Riding with ELPD on Game Day

Friday, September 29, 2017, 7:06 am
Evan Dempsey and Kepler Domurat-Sousa

Editor's note: Evan Dempsey and Kepler Domurat-Sousa are seniors at East Lansing High School and graduates of ELi's first Summer Youth Journalism Program.

It Started Early (by Evan Dempsey and Kepler Domurat-Sousa):

It had been five minutes since we had left the station for our ride-along, and the ELPD officer to whom we had been assigned was already on a scene where ELFD medics were carrying an unconscious girl out of a fraternity. She had been taken there by friends after showing signs of severe intoxication, and had become completely unresponsive after a few minutes there. Her friends notified the police, and now there we were.

It was just after 7 p.m. last Saturday night. The MSU-Notre Dame game had not yet even started.

Accompanying ELPD Officer Ben Mommersteeg, we arrived on the scene after making our way through crowded downtown streets in Patrol Car 15, passing an arrest on the way. East Lansing paramedics and police officers had to make their way up three flights of stairs and wade through groups of onlookers to reach the girl.

After a few minutes, paramedics carried the girl back down the stairs using a purpose-made stretcher. With the girl in an ambulance and ready to be taken to the hospital, we hit the road again.

“That’s what happens when you drink too much,” Mommersteeg said after we got back in the car.

The game-day call density has been taxing for ELPD lately. “We’re running minimal officers most nights, because we don’t have the staffing to run full shifts,” Mommersteeg said. “Hopefully once the game starts, though, people will be at the game or watching it. So it’ll slow down a little bit, and it usually gives us a nice break to regroup and prepare for when the game’s done.”

Insufficient staffing to serve East Lansing is something we heard plenty about on Saturday. Of the 50 sworn officers in East Lansing’s Police Department, 43 were on duty at some time on Saturday because of the MSU football game.

On an ordinary day in the summer, when MSU is out of regular session, ELPD would have about five officers plus a supervisor on duty for a shift.

Planning around these staffing shortages requires a familiarity with the ebb and flow of game days. But as we learned over the next three hours, what happens on any given football Saturday is anything but predictable.

The View from Car 15 (by Evan Dempsey):

Ben Mommersteeg (shown above) became a police officer because he wanted to help people, and with temperatures surpassing 90 degrees on Saturday, and tens of thousands of visitors joining tens of thousands of residents and students partying in East Lansing, one might think that help would be in high demand.

For the most part, it was. There were plenty of calls circulating across the police radio, but in part due to heavy vehicle traffic around town, Mommersteeg was unable to respond to many calls he otherwise might have. At one point, a driver who ignored a stop sign drove past our car, but Mommersteeg was already committed to responding to another call and, due to traffic, could not pursue the offender.

In the relative chaos of game day, some radio transmissions are bound to be lost in translation as well. For one call, Mommersteeg accidentally drove to Beggar’s Banquet rather than Bagger Dave’s for a call about a mentally-distressed man seen near the restaurant. Fortunately, Officer Katelynn Bennett (Car 16) was able to respond to that call.

Though traffic made driving to that call and others difficult, changing circumstances are part of what Mommersteeg likes about the job.

“There’s something different every day. I like . . . not sitting at a desk every day,” said Mommersteeg. “Every call’s different. There’s not a single call that’s the same.”

Both major calls Car 15 responded to that night during our ride-along involved assisting an unconscious person.

At a downtown bar, a man had been knocked unconscious after sustaining a blow to the head in a fight. I watched as Mommersteeg, along with a few other officers and paramedics, escorted the still-groggy combatant from the bar and into an ambulance, where he received medical treatment.

As we drove around the city, I noticed that game-day patrolling was something of a double-whammy: the heavy traffic created a degree of uncertainty with regard to how quickly officers could reach a call, and so oftentimes several officers would begin to respond to a call before an officer would reach the call site, freeing the other officers to continue patrolling.

Because of this, Mommersteeg had plenty of time to share some of his perspective as an officer with me. After we saw an Uber at the intersection of Abbot Road and Burcham Drive, he explained some of the pros and cons of the ride-sharing service.

“They’re great for getting students home, that’s awesome, but they just jam up the road sometimes when four or five of them just park on the side of the road, especially down on Albert,” said Mommersteeg.

Despite the occasional complications that Uber vehicles can present to city traffic, Mommersteeg considers them a boon. “I can handle the impeding traffic if they’re helping get the drunk drivers off the road.”

In my time in Patrol Car 15, there were plenty of lulls between the chaos. But make no mistake, on game day, there’s always something going on.

The View from Car 16 (by Kepler Domurat-Sousa):

Katelynn Bennett (shown above) was also interested in becoming a police officer because of her interest in helping people. “What other job do you get to come in contact with one hundred other people every day?” she asked rhetorically as we drove around town.

Bennett said she tries to be a positive influence on everyone she deals with, helping them with what they need.

Early on in the ride-along, we heard over the radio about several other officers chasing someone on foot for an open-container alcohol violation. The violator had run off into the woods, and we were trying to cut them off a street over. But the violator disappeared into a nearby house, and we soon headed off to go back to patrolling.

When we got a call for a welfare check on a mentally distressed man, we went to the last known location of the caller, and asked if anyone had seen the man. After not finding him there, we continued on to several other locations where the man was said to have been, eventually catching up to the man who was by that point being comforted by his brother and girlfriend. The man was then sent to McLaren Hospital by ambulance due to concerns about his health.

One of the things that happens with game days is an increase in mental health calls. Suicide threats go up, for example. Officers think this is because alcohol reduces inhibitions, so more people drinking means more people openly experiencing and talking about depression.

After the distressed man was sent to the hospital, we almost immediately found ourselves dealing with a drunk man sitting in his car. As the man had not been seen driving, the police could not write him up for driving-under-the-influence. But they did not want him to be able to drive away after the officers left. To prevent the danger, the police had the man’s car towed for illegal parking, and got a friend of the man to keep the keys until the man sobered up.

Officer Bennett told me afterwards that she had once had a person who was parked in a parking lot and drunk, and that she got the man home, but let the car stay in the lot where he had parked it. That man had later walked back to his car before sobering up, and then got into an accident. Due to this experience, she had started finding better ways to prevent drunk people from getting back to their cars before they are sober.

After dealing with the drunk man, Bennett’s duties on Saturday night turned to more typical police work: going to the city’s impound lot to handle the paperwork of recovering a stolen moped. Lansing officers had found the moped when dealing with an accident, and discovered it had been reported stolen from East Lansing. The moped had to be impounded, and forms filled out.

By the time that we were done at the impound lot, the calls had slowed down some and Bennett made a standard traffic stop for speeding. In the three hours that had elapsed in her shift while I was with her, she had responded to a car accident, a foot chase, a mentally distressed man, a potential drunk driver, a stolen moped, and done a routine traffic stop.

Variety in the daily work was one of the things that made Bennett want to become a police officer. “It is nice to not be stuck in an office,” she told me.

Above: Deputy Chief Steve Gonzalez with a special ballistics vest carried in ELPD vehicles.

Postmortem (by Alice Dreger):

Two days after the ride-alongs documented above by ELi reporters Evan Dempsey and Kepler Domurat-Sousa, I sat down with Deputy Chief Steve Gonzalez for a postmortem of the weekend.

Gonzalez had pulled data on the work of East Lansing’s officers on Saturday, and noted that they answered 247 calls within the 24-hour period from 12:01 a.m. to midnight on Saturday. That figure doesn’t include calls that happened early Sunday morning. Gonzalez says things really started to slow down by about 3 a.m. Sunday.

The heat combined with extra long working hours and dealing with non-stop calls took its toll on officers.

“Everybody’s feeling it,” Gonzalez told me early Monday afternoon.

He noted that one group of fifteen ELPD officers worked outside doing traffic management starting around noon—wearing dark blue uniforms in temperatures exceeding 90 degrees. During the game, those officers worked in MSU’s stadium. After the game, they returned to traffic duty.

When the traffic let up, those fifteen officers didn’t get to go home. ELPD needed them, so they were reassigned to foot patrol downtown or to patrol cars. They didn’t get to go home until about 3:30 in the morning, meaning their shifts exceeded fifteen hours, including many hours in the sun.

Gonzalez notes that ELPD officers not only wear dark blue uniforms—which makes the heat on days like Saturday especially rough—they also carry around twenty to thirty pounds of equipment on their bodies, including their heavy boots, weapons, radios, and vests. ELPD’s leadership remained concerned throughout the day about the welfare of their officers, particularly those working outside continually.

As noted above, of the 50 sworn officers in ELPD, 43 served duty on Saturday at some point. ELPD was also specifically assisted in the City by six Michigan State Police troopers on bicycles and by five horse-mounted deputies from the County Sheriff’s department.

Intoxicated subjects represented the largest single category of calls to 911, as has consistently been the case for home game weekends. For these calls, police officers worked with medics from the fire department. MSU does not have its own fire department or ambulance service; East Lansing is the daily provider of those services to MSU’s campus.

All of ELFD’s ambulances were in service for emergency calls in East Lansing and on campus, and ambulances were brought in to assist from Meridian Township, Lansing Township, and Lansing.

By 6:30 p.m., East Lansing was already having to invoke “mutual aid” to get assistance from other jurisdictions. Other jurisdictions do not charge for mutual aid runs; the cost of such runs is borne by their own taxpayers and by insurance companies that may reimburse for the emergency services provided to their insured patients.

According to Gonzalez, when MSU has a home football game, there can be as many as 75,000 to 100,000 visitors coming into town. When there’s a night game, the duration of the stay and the duration of partying is prolonged, adding to the likelihood that people will need emergency services. Extremely hot weather, like Saturday’s, only stresses the system more.

With night games, according to Gonzalez, as the night wears on, “we see people’s welfare take a significant turn for the worse.” He adds, “You really have to see both sides of the day to understand what happens during a game day with a night game.”

The County’s 911 system “did well” according to Gonzalez. It did not become overwhelmed.

On Saturday night, ELi’s Managing Editor Ann Nichols monitored the local emergency services scanner and noted near-constant calls to MSU’s stadium area. Gonzalez confirmed that is the case, and said Nichols wasn’t even hearing the calls coming from within the stadium to those assigned to work the stadium, because those occur over a different radio system.

Up to 15 ELPD officers help in the stadium during games, assisting with medical emergencies and potentially illegal behavior, like fighting.

I asked Gonzalez what officers do if they have someone who is too drunk to be left as a spectator but not drunk enough to transport to the hospital. He called that window of intoxication a “sticky point,” and explained that the Fire Department’s paramedics strictly follow the Tri-County Emergency Medical Control Authority’s protocols.

In general, if someone is too drunk to go back to the stands but not too drunk to go to the hospital, emergency responders use “creative thinking.” They try to find a sober friend to take the person home. They may use the drunk person’s phone to try to call someone to pick him or her up.

But, Gonzalez says, many are too drunk not to transport to the E.R. for their own safety, and that’s what overwhelms the hospitals. He adds that it can often be a “dance” to get a drunk person to agree to a breathalyzer test for their own sake.

With regard to the intoxicated young woman at the frat as seen on our reporters’ ride-along, Gonzalez says that the medical amnesty system is definitely helping to encourage young people to call 911 when their friends are dangerously intoxicated. Under medical amnesty, those calling for and needing help will not be prosecuted.

Gonzalez says that the word has gotten out around town that “We’re not here to write tickets or to make arrests, we’re here to make sure this person is going to be okay and going to make it through the night.”

Business owners in general have a very positive relationship with ELPD, according to Gonzalez, and are not shy about calling in officers to help when someone is drunk or getting belligerent towards others. “They don’t hesitate to call us. They don’t try to hide it or cover it up. They know someone needs help and that is our priority.”

He notes that ELPD’s alcohol enforcement officer, Community Safety Coordinator Jeff Spitz, works year-round to develop good relationships with bars, liquor stores, and other businesses that might run into problems on game weekends. That established relationship, Gonzalez says, goes a long way towards reducing problems.

Ironically, the education Officer Spitz does leads to fewer violations and thus fewer fines, which means less money for the City. But ELPD’s leadership has made clear they are happy to see a decline in offenses like illegal sales to minors and drunk driving offenses.

Gonzalez and ELPD Chief Larry Sparkes had as their primary concern the welfare of citizens and visitors this weekend, but they also were extremely concerned about their own officers working long hours in stressful situations with brutal heat. They provided “our own little tailgate” for the officers, with Lieutenant James Campbell acting as barbeque chef.

When I attended the pre-game briefing at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, the number one thing officers had to say was, “Thank you for the food.”

“We want everyone to go home at the end of tonight safe,” Sparkes told his officers at the briefing.

Some but not all officers wore body cameras on Saturday night. Gonzalez says the department expects that all officers, including parking officers, will be fully outfitted with cameras by mid-December.

Reflecting on the weekend, Gonzalez concluded, “It’s a real balancing act—dealing with the challenges that come with game day while we have the whole routine of the City that we still have to police.”


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