Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Activists hope for accountability, transparency in ELPD oversight committee

Following allegations of excessive force by East Lansing police, community members hope to start a conversation

April 10, 2020
<p>The East Lansing City Council holds a meeting on March 11, 2020.</p>

The East Lansing City Council holds a meeting on March 11, 2020.

Photo by Jack Falinski | The State News

“When you go to a neighborhood council meeting, what do you see?” Then-East Lansing City Council candidate Warren Stanfield asked in an August interview. “You see 40-to-60-year-old white people and they’re talking about these communities and minorities in ways that a group of white people would talk about them. They’re not intentionally racist, but there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Stanfield's comments from August echo what many East Lansing residents are feeling now — a lack of confidence in the city of East Lansing and its police department to represent and protect its minority citizens.

The investigation

In February, Uwimana "Tito" Gasito, a 19-year-old black man, accused an East Lansing Police Department, or ELPD, officer of using excessive force during an arrest. The allegation led ELPD to initiate an internal investigation of the incident.

During a Feb. 27 special city council meeting to review the findings of the investigation, police announced they had found the investigation "not sustained," meaning there was insufficient evidence for the claim to be either proven or disproven.

After, Mayor Ruth Beier read a statement and said she believed ELPD followed procedures to protect the rights of those arrested in the incident, and thanked ELPD for everything they do.

Council Member Mark Meadows said he had seen many allegations of excessive force during his 12 years as an assistant attorney general for Michigan, where he represented the department of state police. Meadows said that good cops don't protect bad cops.

“A bad cop is a bad cop, and good cops want to get rid of the bad cop, because the bad cop makes it harder for the good cops to actually do their job," Meadows said. "Nobody protects a bad cop.”

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Then, on March 11, nearly two weeks after the special meeting, it was revealed one of the ELPD officers involved in the February incident with Gasito was also involved in separate allegations of excessive force from a December arrest of a black man.

Though the summary report of that incident was provided to police administration on Feb. 11, there was a delay in reviewing it due to the internal investigation of the February incident.

Officer Andy Stephenson was placed on paid administrative leave and then the pending internal investigation of alleged excessive force was sent to Michigan State Police.

In a March 11 council meeting, Beier apologized for her previous statements and said she initially saw the incident differently. Several council members said they were disappointed with how the situation played out.

Police Chief Larry Sparkes retired on March 17 and Gonzalez took over as interim police chief.

No confidence

On April 1, ELPD data was released showing that in February and March, African Americans accounted for 20% of officer-initiated interaction, despite making up just 8% of East Lansing's population. ELPD began gathering race-related data in February at the request of City Council.

The data supports what black East Lansing community members have said — that racism within the city's ranks is very real.

To Stanfield, none of this had to happen to affirm his statement in August.

“It’s always been validated,” Stanfield said.

Charges against Gasito were dropped after Stephenson was connected to both incidents of alleged excessive force. Activists say the process displays what lengths are needed to reach equality in East Lansing.

“What’s happening in East Lansing is bogus,” said Farhan Sheikh-Omar, a Lansing activist and friend of Gasito's. “It has become very hostile for people of color.”

Sheikh-Omar pointed to Meadows' and Beier's actions at the Feb. 27 special meeting as proof that change is needed. He said he was glad Beier apologized for the letter, but remains disturbed over Meadows' comments.

“For him to sit there as a privileged man and tell us that good cops don’t cover for bad cops … It was just the most ignorant statement I’ve ever heard from a representative,” Sheikh-Omar said.

Meadows said he stands by his statement.

"I really could not figure out why anyone had an issue with that statement," Meadows said in an email. "More simply stated, you can't be a good cop if you protect a bad cop."

Sheikh-Omar said he has little hope things will change anytime soon. He said the only council member he has faith in is Aaron Stephens, the only minority on council.

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“I’m not confident at all,” Sheikh-Omar said. “I have confidence in one person and that’s Aaron (Stephens), simply because he asked questions, he demanded that all the reports be released free of charge.”

Beier has said that change is on its way. She said at the March 11 city council meeting that an independent police oversight commission was on the way, so police officers wouldn’t be investigating their subordinates. The city also said it will continue to release race data monthly on officer-initiated stops.

"We're going to work on making sure that everyone in East Lansing is treated fairly and feels welcome," Beier said in a recent interview with The State News.

According to the April 1 police press release on race data, ELPD is also expected to analyze race data regularly and attend events like the Michigan State Police Fair and Impartial Policing Training this summer, the 17th Annual Images and Perceptions Diversity Conference in Detroit, the Conversations about Race series sponsored by the MSU Police department and go to the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University.

When contacted for an interview, ELPD referred The State News to the April 1 press release.

Starting a conversation

Members of the public said these allegations of excessive force display the need for widespread change. 

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During the Feb. 27 special meeting, ELPD representatives said Gasito never filed a formal complaint against the police department, that it was through Gasito's Facebook post that the department learned of the grievance. That wasn’t a good enough excuse for Lansing resident Michael Lynn.

“I think that he made the complaint when he was on the ground screaming, when the blood was dripping off his face,” Lynn said at the meeting, before saying that many people don’t know how to file a complaint.

Lynn also took issue with the way the meeting was laid out and the lack of black representation. He said he started watching the meeting at home, but drove to city hall to voice his opinion.

“I’m sitting here, looking at all these light faces saying, ‘This didn’t happen,'" Lynn said. “What we’re watching on camera when I’m sitting at home talking to my wife, that that didn’t happen. I didn’t just watch this young man go to the ground screaming in pain with four people on him.”

Several times during the meeting, police representatives and city officials touted ELPD's use of de-escalation techniques. Lynn said he didn’t see de-escalation used in the incident with Gasito.

“De-escalation we talked about how many times in here?” Lynn said. “How would it have been easy enough to say, ‘Back up, you don’t back up, I’m going to arrest you?’ That’s de-escalation,” Lynn said.

Sheikh-Omar said it’s important that people understand racism within the police department extends beyond this one incident. He said he usually only comes into East Lansing to visit his mosque. 

Sheikh-Omar said police are often out near the mosque, and that he’s been pulled over without cause on his way there. He said he’s witnessed and heard stories about East Lansing police asking for IDs from passengers in stopped cars. By running IDs, police can find outstanding warrants.

Sheikh-Omar said pulling over black drivers without cause is an extension of stop and frisk, which Sheikh-Omar and Stanfield both said they believe still exists in East Lansing.

Sheikh-Omar said he and Gasito see a silver lining coming from the case: It started a conversation.

“(Gasito) knows this case is bigger than just him,” Sheikh-Omar said. “He had to take the ass whoopin’ for it, but he knows that everything happens for a reason. He knows he had to suffer this for the greater good.”

Sheikh-Omar said he hopes measures like the oversight committee work and that more accountability and transparency are needed. If the police are left unchecked, he said he thinks East Lansing is headed toward tragedy.

Sheikh-Omar said, “If they don’t change (the system), I think what’s gonna happen is one of their police officers is really going to use lethal force and they’re going to kill an innocent, unarmed black man.”

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