puts the call out to the officers and the officer drives, walks or bikes to the location. 

On weekends like this past one we have everyone we can working but our resources were still overtaxed.

[Ends Murphy's response. President Simon has not yet responded. If she does and gives us permission to reprint her response, we will do so in a separate article.]


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