Views Differ Widely on the Right Approach to Police Oversight in East Lansing

Monday, January 6, 2020, 7:30 am
By: 
Alice Dreger

While cities around the nation are creating citizen review panels for complaints against police officers, East Lansing continues to struggle with the question of what the right model is for this particular city.

On the one hand, some City leaders – particularly Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens and Council Member Mark Meadows – have expressed support for the idea of creating a system for allowing members of the public to air concerns about police policies and actions.

On the other hand, some City leaders – particularly City Manager George Lahanas and Mayor Ruth Beier – are warning that contracts with the police unions limit what Council can do. Some have also worried, in the words of Meadows, about putting in place an approach that fails to “do justice both to the complainant and the police department and the good work that they do within a community.”

Since last May, East Lansing’s government has been considering whether to create some kind of oversight commission to review complaints against East Lansing police officers and firefighter-paramedics. The issue formally kicked off when, last spring, Stephens – the Council liaison to East Lansing’s Human Relations Commission (HRC) – brought forward a draft law known as Ordinance 1463.

That proposed law was aimed at creating what was called a “Public Safety Review Board” – separate from the HRC – to review and hear complaints made against public safety officers employed by the City of East Lansing, including police officers and firefighter-paramedics.

Council asked the HRC to consider draft Ordinance 1463 and to make recommendations to Council about it. At that point, several local civil rights advocates and citizens communicated to the HRC about this draft law, roundly criticizing it as weak, uninformed, and inadequate.

Resolution proposed for a special study group in the form of an ad hoc task force

Now, after many months of intense consideration and debate, the HRC members have offered City Council a draft resolution that, if passed by Council, would establish an ad hoc task force to study options for a “public safety oversight commission,” including by studying what other cities are doing.

The HRC’s logic in proposing an ad hoc task force in advance of establishing the Oversight Commission is that the issues involved here are complex – not least because everyone expects the commission to bear witness to testimony from people who believe they have been treated in a racist fashion by police officers, and such charges are often painful and divisive.

There’s the added challenge of whether to include the review of complaints against firefighter-paramedics who work for East Lansing. Most oversight commissions in the U.S. are specific to law enforcement, but some HRC members could see value in taking the wider scope.

There’s also a question of who should be “represented” on an oversight commission, and the big question of what investigatory powers an oversight commission should have.

The HRC’s proposed resolution for City Council calls for an exploratory task force to consider these kinds of issues and to contemplate the best way forward based on what is known from other communities, while also taking into account what is specific to East Lansing’s situation.

The resolution calls for an ad hoc task force of nine voting members “with a strong focus on high impact communities” including the African American, Latinx, Muslim, and immigrant communities. It would make recommendations to Council on Ordinance 1463 and on a model of an oversight commission for East Lansing, and advise on initial appointments to this body, if the Council acts to create an oversight commission.

Resistance to the idea of now going to a task force

But presented with the HRC’s draft resolution on the ad hoc task force at Council’s discussion-only meeting on Dec. 10, 2019, the Mayor and City Manager suggested the approach recommended by the HRC might be the wrong one, particularly in the way the resolution assumes there would ultimately be a strong oversight commission similar to what some other cities have.

Below: Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens and Mayor Ruth Beier (Dec. 10 meeting photos by Alice Dreger)

Mayor Ruth Beier said that when Council decided last May to send the draft ordinance 1463 to HRC to hear its recommendations, she did not expect what has now resulted.

“It almost looks like they just set our ordinance aside and started over,” Beier said, “and they want to do this deep dive to create more of a review board than an advisory board. And I don’t think that’s what Council had in mind.”

Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens, who brought forward Ordinance 1463, disagreed with Beier’s characterization of that draft law, saying he did see the original intent as creating “an actual public safety oversight commission,” not just a relatively weak advisory group.

Stephens said that public input and the HRC discussion have clearly favored creating a special task force to design an Oversight Commission to recommend to Council.

Council member Mark Meadows said he had no problem with creation of the task force and that the meeting of the HRC he had attended made clear that the HRC “wanted to get it right.” Meadows said that a lot of community members had conveyed that they felt the drafted Ordinance 1463 “was insufficient in terms of how we should be looking at this.”

Meadows (above) commended the HRC for making the resolution recommendation, although he said he thought it was the longest draft resolution he had ever seen. But he thought a “deep dive” was going to help “make it the right thing for the City of East Lansing.”

Questions raised about the various roles that might be played

At the December 10 meeting, Council member Jessy Gregg, newly elected in November, expressed concern about not having a someone on the task force with a background in law enforcement, paramedic work, or firefighting. She said she saw someone with a public safety background as being beneficial to this endeavor.

Liz Miller, member of the HRC and pastor at Edgewood United Church, responded from the podium that that particular issue had drawn a lot of discussion at HRC, and that many who had weighed in were concerned about having a public safety officer on the task force or oversight commission.

“This is for the public,” Miller (above) explained, and giving a public safety officer a voting seat could create the wrong kind of power dynamic for the goal of empowering people coming from groups that have historically been disempowered and sometimes overtly abused by representatives of the state, including police officers.

Miller said that, as a pastor, she sometimes “wears a uniform” (of the clergy) and she recognizes the kind of deference that can happen in response – a deference that in this case could be quite counter-productive.

Miller clarified that the HRC is interested in actively consulting with members of law enforcement. Gregg (below) noted that she doesn’t think such a person would have to be a voting member but said that having someone in the room with “knowledge of procedure” could “make sure what comes out of that committee is relevant and applicable” and “truly meaningful.”

City Manager George Lahanas said the committee could include former law enforcement members, like those who are now faculty at MSU: “no badge, more of a consultant.”

Meadows seconded that idea, clarifying that he would want someone with a law enforcement background although “not active duty.”

Exploring the questions of who has what power

In the December 10 discussion, Lahanas actively challenged the idea of ultimately creating an Oversight Commission, saying that oversight of the police is the job of the Chief of Police and City Manager in East Lansing.

Lahanas said draft Ordinance 1463 had captured “a lot of delicate balances.” He named the City Charter and agreements with the police union as limiting what Council could do.

Lahanas said he was comfortable with a “public outing” of complaints against the police and that he was willing to accept feedback, as chief personnel officer for the City, from such an advisory board.

Below: City Manager George Lahanas at the Dec. 17 meeting (photo by Ray Holt)

But, Lahanas said, “I think the term ‘oversight’ tends to overstate” the role of the imagined commission.

Beier agreed, saying she expected more of an advisory board out of this process. Beier cautioned Miller about asking for things that would go against the union contracts or the City Charter. She said this is why she wanted more expertise from the City staff brought to bear on this issue.

At the December 10 Council meeting, Miller told Council that she and other members of the HRC heard clearly from the public that draft ordinance 1463 “didn’t go far enough” and that the point of the recommended Task Force was to study what is possible within the existing limits “with members of the public who are well versed in this in addition to the staff[‘s] work on this.”

Miller indicated the idea was not to try to challenge existing limits but to understand fully the options available, including by working with staff.

Council will take the issue back up on January 14

The Council plans to return to the issue, with input from City staff, at its next discussion-only meeting on January 14.

Beier appears inclined to move according to what staff recommends. Whereas the HRC has sought a very wide and deliberate search for members of the ultimate commission, Beier told ELi on Friday, “I trust staff to find the right people for the committee.”

But Beier has also indicated she is open to feedback that could change her mind.

Responding to questions on Saturday, Stephens said “we instructed staff to give a run through of this and make a recommendation and suggest any needed changes” at the January 14 meeting. “I think that's a smart move considering there are some aspects of the resolution that are a bit irregular.”

He named the proposed selection process as something he still had issues with and said that “not having a member of our police force/fire department or a member of the field who is an expert required is a question in my mind still.”

How you can weigh in:

City Council will accept public comment on this (or any) issue at their meetings during the designated “communications” portion of the agenda, typically near the beginning.

The issue will be discussed at the January 14 meeting which begins at 7 p.m. in City Hall’s second floor courtroom. Written comments can be sent to council@cityofeastlansing.com.

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