Deputy Police Chief Speaks to Recent Shootings in East Lansing

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Tuesday, November 20, 2018, 9:12 am
Jessy Gregg

With news of three gun-related incidents in the past month, some East Lansing residents think that violence is on the rise in their city. But Deputy Police Chief Steve Gonzalez says he doesn’t think that is the case.

“When things occur closely together, that’s going to grab people’s attention, obviously, because that’s not the norm for East Lansing,” he told ELi during an interview last Friday.

In terms of overall crime rates, “we’re on track” for average crime statistics in East Lansing, according to Gonzalez.

There have been three shootings that made the news in East Lansing since early October.

An MSU student was fatally shot at an apartment complex on Abbot Road on October 12. A gun was discharged into the air at a house party on M.A.C. Avenue in late October. And, most recently, a “home invasion” shooting at the Stonehedge Apartments, near the Lake Lansing Meijer, left one person wounded.

“Those three incidents [being] tied very close together in timeframe is something that’s grabbed our attention, and it’s something that we need to certainly monitor and see if it’s going to be a general trend,” Gonzalez told ELi.

According to Gonzalez (shown below), the motivations behind each of the three recent shooting incidents were unique, and the spacing is most likely not showing a trending upwards in violent crime.

He said that, based on his 21-year career with the ELPD, “My guess is that this is a small uptick that is coincidental, but I can’t say that with certainty.” He added, “Time will tell.”

Another shooting, at Hiddentree Apartments:

During our interview, Gonzalez also confirmed a fourth and previously unreported incident where a gun was discharged through an apartment floor in the Hiddentree apartment complex at the northeast corner of Saginaw Street and Harrison Road.

Unlike the first three incidents, the shot fired in that case was most likely due to a “reckless discharge,” according to Gonzalez, although it is still being investigated to verify that it was accidental in nature.

Gonzalez said it is not uncommon for the ELPD to encounter firearms as they patrol the community, but that the majority of those are legally owned and being handled responsibly.

Is there a particular “hot spot” for gun crimes, as some suspect about the Northern Tier?

“We have had violent crime occur in all areas of this city,” says Gonzalez. “Fortunately it’s not very frequent, but it does happen.”

Other than when special situations call for concentrated policing, like when there is an MSU home game or other event that would cause a large gathering in a certain area, Gonzalez told ELi that, “when it comes to policing on a grander scale, when you look throughout the year, over a string of years, we try to direct our patrols so that the entire city is patrolled pretty much equally.”

More officers coming:

ELPD has received approval to add two more officers to the force since the passage of the City income tax, but, he said, due to the complex nature of the police hiring process, those new officers aren’t on the street yet.

“It is a very lengthy and in-depth process that includes a written test, two separate forms of interviews . . . and then of course a lengthy background test, a psychological evaluation, medical evaluation and then we can bring them on board. To get through all that, it takes a good three to four months.”

Even after the hiring process is complete, the newly-hired officers will have to go through a period of field training and a one-year probation, during which they are evaluated on their job performance by a field training officer.

The Deputy Chief says it can be about seven to ten months from the time new officers make it through training and count fully towards staffing.

Even after adding the new officers, Gonzalez says ELPD staff levels will still be pretty tight in terms of covering all the Department’s duties. He told ELi that in 2002, the high-water mark for ELPD in terms of staffing, there were 67 officers in the Department. By 2016, the Department was down to 57 officers. Today, it is down to 49.

The two new hires will bring the number of active police officers on staff to 51, which is still very tight according to Gonzalez. He pointed out the ELPD has a lot of young officers on its force who might need time off for things like family leave when children are born. Because of the demanding nature of the job, injuries are often serious enough to result in medical leave-of-absence while an officer heals enough to perform their duties.

Gonzalez explains Nixle alerts:

Tight staffing levels are one reason that Nixle emergency alerts often come out after rather than during a violent confrontation.

When police are called to a crime scene in the middle of the night, the shift supervisor is not able to immediately send out safety alerts, because “their number one priority is to handle the scene first,” said Gonzalez. “Then as the scene is secured, the officers are doing what needs to be done to manage the case, get people medical attention, take somebody into custody, then they will have a chance to send that alert out.”

Gonzalez said that when those messages do go out, they can be cryptic because of the limitations of the texting-alert format. It’s not possible to give lengthy explanations in Nixle alerts, but officers know that a large police presence in an area can cause concern. So messages like the “no widespread community threat” are sent to let people know there’s not a need for panic if they see a lot of officers suddenly.

According to Gonzalez, in the case of the Stonehedge shooting, there was no immediate threat because a K-9 officer with a police dog had tracked the suspects and determined that they had left the area in a car, and therefore didn’t pose an immediate threat to the neighborhood surrounding the apartment complex.

“We certainly understand that the individual who perpetrated the act is a dangerous individual and is certainly a threat . . . but what we’re trying to convey there is that this was not a random act, there’s no need for individuals to shelter in place . . . there’s no big threat out there where people need to hunker down in their house and lock their doors.”

A shelter-in-place order might have been issued if the suspect had been known or suspected to still be in the area. In that case people, would have been cautioned not to leave their houses while the search was continuing, either through a community alert or by an officer personally notifying them at their doors.

What’s on the horizon:

ELPD is working on planning for the near future when there will be a large number of new residents living downtown.

With Michigan’s recent legalization of recreational marijuana, Gonzalez said the ELPD is taking a “wait and see” approach in terms of understanding what impacts this might have on the community and deciding how ELPD should respond to those impacts. He specifically mentioned his concern with people driving under the influence of recreational marijuana.

Gonzalez was named Deputy Police Chief in August 2017 after serving 20 years with ELPD. He shares with Police Chief Larry Sparkes (above, right) what Sparkes has described as his community-policing philosophy for East Lansing.

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