East Lansing Commission Calls on City Attorney to Drop All Charges Against Man Bloodied During Arrest

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Thursday, March 5, 2020, 11:31 am
By: 
Alice Dreger

Above, clockwise from upper left: HRC Commissioners Pat Cannon, Karen Hoene, Chuck Grigsby, Thasin Sardar, Quentin Tyler, and Carla McWherter (photos by Gary Caldwell).

The East Lansing Human Relations Commission voted unanimously last night to call on City Attorney Tom Yeadon – whose office serves as East Lansing’s prosecutor – to drop all charges against Uwimana “Tito” Gasito relating to his arrest by ELPD officers on Feb. 9.

The Human Relations Commission (HRC) also voted unanimously to ask City Council to monitor the case and to include it in their reviews of the City Attorney’s performance. The City Council is responsible for hiring and firing the City Attorney and the City Manager.

Gasito’s face and eye were bloodied in the process of ELPD officers arresting him at the downtown 7-Eleven after Gasito’s friend was fighting with another man.

Gasito faces charges of “disorderly conduct – jostling” and “resisting arrest.” A resident of Lansing, Gasito is nineteen-years-old and has no prior arrest record.

ELPD officials have not explained how Gasito’s face ended up injured, referring only in public statements to Officer Andrew Stephenson “stabilizing” Gasito’s head as he was on the ground being arrested.

A two-week internal investigation by ELPD found “insufficient evidence” to charge Stephenson or any other officer with use of excessive force. On Feb. 27, ELPD administrators presented that finding and showed video for the first time, although the HRC had called on Council to release the tapes sooner.

The Feb. 27 meeting was also the first time the police confirmed that East Lansing paramedics were called to treat his wounds at the jail. The tape of that care was not provided at that meeting, nor was any image of the injuries to Gasito’s head and eye shown at that meeting.

HRC members and citizens who came to last night’s meeting uniformly expressed dismay, bewilderment, and sometimes outrage at the way the Feb. 27 meeting had been conducted, with the police cherry-picking video and then carefully framing people’s perspective of the video with verbal prompts.

Above, from left: City Attorney Tom Yeadon and Council members Mark Meadows, Aaron Stephens, and Ruth Beier at the Feb. 27 meeting (photo by Raymond Holt)

Several people at last night’s meeting called out Council member Mark Meadows for his claim that “good cops don’t protect bad cops.” HRC Vice Chair Karen Hoene, who ran last night’s meeting, called the claim “absolutely false.”

Commissioner Liz Miller called Council’s behavior at the Feb. 27 meeting “tone-deaf” and said it had stunned her.

A number of other people asked why Council member Lisa Babcock sat silent during the Feb. 27 meeting, and why only Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens seemed to have numerous questions for the police about what had happened, many based on comments from citizens.

Hoene also called “jaw-dropping” Mayor Ruth Beier’s decision at the Feb. 27 meeting to immediately follow the police presentation by reading a thank-you letter she had written to the police, before the public could even comment on the presentation.

Hoene called this “the most highly offensive thing I could ever imagine.” She said it would make people of color “feel unheard, unsafe, and lose every bit of trust.”

“Is this the standard of policing we want to see,” Hoene asked, “a nineteen-year-old kid with a bloody face?” She said what happened to him in terms of injury made her “sick to my stomach.”

Hoene assured those present that the police’s determination of “insufficient evidence” of wrongdoing “is absolutely not the end” of the matter. “We all remain highly concerned.”

Commissioner Chuck Grigsby seconded this: “It seems like the Council and people involved feel like this has all been resolved. It is definitely not resolved.” He said it was necessary to "seek . . . more understanding of what we don’t understand.”

Mayor Pro Tem Stephens was at last night’s meeting – he serves as Council’s liaison to the HRC – and he repeatedly expressed frustration and dismay with how the process had played out.

Above: Aaron Stephens (left) and Thasin Sardar at last night's meeting (photo by Gary Caldwell)

Stephens said he was especially troubled by the failure to release all of the tapes without East Lansing Info and others having to ask repeatedly. Stephens has been pushing the City Manager to release everything that can legally be released, free of charge.

Stephens said he wants to see the institution of a citizen board tasked with oversight of the police and said he believes there is much interest on Council now to get that group in place, following over a year of talks.

Kath Edsall, who is on the East Lansing School Board, told the Commission she had watched the available tapes and was outraged to see how Chandler Lee, the white man involved in the fight on Feb. 9, was seemingly treated with respect and special care by the police while officers treated roughly both Gasito and his friend Anthony Zarwea, who are immigrants from Africa and have darker skin.

Above: Kath Edsall speaking to the HRC (photo by Gary Caldwell)

Lansing-based activist Farhan Sheik-Omar noted what he saw as additional race-based disparities in policing style based on the tapes, and said that if the “harassing of black men” by police in East Lansing did not stop, it would lead to the use of lethal force against black men.

“If that is what we are all waiting for, for this City Council to act, it is a shame,” he said.

Many said that the more time passed since last Thursday’s presentation, the more they looked at the tapes, the more disturbed they became.

Several said they could see Gasito on the 7-Eleven tape moving to stop Zarwea and Lee from fighting with a gesture of pushing them apart – a gesture that police would later use as reason to arrest him for “jostling.”

Several said they could see on the tapes multiple times Gasito was looking to de-escalate the tension at the scene, but that none of that had been noted by the police.

A number of those present asked basically this: If the police procedures and policies mean nothing went wrong here, then isn't there a problem with the procedures and policies?

Above: Commissioner Chuck Grigsby (left) speaking with Farhan Sheik-Omar at the meeting (photo by Gary Caldwell)

Chris Root, a long-time activist for racial justice, said, “We certainly need a broader lens to look at this in a humane way.” She said she had watched the tapes and counted the number of times Gasito cried out in pain – seven exclamations of pain without words, nine statements that his eye was injured, nine additional statements that his eye was bleeding. Yet his cries were met with silence by the officers and until he made his post at Facebook, there was no investigation into what had happened. (Disclosure: Root has been a reporter for ELi.)

The decision to call for dropping of all charges against Gasito and expunging of his arrest record was informed by the group’s understanding of how arrests like this can lead to a downward spiral for young black men who become subject to the cumulative effects of bias in policing.

It was also informed by what people saw and did not see on the tapes – including not seeing Gasito fighting.

Commissioner Thasin Sardar said it felt as if at least some of the charges against Gasito were created to justify what had happened to him during the arrest.

MSU student Crystal Davis spoke to how this kind of repeated “harassment by police when no actual crime has been committed” can greatly harm a person’s mental health. She said this is one way that health is socially-determined, a way in which disparities are created.

Above: Crystal Davis speaking to the HRC (photo by Gary Caldwell)

Commissioner Quentin Tyler agreed with Davis’ comments and asked whether there could be a bias incidence response team or someone hired within ELPD to deal specifically with bias.

Commissioner Grigsby responded by saying “pressure needs to be directed to the top if change is going to happen,” indicating the Council needs to hold the City Manager and City Attorney to account.

“The unions are protecting these policies and procedures that have basically terrorized communities,” Grigsby said. He said he has taken “a lot of pride” in living in East Lansing but that what has lately transpired “hit me all at once. I refuse to be a part of this and not have anything done, have no one accountable to this.”

Hoene called on the HRC to act decisively.

“If we don’t speak up vociferously and consistently that we are not okay with this, we will be perceived as another entity [that is merely] apologist, going along with the mainstream.”

She added, “we are not doing our job if we don’t speak up about this.”

 

Note: This article was amended shortly after publication to add two additional photos and to provide Root's full count of the number of times Gasito cried out in pain. (The previous version had only a subset of the count.)

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