Complaints Against East Lansing Police Reviewed by Commission
For the third year in a row, East Lansing’s Human Relations Commission began its January meeting by hearing a report from the East Lansing Police Chief about complaints filed against ELPD employees. While the number of formal complaints in 2018 was small, the Commission tried to learn as much as they could from Chief Larry Sparkes and Deputy Police Chief Steve Gonzalez about how the City’s police officers treat diverse people who live in or travel through East Lansing.
Aggregate data from the last three years show that none of 15 complaints made by members of the public against ELPD employees were sustained by ELPD investigation – meaning that none of those 15 investigations found improper action by employees. One other complaint was found to have involved inconclusive evidence.
During the same three-year period, 9 of 16 complaints generated from within the department were sustained, with some action taken.
At the meeting, Sparkes orally summarized complaints received during 2018 and responded to questions from Commissioners. He did not provide a complete written report.
Instead, Sparkes circulated only the first page of a multi-page memo on “2018 Internal Complaint Audit” from Gonzalez. The single page that was distributed ends mid-sentence, shortly after a statistical summary of the complaints and their outcome.
The written report’s first page combined the two types of complaints – those made by members of the public and those initiated by personnel within the department – into one set of data. The discussion between Commissioners and the Chief resulted in more information and more specifics coming out.
Complaints from the public in 2018:
The four complaints made by members of the public in 2018 each involved quite different circumstances. Sparkes’ oral presentation provided some information about each case but did not go into all the details of some complicated cases.
One complaint involved a driver, an African-American man, who challenged his speeding ticket and also complained that his driver’s license had been taken from him and that he had been stopped because of his race. The driver believed that the officer, who was driving toward him, could not have measured his speed.
The investigation found that the radar device can accurately measure the speed of an oncoming vehicle when it is located in a moving car. It also found that the police officer observed from about 50 feet away that the car appeared to be speeding, when the officer could not yet see the identity of the driver. So, the officer was exonerated, which means that the employee was found to have acted in accordance with the policy of the department (ELPD).
Sparkes explained that the driver was from out of state, and that his license was taken from him in lieu of a bond. (If the driver were to be stopped by a police officer before his license was returned, the ticket could be shown to the officer in place of the license.)
Commissioner Liz Miller said that she was stopped for speeding by an ELPD officer soon after she moved to town, when she still had a license from another state, and that her license was not taken from her. Miller, who is white, said that case-by-case choices made by police officers about when to be lenient or to consistently enforce a policy can take the form of racism.
City Council Member Aaron Stephens, the Council’s liaison to this Commission, seconded Miller’s concern about inconsistent showing of leniency.
ELPD Deputy Chief Gonzalez explained that, in this case, the officer decided to take the driver’s license after the officer tried to ascertain whether the individual had a connection to the area and the driver gave several different explanations of why he was in Michigan.
The second case involved a sexual assault charge. The complaint included several components, including that there were errors in the police report and that a police officer lied in court. The complaint also claimed there was discrimination based on race and sexual orientation.
Few details were presented about this case. ELDP Chief 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.
The Chief concluded that, while the officer made errors, this did not affect the outcome of the case. Therefore, the complaint was judged to be unfounded. (“Unfounded” generally means that the act identified in the complaint did not occur.) When asked, Gonzalez said that there were actually two complainants in this instance, both of whom were African-American men.
The third complaint, also from an African-American man, was that he had been wrongfully detained because of his race. The incident involved a call to 911 from an employee at a business on the north side of East Lansing who alleged that a customer had passed a counterfeit bill and described the individual with a fair amount of detail, including that he had a gun in his belt.
When the police arrived, they saw a person than matched the description, and they observed a gun. Because there was a gun involved, the police officers treated this as a “felony arrest.” This means that they secured the gun, and the person was directed to lie on the ground and was then handcuffed. Then the person was placed in the police vehicle while the police investigated further, including talking with the person who called 911.
The police then learned that the person who made the call was not certain that the individual he or she described was the person who had passed the counterfeit bill. So there was actually no alleged crime for which to detain this individual. The police also found that the man had a license to carry the gun.
Chief Sparkes’ finding in this case was that the officer was exonerated, which means that the officer acted within ELPD policy. The investigation found that there was sufficient reasonable suspicion to detain the individual and investigate the crime, that the “felony arrest” procedure was reasonable because of the danger posed by the presence of a firearm, and that there was no racial bias on the part of the officer because there was sufficient description of the individual in the 911 report.
When the employee expressed uncertainty that the man detained had passed the counterfeit bill, the police said he would not be arrested and explained to him what happened.
“He deserved a long explanation,” Sparkes said, given what had happened to him. “He felt he had been wronged, which he was,” Sparkes said. The ELPD wrote him a letter explaining what they found in their investigation. (The complainant was not an East Lansing resident; he was from elsewhere in Michigan.)
Several commissioners expressed concern about this case. Commissioner Carla McWherter summarized the issue in this particular incident this way: How do you keep East Lansing’s police force from being used as a weapon of someone else’s bigotry?
The Commission talked about the nationally-known case of racial bias by an employee at Starbucks in Pennsylvania that lead to anti-bias training throughout that company, and discussed whether there might be a role for the Commission to encourage anti-bias training by companies in East Lansing to make this a more welcoming city.
The fourth complaint from the public involved a disorderly conduct arrest of a white man who was seen “prowling” in a residential neighborhood. (This was not a “window peeping” situation.) The complainant said the arrest was unwarranted and that his property (a cell phone) was not promptly returned to him.
The investigation concluded that not returning the cell phone when the person was released was an unintentional error, and the cell phone was later returned. The complaint was therefore judged to be unfounded.
Complaints initiated within ELPD:
Five internal complaints against ELPD employees were initiated in 2018.
Two complaints involved inappropriate use of the computer system, which was also the basis for one internal complaint in 2017. The computer system has been programmed to restrict more tightly the area of the system that can be accessed according to an employee’s need for access. Both of these 2018 complaints were sustained and disciplinary action was taken.
Another complaint, about a civilian (non-officer) ELPD employee, alleged that the employee made a derogatory comment about the characteristics of a racial group. This complaint was sustained, and the employee was disciplined. The employee left ELPD and is no longer working in law enforcement.
Complaints about two civilian employees involved the making of crude comments and an inappropriate relationship that carried over into the workplace, affecting a number of other employees. The Human Resource Department was involved in addressing this matter. The complaint was sustained, and the employees no longer work at ELPD.
A woman employee at ELPD filed a complaint against a male co-worker who repeatedly made comments about her that made her uncomfortable. The investigation was inconclusive, because there was no evidence beyond the two employees’ different descriptions of what had happened. The person about whom the complaint was made no longer works at ELPD.
One complaint involved an employee leaving early and not signing out. This was found to be an unintentional error rather than an attempted fraud. Therefore, the complaint was regarding as “unfounded” and no disciplinary action was taken.
Summary of three years of complaints:
A complaint is said to be “sustained” if the conclusion reached from an investigation is that the alleged problematic act actually occurred. As noted above, in the last three years, none of 15 complaints made by members of the public against ELPD employees were sustained. One other complaint was found to have involved inconclusive evidence.
Therefore, no disciplinary action was taken regarding any of the complaints made by people with whom the police interacted since 2016.
On the other hand, 9 of 16 complaints generated within the department were sustained, with some action taken.
Although the procedure of filing and investigating a complaint are formally the same whether the complaint is from a member of the public or from someone working within the department, the types of complaints and findings about them are quite different. The following summary tables show the differences in the disposition of these two types of complaints.
Following the ELPD presentation, the Commissioners discussed concerns about what information is transmitted to them.
For example, no demographic information was provided in Sparkes’ oral presentation. During the discussion, Commissioner Dana Watson several times asked for the racial identity of complainants, particularly in cases where allegations included that police officers’ actions were racially motivated.
The Commission decided to review the purpose and history of their receiving this annual report and to communicate their expectations to the ELPD before the next report.
Human Relations Commission seeking members:
The Human Relations Commission currently has three vacancies. People who are interested in serving on the Commission can apply using an application form available here. Like all City of East Lansing Commissions, membership is open to East Lansing residents, who serve as volunteers.
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This article was corrected on January 23 to correct Dana Watson's last name.