After many months of increased scrutiny and renewed conversations about the role of law enforcement in American society, the City of East Lansing has formed a study committee to put in place a permanent oversight board to work with the East Lansing Police Department on better serving their community.
The Study Committee on an Independent Police Oversight Commission, which began in October following the summer’s mass protests over police brutality and misconduct, is working with East Lansing community members, officials and law enforcement to form a board to provide guidance to the police department.
On Feb. 8, the committee was presented data showing the extent of racial disparities in ELPD’s policing practices.
Overall, Black East Lansing residents and non-residents made up 24% of ELPD’s traffic stops. Around 1.7% of East Lansing’s Black population was stopped by police in the last four months of 2020, compared to 0.6% of white residents.
This means that Black residents were nearly three times more likely to be stopped by East Lansing police than white residents.
Councilmember Ron Bacon, who works closely with the committee, discussed what he plans to do after seeing these statistics.
“I think the challenge is real, I think the numbers are real, if not underreported. I think we’ve known this and the raw statistics kind of brought it home for everyone,” Bacon said.
“It almost feels like it’s been coming for a while, but at least we’re in the process,” he said. “We’re not being reactive to the data — we’re already active around what we assumed was the issue.”
Bacon also talked about the possible scope of the eventual permanent oversight commission.
“That scope would have to be determined in their labor relations,” he said. “And that’s part of what has to be determined here – what powers will be extended to the police oversight commission, beyond the complaint process and beyond the advisory. Will there be real power to change rules and things like that?”
Law enforcement officials are also re examining their roles in the criminal justice system.
“I think we are reimagining the role of law enforcement in society as it was,” said deputy chief Steve Gonzalez.
Gonzalez discussed the numerous changes that the department has made in recent months, including the addition of two social workers and four non-police neighborhood resource specialists.
According to Gonzalez, the social workers have received approximately 59 case referrals since beginning their jobs in early December.
“A lot of them have to do with immediate mental health crises that an individual might be dealing with that initially results in that first 911 call,” Gonzalez said. “Then the police officers and the social workers go out to the scene, stabilize it, and then try and move from whatever is occurring to that community resource that we can provide assistance with.”
Gonzalez also cited the alteration of a long-held state rule for removing some possible bias from departmental policing.
“Per state rules, officers can run a license plate for any law enforcement purpose, so if you just want to make sure that that license plate belongs on that car, you can run that license place,” he said. “The policy we put in place stopped that practice of arbitrarily running license plates.”
Gonzalez explained that after the policy change, officers will have to give an explicit reason to run a license plate. They will also have to include any plates they look up in their daily report. Gonzalez hopes that this change will help limit subjectivity and the possibility for biases to impact an officer’s work.
Along with the changes that the ELPD has already instituted and the eventual installation of the oversight board, officials such as Matt Saxton, executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association, acknowledge that policing isn’t the only aspect of the system that is overdue for change.
“The law enforcement side is a small part of the criminal justice system. We have the whole system before you get to law enforcement that is breaking down in our country, whether that’s education, or how people end up becoming involved with the criminal justice system,” Saxton said.
“Law enforcement is the — unfortunately at times — visible part of that component and the one that has the greatest opportunity to make a highly visible mistake during the process of that, whether it’s in a use of force situation, a deadly force situation, often times with a split-second opportunity to make that reaction,” Saxton said.
Councilmember Bacon stressed that the recent actions of city officials to combat these racial disparities aren’t about punishment, but about improving the East Lansing community as a whole.
“I know officers, and at the end of the day they just want to go home safe, and people who are stopped don’t want to be harassed and they want to go home safe,” he said. “So just getting that culture around this so everyone in every stop and every encounter feels safe and treated fairly, and that the officers feel like they’re being treated fairly and they’re getting clear guidance on what the rules and culture are.”
“But that will take time.”