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Above: Human Relations Commissioners Chuck Grigsby, Carla McWherter, and Thasin Sardar at the special Feb. 18 meeting (photo by Raymond Holt)
At a special meeting called to address troubling racial and ethnic incidents occurring in the greater East Lansing community, the Human Relations Commission unanimously adopted a motion recommending that City Council require that all relevant video footage of the incident that occurred on February 9 be released to the public immediately.
Just down the hall from the HRC, the City Council was meeting at the same time. There, the only mention of the incident and investigation was a short comment by Mayor Ruth Beier, largely reiterating the statement in the City’s press release on this incident, published on Friday.
Beier said during the period set aside for general Council member remarks, “When the investigation is over and reports are finished, we will have a special meeting [of Council] to review all the video and the reports and will release the video.”
No further discussion occurred at Council.
[Update: In response to request for comment, Mayor Beier wrote at 4:30 p.m., "It does not make sense to release the video until the police have finished their internal investigation. For example, officer interviews can be more effective if the officers have not yet seen the video. The police expect to be finished with the investigation this week or next week, at which time all of the video will be released."]
The incident at the downtown 7-Eleven store became known to the public when Uwimana "Tito" Gasito posted a statement and photos on Facebook late Thursday: “I was recording the police who I believe were unlawfully arresting my friend. While recording three officers arrested me. They threw me to the ground. While I was on the ground in handcuffs the officer was pushing my head into the ground scraping my forehead back and forth.”
HRC members expressed a loss of trust in ELPD
The HRC’s meeting last night occurred on the first business day after the incident involving alleged excessive force by ELPD officers had become known to the public.
Commission members spent three hours discussing what the HRC’s role should be in response, as well as how to prepare to address other incidents involving rights of “protected” groups identified in the East Lansing civil rights ordinance.
The tone of this meeting was markedly different from the HRC’s meeting the previous Wednesday, when the commission spent more than two hours with Police Chief Larry Sparkes and Deputy Police Chief Steve Gonzalez discussing complaints against officers in 2019, issues related to racial and ethnic bias, and future plans for creating an independent public safety oversight commission.
There, the Chief and Deputy Chief did not inform the Commission of the February 9 incident, which had occurred four days prior to that meeting. All six Commissioners at Tuesday’s meeting said their trust in the East Lansing Police Department had been damaged as a result.
HRC Chair Talyce Murray said: “I woke up Friday to the Facebook post, and my trust was pretty much shattered.”
Above: Taylce Murray currently serves as HRC Chair (photo by Raymond Holt)
Murray said she had a hard time believing that if someone shows up injured at East Lansing’s jail, the chief or deputy chief is not called.
HRC Vice Chair Karen Hoene concurred, saying there should be an incident report written any time someone who is arrested has an injury, and that report should go to the Police Chief. The Commissioners did not know whether that had happened.
“You have eroded my trust,” Hoene said.
She pointed out that there are three possible reasons why the Police Chief and Deputy Chief did not inform the HRC when they met. The first possibility is that they didn’t know. The second is that they knew and made an active choice not to tell the Commission, hoping that the incident wouldn’t become public. The third is that they knew but didn’t feel it was significant enough to talk about.
“In my view, none of [these explanations] are acceptable,” Hoene concluded.
Above: Commissioner Chuck Grigsby speaks to the group last night (photo by Raymond Holt)
Commissioner Chuck Grigsby agreed that trust of the police is now in question. The Commission does not yet know whether the Chief knew of the incident when he met with them or if “it hadn’t trickled up to him” within the Police Department.
Commissioner Thasin Sardar echoed his colleagues. He pointed to the Chief’s statement in the press release that the Department “proactively initiated” the investigation, despite there being no public mention of the incident until six days after it occurred.
Commissioner Carla McWherter, who made the motion urging Council to require immediate release of the video footage, said she now is much less trusting of the process of communicating with the police.
McWherter said it would have been much better if the Chief had come to the Commission and said, “Here is what we can tell you. It is limited. More information will be forthcoming.”
“That is what ‘proactive’ looks like,” McWherter said.
Above: Commissioner Carla McWherter at the Feb. 18 meeting (photo by Raymond Holt)
Input from the public expanded the conversation
At this special meeting, the HRC took the unusual step of suspending Robert’s Rules and inviting continuous participation from the public.
Farhan Sheikh-Omar, a Lansing resident who is a friend of Gasito, came to the meeting with a lot on his mind.
“How long has this Commission existed?” he started. When told that it was formed in the 1960s, he asked, “Why are we just [now] discussing ways to be transparent” about a complaint of a police officer assaulting a black man?
Sheikh-Omar also pointed to the history of complaints against ELPD officers. He focused on one of the complaints presented to the HRC in January 2019. In explaining that complaint, Police Chief Sparkes said there were errors in the police report and that a police officer lied in court. Sparkes said the conclusion was that the officer did testify differently than what he wrote in his report and made other errors in the report, but this did not affect the outcome of the case.
Consequently, the complaint was judged to be “unfounded,” which ELPD describes as meaning “the alleged act did not occur.”
Sheikh-Omar asked why there should be trust in the current investigation of Gasito’s case, if an officer can go to court and lie and not be held accountable under the logic that it did not affect the outcome of the case.
HRC Chair Murray said she would look at that 2018 complaint again.
Looking at previous complaints led to renewed discussion of the fact that no complaints submitted by the public have been “sustained” by police investigators. Murray noted this is the case even though there have now been four years of review by HRC.
Above: Commissioner Thasin Sardar speaking to the group (photo by Raymond Holt)
Commissioners McWherter, Grigsby, and Pat Cannon expressed concern about this record, as well.
Sheikh-Omar said his perspective is that the African-American community is being targeted. He pointed to a high proportion of complaints coming from African-American men and also shared his own experience.
Sheikh-Omar lives in Lansing, but he said he has had worse experience with police in East Lansing.
Above: The location of the Feb. 9 incident (photo by Gary Caldwell)
“The only time I come to East Lansing is when I want to pray” at the Islamic Center, he said, and “I have been pulled over by police officers in East Lansing more than in Lansing, and I usually get pulled over more during the holy month of Ramadan.”
“It’s not just me, it’s my family,” he added.
After describing his experience, Sheikh-Omar said he believes ELPD officers are harassing minority groups and African-Americans, who he believes they see as troublemakers. What that does is encourage these groups not to come to East Lansing, he said, “and that’s the goal.”
East Lansing resident Erick Williams, an attorney, agreed with him, saying “that’s the point.”
Cannon said that hearing that Sheikh-Omar and his family are stopped without cause year after year has eroded his confidence in the ELPD.
Above: HRC Commissioner Pat Cannon at last night's meeting (photo by Raymond Holt)
Jordan Evans, who is on the staff of One Love Global and a member of the Ingham County Equal Opportunity Committee, said experiences being described in East Lansing are similar to those he has been involved with in Lansing.
Evans pointed to data compiled by Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon’s office showing that, in the whole region, African-Americans, youth especially, are disproportionately arrested and stopped for traffic violations compared to white people.
Evans talked about how the Lansing Police Department handled the investigation of a use-of-force complaint June 2019. Police Chief Yankowski decided to make police video camera footage available right away, a precedent that McWherter referenced in the resolution the HRC adopted recommending that ELPD release footage of the February 9 case.
“We kept being told we would get transparency. But transparency isn’t enough. We need accountability,” Evans said.
The outcome in that case was that the officer got three days of paid suspension.
Grigsby spoke to the issue of accountability extending to the City Council as well as the ELPD. He said he doesn’t see people on Council who have been dealing with the issues the HRC is talking about.
The Council “is not representative of the community,” Grigsby said, and people in the community should know that they have the power to make changes.
Future role of the HRC
The Commission kept returning to defining its particular role – regarding not only the February 9 incident with the police but other incidents as well, which they did not have as much time to thoroughly consider.
Above: East Lansing Director of Human Resources Shelli Neumann, staffing the meeting (photo by Raymond Holt)
Staff liaison Shelli Neumann pointed out that the Commission is advisory to City Council and that the City has a policy that Commissions may not have a social media presence separate from City government.
But members of the public and Commissioners raised the theme of independence several times.
Sheik-Omar said, “The most important thing I would like to see from this commission is to stand out from the Mayor’s team. I need you guys to be independent.”
Williams pointed out that individual Commission members can speak on social media, regardless of the City’s policy about the Commission as an entity.
“One power you have is the power of voice,” he said.
Kath Edsall, a member of the East Lansing School Board who attended the meeting, suggested that the HRC prepare to issue its own statement concerning the results of the investigation when it is completed.
“Whether you write [a statement] in support or not – put out your own statement,” Edsall urged.
McWerter arrived at her proposed resolution by “thinking about what independence would look like,” she said. She also considered going further to recommend that the investigation be assigned to an independent body.
Grigsby urged the Commission to keep thinking about doing proactive things and find ways to have an independent voice.
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