Tuesday, July 14, 2020

EL City Council discusses brutality, defunding the police and passes outdoor dining

June 11, 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

East Lansing’s June 9 City Council meeting opened with conversations of racism and police brutality and how to address such issues on a local level.

With widespread calls to defund the police department, council members considered what that could mean for the East Lansing Police Department.

In the current Fiscal Year 2021 budget, Council Member Jessy Gregg said public safety comprises 65.8% of the $40.6 million general fund — the only part of the budget council has control over allocating. Of that, the departmental budget for the police is $13.3 million.

“We have a culture of crime prevention that prioritizes enforcement rather than the type of community building that has been proven to reduce the causes of crime,” Gregg said. “We equip our officers for the worst possible scenario even when they are performing duties that are relatively mundane and free of threat. … We are expecting our officers to be social workers, mental health professionals and nurses, but we outfit them as if they are going into an active duty combat zone.”

In a tearful statement to the council, Gregg suggested the possibility that the solution to police reform might just be to start over.

Rather than questioning whether the city has enough police to respond to every crime scene, Gregg said they should instead question why they are having police respond to things that are not crimes.

A Parking and Code Enforcement (PACE) officer or social worker, she said, could be dispatched to respond to incidents that do not require an armed officer.

“Even though I have watched police violence end the lives of many black and brown citizens in this country and I have heard the parents of black children express their fears over the safety of their children in situations that hold no danger for me or my children, I still assumed that police reform meant more training, better training, more equipment or different equipment,” Gregg said.

Moving forward, she said a city the size of East Lansing should not be operating a jail and urged the council to look at defunding the portion of the police budget related to its operation with the reallocation of that money toward racial equity and community building programs.

Gregg was met with support at the call for a council retreat based on the idea of equity inclusion to discuss these problems.

Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens underscored Gregg’s suggestion of a social worker embedded within the ELPD, stating that should count as a matter of public safety. Further he said sending an officer to handle minor ordinance infractions is unnecessary and highlighted the need to make changes in the issuing of appearance tickets versus arrests.

Moving forward, Stephens said he highlighted concerns that the city is engaging in actions that do not count as de-escalation. These policies in places are ones that need to be addressed and reformed to bring the city to a code reflecting reasonable reinforcement standards.

Stephens said the most terrifying part of ELPD Officer Andrew Stephenson's arrest of Anthony Loggins, was how such a minor violation led to an arrest that it did. A failure to signal while turning out a Meijer parking lot led to Stephenson kneeling on the back of his neck and arresting him.

“A justice system needs to be one that is helping folks,” Stephens said. “If our justice system is not doing that, then we need to reevaluate what we are doing.”

East Lansing Mayor Ruth Beier said her privilege led her to assume racism was not a huge problem in East Lansing. It wasn’t until the Loggin’s arrest that she really came to terms with what was happening.

“When he was on the ground and Officer Stephenson said to him ‘why are you still struggling?’ and he wasn’t moving — his hands were behind his back, a knee was on his neck ... and the officer said ‘why are you still struggling?’ — I thought all he’s doing is talking to the camera to justify what he’s doing, and I believe that,” Beier said. “That’s my city, and that’s my police department and I’m the mayor, so I’m fully committed to change.”

Beier noted that while the idea of using PACE for code violations sounds like a good idea, there is a fear PACE is not adequately trained to handle residents who notably become riled up in the issuing of such violations.

Beier also expressed concerns that while she is interested in less policing, she does not know how much of the budget can be shifted to other things. Defunding in the way that has been talked about nationwide, Beier said, is not something that she thinks applies to East Lansing.

“What I think East Lansing can do, and I think the police and the City Council ... (can do) is embrace change. Embrace rooting out racism, noticing implicit bias, confronting implicit bias and not over-policing people of color. I have faith that we can get there,” Beier said.

In a public comment, East Lansing resident Dustin Hunt urged the council to consider defunding rather than reform.

ELPD, he said has a dark history including redlining and police targeting, intimidating and brutalizing black and brown community members. These ideas, which might appear as radical to those who have never had to imagine a better world for themselves and their families, Hunt said, are simply a response to years of oppression and violence toward black individuals.

“Police reform seems to be something that is always on the horizon for ELPD, and that’s not enough. Implicit bias and diversity training will not get to the core of systemic racism and white supremacy head on,” Hunt said.

Council Member Mark Meadows said part of the problem in dealing with defunding is the use of the word "defunding."

“Everybody I’ve talked to who suggests that we want to look at defunding the police department is not really talking about defunding,” Meadows said. “What they’re doing is they’re talking about reforming police agencies to categorize workers within those agencies in a different way.”

Resident Anna Fisher echoed Hunt's comments, stating the changes that need to be made will not be made through reform and training. She said there is a need to be creative and visionary if they want real change.

“There were numerous procedural reforms and training in Minneapolis and that didn’t save George Floyd,” Fisher said “I’m not interested in living in a community where my black and brown brothers and sisters are being killed and harmed.”

Farhan Sheikh-Omar and Edmund Rushton, two East Lansing residents who have led protests in the past, called in separately to thank City Manager George Lahanas and Interim Police Chief Steve Gonzalez for meeting with them Monday.

Rushton said for the first time, this made he feel as though the city government was committed to doing everything they can to address the issue of police brutality. Both Sheikh-Omar and Rushton called to question Meadows for a previous statement made that “good cops don’t protect bad cops.”

“We are not going to take ‘good cops don’t cover for bad cops’ because I have not seen a good cop that has stopped their police officers from killing a black man,” Sheikh-Omar said. “Instead of telling us that 'good cops don’t cover for bad cops,' why don’t you tell the cops that not all black men are a threat? Why don’t you tell them that we’re not there to kill them, or we’re not there to harm them? Maybe then we’ll accept your ‘good cops don’t cover for bad cops.'"

In a response, Meadows said he is confused why anyone would think he’s done anything to stop the ongoing movements. While admittedly in these situations it might be hard to find the good cop, Meadows said, officers have a duty to intervene with another officer when there is a wrongdoing going on.

“Good cops don’t protect bad cops. If you protect a bad cop, you become a bad cop,” Meadows said.

Gonzalez made a presentation at the meeting, outlining the “8 Can’t Wait” policy initiative by Campaign Zero. While Gonzalez said many East Lansing policies already adhere to these policies, it is a way to ensure ELPD continues to make the best efforts moving forward. 

In the public comment, East Lansing resident Nell Kuhnmuench said that the “8 Can’t Wait” policy might be nice sounding words, but that they have been violated so frequently across the country that they really mean nothing.

“Across the world and right here in our own community, the demonstrators who are rising up against police violence are clear in their demand," Kuhnmuench said. "Defund the police and invest in black communities. We are in a historic moment of unparalleled significance and must demand nothing less. The time is now to move beyond the limits of conventional reform measures that too often have failed.”

Work on reopening

Also at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, the council approved an ordinance providing authorization to convert three areas in downtown East Lansing to open-air dining areas.

Take-out food and packaged alcohol purchased from downtown restaurant can be consumed in a socially distanced outdoor setting, the city released in a statement Wednesday.

The areas designated for open-air dining include Albert Avenue, from east of the Albert Avenue Garage entrance to M.A.C. Avenue, the Bailey Street Parking Lot and the parking area along the north side of Valley Court.

The press release said that city staff is currently working on the conversion of the Albert Avenue location, with hopes to have the area open by June 11.

Once established, the areas will be open to the public from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. through no later than Aug. 15. Those using the dining areas must purchase food and uncapped alcohol from restaurants that are licensed to sell beer and wine for off-premise consumption within three blocks of the area, according to the release. 

A two-hour time limit will be in place for those utilizing the open-air space and smoking and amplified sounds will not be allowed. A sanitation team will be on site to keep the area safe during operation.

“This is a new endeavor that we are trying out to support our downtown restaurants and we appreciate the community’s patience as we move through our opening phases," East Lansing City Manager George Lahanas said in the statement. "We also encourage community members to maintain social distancing and enjoy these areas in a responsible manner so that we are able to keep them open in support of our downtown businesses. Our hope is that this provides an incentive for community members to come downtown this summer and support our local restaurants.”

City Council also approved a policy resolution to streamline the approval process and eliminate fees for businesses that wish to expand their seating into outdoor areas, according to the release. Restaurants must still receive city approval and the proper authorization to serve alcohol on the premises. 

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