EL Police Tactics at Protest Questioned

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Monday, August 10, 2015, 9:37 am
Alice Dreger

Above: Yesterday, ELPD officer telling Councilmember Ruth Beier and Terry Scharf they may not distribute flyers at the protest

The actions of East Lansing Police Department (ELPD) officers at yesterday’s protest downtown are now being questioned on several fronts, including why ELPD officers told protesters they could not hand out printed literature. Also in question is behavior by one white officer that was perceived as racist by the two women who were its subjects.

As we reported, ELPD officers had told protesters—who were objecting to the display of a confederate flag at the Great Lakes Folk Festival—that they could not hand out a printed flyer aimed at encouraging people to boycott the business of Chris Zemer. Zemer had intermittently displayed the flag at his Zemer’s Homemade Rootbeer booth.

The flyers were produced by Councilmember Ruth Beier and her partner Terry Scharf. They read, “I want to buy a root beer, but I don’t tolerate hate, so I will spend my money elsewhere.” Scharf tells me, “I was threatened with arrest and jail several times about the flyers. I was told that to be safe I should only hold one in my hand so that I did not forget and accidentally distribute one.” She says she was told by police officers, “if I did [distribute one], and they saw, they would arrest me.”

Asked about this by me yesterday, ELPD Chief Jeff Murphy referred me to section 26-321 of the City’s Code of Ordinances. There it states:

"No person shall distribute, throw, drop, or scatter, in any public place or in or upon any vehicle located in any public place, any poster, handbill, card, sample, or other matter used for the purpose of advertising, in such a manner as to result in the littering of any public place. No person shall distribute handbills, cards, samples, or other advertising matter on any private property so as to cause a littering of any public place or of any private property not his own."

I asked Michael Lawrence, J.D., an MSU constitutional law scholar, for his reading of this ordinance. (Lawrence is an ELi board member.) He replied in an email, “the ordinance regulates only advertising (commercial speech), not political speech (broadly defined to include matters of public interest).”

Lawrence told me, “Under constitutional doctrine, commercial speech is less protected than political speech, so can be regulated as in this ordinance. Whoever wrote the [City of East Lansing] ordinance did so very carefully and competently to limit it to advertising. Bottom line is that the ordinance simply does not apply to non-commercial political speech like Ruth's, so the police do not have a leg to stand on.” 

I asked Chief Murphy for a response to Lawrence’s reading but have not yet heard back.

Dee Jordan, an MSU graduate student who was also a protester, told me late last night that when she caught up with Mayor Triplett around 3 pm and told him what the police were saying, “He instantly rejected the idea of not being able to distribute leaflets in a public space. He immediately called the Chief of Police who advised that the COEL has a handbill ordinance . . . however Mayor Triplett advised that we would continue to stand on the public sidewalk outside the fence of the parking area and distribute the leaflets for the remainder of the festival and ask the Chief to inform whomever was on duty that we were not to be disturbed or encounter any difficulties. To which the Police Chief concurred.” (Triplett is an attorney.)

Earlier in the day, Jordan and Scharf had been working the protest together when they had what both describe as a disturbing interaction with ELPD Detective Sergeant Andy Bouck, the officer who had been telling them not to distribute flyers.

Scharf and others had overhead Zemer calling a friend named “Billy” to tell him there was trouble and that he should bring a weapon. When Jordan subsequently told Sergeant Bouck that she was afraid because of what Zemer had said about weapons, according to Jordan, “Sgt. Bouck stepped into my face and said, ‘if you are nervous GO HOME!’ ‘If you don't want to be here LEAVE!’”

Jordan says she has “no idea why he admonished me for simply expressing my concern that a peaceful protest could turn violent if the friend did bring the weapon down.”

What Jordan and Scharf say happened next is what bothered them the most. In Jordan’s words, “Sgt. Bouck then turned to Terry [Scharf], a white lady who was protesting next to me, and asked her, ‘are you ok?’ Very compassionately. I was taken aback by this, because what was the difference between Terry and I, beyond our race? We were both protesting, we are both women, we were both very polite to the officers when they came and stood in front of us (between us and the festival goers). The only difference was I'm black and she is white.”

Scharf has corroborated this account. Jordan and Scharf say they will be lodging a complaint with ELPD.

Jordan says when she told Triplett about this, “Again Mayor Triplett's reaction was very supportive and agreed that should not have happened. In his conversation with the Chief he also addressed my experience with the officer. He further advised me that he would follow-up with the Chief of Police in more detail.”

Jordan told me, “The Mayor was extremely concerned and felt the approach taken by some of the Officers was not the most prudent approach to this peaceful demonstration, as they tried to resolve tensions between the two groups.” Although Triplett did not appear at the protest before Beier decided to end the protest (Beier tells me she had called him to join her), Jordan says that after she spoke to him at about 3:15, “the Mayor came over with me.” Jordan praised both Beier and Triplett for their actions.

UPDATES, August 10, 2015, 8 pm:

The line "before Beier decided to throw in the towel" was changed to "before Beier decided to end the protest" because Beier wrote to say the idiom misrepresented her decision. (Read about her deicison here.)

Chief Jeff Murphy wrote to say, with regard to the question of the ordinance, "I would like your readers to know, at times differences of opinion come up about the way the police enforce city ordinances. When this happens, we (the police) need to look at our enforcement practices to see if we are enforcing the ordinance in question correctly. More importantly, we need to insure we are not violating the rights of citizens. The first step in this review process is to get a legal opinion from our City Attorney. Once we get the City Attorney's opinion, we will look at our practices in depth to see if changes need to be made."

Murphy also wrote to say, with regard to the complaint from Jordan and Scharf, "We received a complaint about the officers actions in reference to this matter this morning. I encourage anyone who feels they are mistreated by one of our police officers to file a formal complaint. The complaint will be investigated to determine if the officer violated any laws or policies and procedures of the East Lansing Police Department. If it's determined that there has been a violation of a law, policy or procedure, appropriate corrective action will be taken."


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