East Lansing Drops Charges Against Injured Black Man Following Newly Discovered Video

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Thursday, March 12, 2020, 8:21 am
Alice Dreger

From left: Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens, City Attorney Tom Yeadon, City Manager George Lahanas, Mayor Ruth Beier (photos by Gary Caldwell)

East Lansing’s government and police department are being rocked by an explosive new finding that ELPD Officer Andrew Stephenson, whose actions were central to the injury to a black man’s face and eye during a February arrest, used a similar maneuver on another black man in December, injuring that man’s face, too.

Now the Michigan State Police will investigate Stephenson for possible criminal conduct.

In the newly-revealed December incident, the injured and arrested man lodged a formal complaint. But the two black men’s objections about how they were treated by ELPD were not understood to be so similar and to both be primarily against Stephenson until Tuesday of this week.

The City announced this unexpected finding in an at times vague and confusing press release just after 5 p.m. yesterday.

That press release did not name Stephenson as the officer but said that ELPD “has forwarded a pending internal investigation of alleged excessive force during an arrest that was made in December 2019 to the Michigan State Police (MSP) for review and a potential criminal investigation” against the officer.

The press release also said that “City Manager is directing that all charges be dropped against [the man injured in February] in light of this new information.”

Although City Manager George Lahanas confirmed last night that all those charges had in fact been dropped yesterday, Council members expressed frustration and outrage at how this whole scene has played out.

Above: City Manager George Lahanas listens to City Attorney Tom Yeadon at last night's meeting (photo by Gary Caldwell)

One complaint connected to another, but only after delays

Uwimana “Tito” Gasito is the name of the man whose face and eye were bloodied from an arrest on Feb. 9 at the downtown 7-Eleven when Stephenson and other ELPD officers suddenly took him to the ground. Gasito’s face and eye were bloodied in the process.

On Feb. 14, Gasito posted a photo of his injuries to Facebook and accused ELPD officers of police brutality.

“While I was on the ground in handcuffs the officer was pushing my head into the ground scraping my forehead back and forth,” Gasito wrote. “All this because I was recording the officer attempting to arrest my friend.”

Above: Farhan Sheik-Omar, speaking to Council last night, about how his friend Gasito was treated (photo by Gary Caldwell)

ELPD subsequently performed an investigation of possible use of excessive force. In a lengthy presentation on Feb. 27 to City Council and the public, investigating officer Captain Chad Connelly concluded there was “insufficient evidence” to conclude one way or the other that officers had acted inappropriately.

But apparently in the last few days, with public anger growing at what happened with the investigation in the Gasito case, ELPD discovered there was a complaint about a similar action and injury allegedly caused by Officer Stephenson in December – again with a black man saying he was subject to excessive force, again with an injury to his face after being taken to the ground, face-down, by Stephenson.

This finding seems to have changed everything.

When pressed last night at City Council to explain how this finding about a December action against a driver could lead to dropping of charges against a completely different man (Gasito) for unrelated events in February, Mayor Ruth Beier pointed to the pattern involving Officer Stephenson.

What we learned last night

We don’t yet know the name of the man injured in December – we know only so far from the press release that on December 28, 2019, he was the subject of a traffic stop off Lake Lansing Road near US-127. Apparently, at that stop, Stephenson used a maneuver whereby he took the driver to the ground to arrest him and the man’s face was injured on the pavement.

The driver filed a complaint against the arresting officer – someone other than Stephenson – on January 3 of this year.

It would be impossible to know from yesterday’s press release that the officer involved in the December-incident investigation is Andrew Stephenson. It would also be impossible to know from that that the subject who was arrested and harmed was a black man. Yesterday’s press release speaks of the value of transparency, but it provides neither of these pieces of information.

Both of these points of information were obtained because Chris Root specifically asked questions during public comment at City Council last night, and Mayor Ruth Beier pressed the City Manager to answer the questions. (Disclosure: Root is an ELi reporter.)

Above: Chris Root speaking to Council last night (photo by Gary Caldwell)

Root expressed shock at these revelations and told Council that she was very frustrated by what it takes to get information out of the City. Beier seconded that frustration. Throughout the meeting, Beier pushed City Manager Lahanas and City Attorney Yeadon to answer questions brought by the public, and she promised to keep pushing to get the public all the information it is legally allowed to have.

The press release from yesterday did reveal that in the case of the December incident, the police investigated the complaint filed on January 3 and the findings were given to the Police Administration on Feb. 11.

According to the press release, the reason the police administration didn’t immediately dig into the December incident complaint and make the connection was because they were distracted by Gasito’s allegations made on Feb. 14.

Once they finished investigating Gasito’s complaints and turned their attention to the earlier complaint, Police Chief Larry Sparkes discovered Officer Stephenson on videotape using the same kind of maneuver on another black man.

Watching the December tape in slow motion apparently led them to believe that Stephenson’s use of force may have been excessive.

That revelatory discovery made via video review this Tuesday (March 11) impelled Sparkes to refer the matter over to Michigan State Police and to put Stephenson on “paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the potential criminal investigation by MSP.”

Above: Human Relations Commission Vice Chair Karen Hoene told Council last night public trust has been destroyed (photo by Gary Caldwell)

A tense follow-up to a tense meeting

Last night’s Council meeting was the first since the special Feb. 27 meeting where Connelly said there was insufficient evidence to support complaints made against Stephenson or other officers. Last night, Council was supposed to approve the minutes from that Feb. 27 meeting.

But Council member Jessy Gregg successfully moved that the Feb. 27 minutes be revised and approved at a later date, noting the draft Feb. 27 meeting minutes are “so vague as to be essentially non-representational.”

Above: Council member Jessy Gregg at the meeting (photo by Gary Caldwell)

The minutes prepared by Lahanas’ staff contain no mention of what was investigated, who was investigated by whom, what was found, and what objections were raised by the public or members of the Council.

MSU student and East Lansing resident Crystal Davis told Council last night that given what’s happened, it appears there is no culture of accountability in East Lansing.

Above: Crystal Davis reading to Council from material on her phone (photo by Gary Caldwell)

Davis spoke of racial bias that “destroys lives, destroys communities” and said that as a black person, “I am afraid for my safety here.”

Chuck Grigsby, who serves on East Lansing’s Human Relations Commission, told Council that released quantitative statistics on police stops clearly showed a bias toward stopping African American men, calling the numbers “a horror show.” Beier acknowledged they show African American men being stopped two to four times as often as they would be if stops happened at a random rate compared to the population of East Lansing.

Grigsby warned Council, “We will not stop bothering you about these issues” including officers’ “traumatizing communities.”

Grigsby asked when the police union contract expires. Told that date was July 1, 2021, he pushed for examination of the contract and strengthening of it in terms of accountability. He said he was tired of talk.

Kath Edsall, who serves on the East Lansing School Board and who has reported that her children have been racially profiled by police, told Council that the laws of the City allow officers to arrest people on “contempt of cop crimes.”

Above: Kath Edsall at the meeting (photo by Gary Caldwell)

Edsall pointed to the City’s Disorderly Conduct laws which allow officers to arrest people like Gasito for such vague and meaningless “crimes” as “jostling,” spitting, and the like.

Council promises action, not just more talk

Several speakers said that of the five Council members only Aaron Stephens had seemed until this point to be responsive and to be asking hard questions and moving to act.

But at last night’s meeting, Council members Stephens, Gregg, and Mark Meadows all did explicitly promise review of the City’s ordinances to get rid of problematic behavior-focused laws.

Above: Mark Meadows and Aaron Stephens at the meeting (photos by Gary Caldwell)

Gregg said she had watched the February videotapes and wanted to know why the police would arrest young men involved in a “minor shoving match.”

Gregg declared, “We are not just over-policed, we are over-ordinanced.” Meadows called for revising the City’s Disorderly Conduct ordinance, and Gregg said she wanted to be involved in cleaning out East Lansing’s code to make it reasonable. She also decried the poor communication in the City’s system.

Above: Jessy Gregg (photo by Gary Caldwell)

Gregg said that this Council has two more years together to try hard to fix these problems and that she believes everyone on Council is committed to that work. The Council is planning to dedicate most or all of next Tuesday’s meeting to this issue, particularly creation of a task force to recommend how to shape and empower a citizen’s oversight board to review complaints made against East Lansing police officers.

Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens concluded his remarks on the subject last night by saying, “I am beyond disappointed.” Stephens called for releasing all remaining material on the Gasito-Stephenson investigation to the public without charge.

Council member Lisa Babcock agreed with the feeling of disappointment, saying, “It is utterly beyond my comprehension how such a small department with such a small command force had no idea that was going on” in terms of two similar complaints against the same officer.

Above: Council member Lisa Babcock (photo by Gary Caldwell)

Babcock spoke sharply to the City Manager and City Attorney, tying together Lahanas’ and Yeadon’s performances in the eBay land sale and the ELPD situation, saying, “You don’t get to pick and choose what you tell us.”

Babcock told the two, “I am losing faith, and I do not say that lightly.” She said she was tired of playing a “dance-of-seven-veils” to try to get information that is supposed to be public.

Babcock brought forward a previously unrevealed example of withholding of information, saying that her good friend is an attorney representing Gasito’s friend Anthony Zarwea in his own February arrests at the 7-Eleven. Babcock said that Yeadon’s office had failed to turn over evidence in discovery, as required by law, when Babcock’s friend was trying to mount Zarwea’s defense.

Saying the situation is both embarrassing and angering, Babcock questioned how many defendants were facing this problem. Yeadon said he’d look into it. At one point in the meeting, Babcock also yelled at Yeadon to pay attention to what was being said. (Babcock and others have noted that Yeadon often spends much time at meetings looking at his cell phone.)

Asked whether she would retract her public letter to the Police Chief in which she praised the police in relation to the Gasito case, Mayor Beier said she still felt glad ELPD is working on de-escalation and anti-bias training but she said she would retract her praise of the complaint investigation and apologize for that.

Above: Beier speaking at the meeting (photo by Gary Caldwell)

Beier also said she felt the anti-bias training she had received in her own life was weak and inadequate and she wanted local people to give her a much better education.

Beier spoke bluntly of her own “evolution over this case.” She said she now realizes how she had watched the tapes with racist bias and with unjustified acceptance of the police perspective.

As she spoke of being a white person who is in charge of a city that has a police force, Beier said she doesn’t think she is defensive on behalf of the police, “but I am [too] quick to accept” what police tell her. That’s ironic, she said, because she’s not had good experiences with the police herself, including with ELPD officers.

Beier said she had “always thought of myself as a vessel” – a way for the people of the city to get what they need. But in light of all this, she said, “I realized recently my vessel is damaged.” She said she would like to become a vessel that can understand everyone’s perspective.

Beier repeatedly apologized, saying she understands she has made grave errors, and said she would do what she could to do a better job for everyone in East Lansing as a public servant.

Expect more follow-up

Lahanas and Sparkes have now promised various actions, including finding out more about how disciplinary action is or isn’t working, reviewing video footage of all instances of use of force, having the chief review all complaints filed by the public before assigning them to an investigator, and looking into “why these two complaints were not connected” before this late date.

Beier said she also personally wants to see all complaints of alleging racial bias or profiling.

Pressed on why the City Manager can apparently decide who is and isn’t prosecuted in East Lansing, City Attorney Tom Yeadon said the City Manager is empowered to make policies in that regard. Lahanas said he considered his decision to press for the dropping of charges against Gasito to be reflective of policy, but he could not articulate or specify the policy.

Above: City Attorney Tom Yeadon and Ruth Beier (photos by Gary Caldwell)

Beier said she wasn’t sure a policy really existed but reiterated she thought that, in this case, the charges against Gasito should be dropped because of what the videotape from December shows of Stephenson using force against another black man.

That videotape of the December 29 incident has not yet been released. Lahanas suggested last night that the complaint form and video cannot be released yet because of the investigation.  Others at the meeting were of the opinion that Lahanas continues not to understand FOIA law or Council members’ wishes.

Ordinarily, Chief Larry Sparkes and/or Deputy Chief Steve Gonzalez come to City Council meetings. They did not last night, and no explanation for their absence was provided.


Note: This article originally identified the December arrest as happening on Dec. 29 because the City of East Lansing's press release indicated that. Research by Chris Root subsequently showed the likely arrest date to have been Dec. 28, and the City of East Lansing has now confirmed that. Our article has been corrected and the City is correcting the press release.

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