Newly-Released Data Show Racial Bias in East Lansing Policing

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Wednesday, April 1, 2020, 12:33 pm
Alice Dreger

Above: Uwimana “Tito” Gasito in a recent photo for ELi by Gary Caldwell. Gasito's charge of police brutality has increased attention on ELPD actions.

What African Americans have been saying for years has now been shown conclusively: stops made by East Lansing Police Department officers evidence a cumulative racial bias.

Against a backdrop of the City of East Lansing and ELPD working to tackle issues of racism with more aggressive data collection and more open discussion, today the City released data for ELPD officer-initiated contacts in February and March of this year.

That information shows that about 20 percent of the people stopped by East Lansing police are African Americans, while African Americans account for only about 8 percent of East Lansing’s resident population, according to the last U.S. census.

Meanwhile, about 62 percent of the people stopped by ELPD in the last two months are whites. According to the last census, whites make up 75 percent of East Lansing’s resident population.

The data collected by ELPD does not include 911 calls, in which someone other than an officer initiates the encounter between a police officer and a citizen. This specifically focuses on contacts initiated by ELPD officers, most of which are traffic stops.

In the statement released, Mayor Ruth Beier is quoted as saying, “No matter how impartial we think we are, the data shows that we over-stop African Americans, which is not acceptable.”

At the request of Beier, the ELPD started on February 1 to require its officers to record racial or ethnic data about people they stopped. By contrast, Lansing’s police department has been tracking and reporting on racial and ethnic data about traffic stops for 18 years.

Considerable research has been done in the United States about police stops, looking at the race of people stopped and how this compares with the racial composition of all drivers. Research has also looked at what happens once a person has been stopped. Detailed research of this type in a specific community is not inexpensive.

For many years, ELPD and East Lansing’s Human Relations Commission have been discussing concerns about police bias, with a movement in the last year to create a citizen review panel for complaints made against officers. (ELi has been tracking this reporting at this page.)

But this issue came to a head in mid-February after officers arrested 19-year-old Uwimana “Tito” Gasito in the downtown 7-Eleven parking lot and Gasito made a charge of “assault” by ELPD officers following injuries to his face and eye during the arrest.

An investigation by ELPD subsequently found “insufficient evidence” of excessive force by police officers – a finding sharply questioned by many in the community.

Then, just a couple of weeks later, ELPD discovered that the officer who appeared to be most involved in Gasito’s injuries – Officer Andrew Stephenson – had injured another black man’s face during a similar maneuver following a traffic stop last December.

This led to dropping of all charges against Gasito – charges that had included resisting arrest.

Stephenson’s December 2019 actions were referred to the Michigan State Police for investigation of possible criminal charges against Stephenson. (Michigan State Police have told ELi that their review of the investigation could take one to two months.)

A follow-up special investigation by ELi’s Chris Root found that Stephenson was involved in 42 percent of public complaints (5 out of 12 complaints) against ELPD in the last two years, and that all of the complaints against Stephenson had come from black or Latino men.

The same day ELi published that investigation, Larry Sparkes retired as ELPD Chief, with Deputy Chief Steve Gonzalez taking over as Interim Chief.

In today’s press release, Gonzalez says the Police Department is taking the following actions:

  • Race data on officer-initiated stops will be released every month. Senior command will provide regular feedback to officers based on the data.
  • All sworn officers will attend the Michigan State Police “Fair and Impartial Policing Training” this summer.
  • Eight command and police officers will go to Detroit to attend an annual conference, now in its 17th year, aimed at diversity training and cultural competence.
  • By the end of this calendar year, all sworn officers “will have been through a proctored visit of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University. This visit focuses on how the United States’ history of racism impacts communities, including policing.”
  • An additional ten officers will attend the “Conversations about Race” series sponsored by the MSU Police.

Once Council starts meeting again, it is expected to take up the appointment of a task force to work on designing a citizen review board of the ELPD. Today’s press release also says the Council plans to analyze race data with respect to use of force by East Lansing police officers. © 2013-2020 East Lansing Info