In Tense Public Meeting, ELPD Claims ‘Insufficient Evidence’ of Excessive Force in Gasito Case

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Friday, February 28, 2020, 7:15 am
Alice Dreger

East Lansing Deputy Chief Steve Gonzalez shows video at Thursday night’s meeting while City Manager George Lahanas looks on. (Photo by Raymond Holt)

Top officials in the East Lansing Police Department presented publicly last night what they say shows “insufficient evidence to clearly prove or disprove the excessive force claim” made on Facebook by Uwimana “Tito” Gasito.

On Feb. 13, Gasito posted that he had been “assaulted” by ELPD officers on Feb. 9 after his face and eye were bloodied in the process of an arrest by ELPD officers.

But during the three-hour special meeting, members of the public reacted with skepticism and sometimes anger at how the investigation and presentation of video played out, and more generally expressed deep concerns about the experiences that African-Americans and people perceived as black have had in East Lansing.

This much seems to be generally agreed: Around 1 a.m. on Feb. 9, Gasito, an immigrant from Tanzania, and his friend Anthony Zarwea were in the downtown 7-Eleven store when Chandler Lee, a white man, came to make an accusation that one of them had touched Lee’s woman friend’s butt on a nearby sidewalk. Lee started physically coming after Gasito and Zarwea, a fight broke out, and ELPD officers moved in to make arrests.

They handcuffed Lee and put him in a squad car. Several officers wrestled Zarwea into a squad car, and with Zarwea upset about being arrested, Gasito started filming with his phone. Shortly after, officers moved to arrest Gasito. Gasito objected, saying he had done nothing wrong, but they wrestled him to the ground, handcuffed him, and his face and eye suffered bloody injuries from contact with the pavement.

City Council held the special meeting last night for the purpose of releasing incident-related video and the results of the police investigation into Gasito’s online claim of being assaulted by ELPD officers. At the meeting, the police presented carefully curated video clips, prefacing them with long explanations of how they believe the public should understand the content.

Above: ELPD Captain Chad Connelly presenting results of his investigation into possible use of excessive force while Chief Larry Sparkes listens. (Photo by Raymond Holt)

The videos were taken from 7-Eleven surveillance video and police body cameras. According to ELPD Captain Chad Connelly, Deputy Chief Police Steve Gonzalez, and Chief Larry Sparkes, the videos show Zarwea and Gasito resisted arrest and officers acting appropriately, “according to policy” and according to the law.

But several members of the public came forward during the subsequent public comment period to raise a number of objections, including the way video was selectively chosen and explained. The fact that members of the public were not allowed to see the full video until the meeting meant they had no chance to first see the material without a police-imposed perspective or to prepare their comments in advance.

A week and a half ago, on Feb. 18, East Lansing's Human Relations Commission asked for immediate release of all available video. But that didn't happen.

Human Relations Commissioner Chuck Grigsby stepped to the podium to say he did “not think the process was sensitive to the public” and that he believed the public deserved to get much more information sooner.

East Lansing resident and Human Relations Commissioner Chuck Grigsby. (Photo by Raymond Holt)

While members of Council and the police seemed to suggest this event might be over with the conclusion of the police investigation, Grigsby said things do not feel resolved to him. He urged greater transparency, saying this was “very emotional for me tonight.” He told Council he loves living in East Lansing but more funding needs to go to sensitivity training for the police.

Police officials emphasized that they believe they must arrest people involved in fights downtown late at night because of the history of people being severely injured or even killed in such fights. They noted that the three individuals involved had been drinking.

Connelly, who conducted the internal investigation, also emphasized that Gasito never filed a formal complaint with ELPD and that he did not respond to calls from Connelly. The police said their investigation had started at their own initiation because there was no formal written complaint lodged to ELPD by Gasito.

This seems to be what they meant weeks ago when they referred to “proactively” initiating an investigation after Gasito’s Facebook post — that they did an investigation although there was no complaint formally filed according to ELPD’s protocols.

Answering one persistent heretofore unanswered question, Connelly said that Gasito was given medical assistance by East Lansing paramedics at the jail. But that video was not shared.

Connelly also said that the chiefs did not know about the incident until the Facebook post — information that answered another persistent question about how Sparkes and Gonzalez could have had a meeting with the HRC about complaints against police officers four days after the incident without making any mention of it. (That HRC meeting fell halfway between when Gasito was injured and when he posted his injury photos and account on Facebook.)

Chief Larry Sparkes addresses Council last night. (Photo by Raymond Holt)

The police did, last night, what the police are apt to do: they spoke from their perspective of how “suspects” should follow orders and how officers should react to people viewed as “resisting arrest.”

They did not speak to the cultural context that causes many African-Americans to fear or mistrust officers in uniform, to fear even being in East Lansing.

But people who stepped forward to the podium did speak to that, moved in part by feeling like certain comments by some Council members added insult to injury.

Several citizens objected to a letter read during the meeting by Mayor Ruth Beier, written by her to the police chief praising the department for trying to treat everyone equally.

Some also objected to Council member Mark Meadows’ claim that “good cops don’t protect bad cops.”

Council member Mark Meadows (left) and Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens at Thursday’s meeting. (Photo by Raymond Holt)

And some objected to the fact that neither the police nor the Council members had spoken of any notion that things could have been done better, in spite of the video showing Gasito crying out in pain, repeatedly, as he was pinned to the ground, crying out that his eye was injured and bleeding, and being met with silence about his welfare by the officers in the parking lot.

Asked why there was such silence, Connelly acknowledged the cries coming from Gasito as “painful and horrible” but said that just because someone is crying out does not mean that an officer can stop an arrest. He said the officers had still at that point not searched Gasito and so were not sure what they were dealing with.

Christian Barber, an African-American MSU political science student, described herself as “shaken up by this meeting.” She said that perhaps the police do not count what happened to Gasito as “excessive force” but his wounds and pain were obvious.

Beier responded that there was obviously force, but no evidence of excessive force according to the police.

Barber called “ironic” that the police had no video of the arrest of Lee, a white man, yet multiple cameras’ recordings of the arrests of the Gasito and Zarwea.

Gonzalez said the camera that would have recorded Lee’s arrest was “inadvertently turned off” through contact.

MSU political science student Christian Barber pauses during her comments last night. (Photo by Raymond Holt)

Barber suggested that it makes no sense that the first form of investigation when there is an allegation of police brutality is an investigation by the police department itself.

Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens agreed that this kind of self-exoneration is one reason he sees the need for a citizen oversight group to review complaints against the police.

Sparkes told Council that the “officer stabilizing [Gasito’s] head” during the arrest “strongly stated he did not intentionally cause the abrasion.” That officer was named as “Stephenson” by the police. Records from ELPD indicate an Andrew Stephenson on the force.

Answering a question from Stephens, Gonzalez also said police investigators did not see evidence of Stephenson scraping Gasito’s face back and forth, as Gasito alleged.

At one point, City Attorney Tom Yeadon advised Council that what happened that night made sense to him from a prosecutorial perspective. He said that you can’t let people resist once you’ve said you’re going to arrest them, or everyone will resist arrest.

Above: City Attorney Tom Yeadon and City Manager George Lahanas listen to the presentation. (Photo by Raymond Holt)

Mayor Beier urged the public to understand that she believes racism and bias are serious problems to be addressed and noted she had asked police about a month before this incident to start collecting demographic data on all police-initiated interactions so that clear data can be obtained about possible biases among officers.

Indeed, Sparkes had initiated this full data collection weeks before the incident at the 7-Eleven store, at Beier's request.

Beier explained that she wanted this data because the City is preparing to create a citizens’ public safety oversight board to hear complaints against police and possibly also fire department officers. Beier said she wants the data available for that group to use. As ELi has reported, the creation of an oversight group — an initiative led by the HRC — has been going on for many months, motivated by concerns about racial profiling.

But there has been no clear consensus, so far, on how this group will be chosen, convened, and empowered.

Above: Mayor Ruth Beier speaking at the meeting. (Photo by Raymold Holt)

Beier suggested that this group would be able to independently and effectively investigate complaints even before police investigators have done so. But in response to questions from ELi, she walked back the suggestion that the group would be that powerful.

Beier did call on white people in East Lansing to stop calling the police just because they see a brown or black person they don’t recognize. She named this as “swatting” and suggested officers end up stuck having to act in a racist fashion because they have to respond to what amounts to a racist call.

One member of the public asked Council members if they might consider approaching such calls as something like hate crimes, and Council members indicated they were interested in figuring out something like that.

Near the end of public comment, Michael Lynn of Lansing spoke. Lynn explained he had been watching the meeting from home and had rushed to East Lansing to come and speak about how differently he saw the tapes compared to the police perspective. Lynn said he believed, now that he saw the tapes, Gasito’s complaint had “legitimacy.”

Lansing resident Michael Lynn spoke at Thursday’s meeting after having watched the first part of it online. (Photo by Raymond Holt)

Lynn made an effort to explain how unsafe East Lansing can feel for African-Americans, and said what he saw on the tape was Gasito trying to de-escalate the argument with Lee and trying then to defend himself and his friend. He said he could not understand why the officers seemed to think the physical approach by officers in this case was not overly aggressive.

“I’m looking at all these light faces saying this didn’t happen,” he said, noting the tape did not show officers warning Gasito that if he did not back away they would arrest him.

Beier agreed with Lynn that there were things that could have been done better and said explicitly that she would push as mayor to make things better. She said the citizen oversight group would be aimed at helping people feel safer about making complaints. She encouraged people who believe they have been treated in a biased fashion by police to call her personally.

And, while Beier told Lynn she thought the police had included the important parts of the video in their presentation, she agreed with him that one would see the tapes differently without the police administration’s careful framing of the video.

“It felt like propaganda,” Lynn told Beier.

Council member Jessy Gregg responded by talking about being “very white” herself and about the need for people like her to be uncomfortable in the work necessary to make things better.

Council member Jessy Gregg at last night's meeting. (Photo by Raymond Holt)

“It is very difficult for me to hear and watch this video,” Gregg said, saying she saw the actions on the video as “violent.”

It seemed clear by the end of the meeting last night that City Council is now feeling a stronger impetus to move quickly toward a citizen oversight board.

At the HRC meeting that occurred halfway between the 7-Eleven arrests and Gasito’s Facebook post, ELPD Chief Sparkes had said he believes such a group could be helpful to everyone, including the police, with critical incident response.

After the meeting ended, the police handed USB drives to reporters with more video that they were willing to release at that point. We have uploaded those eight videos (unedited by ELi) to this page. We invite you to contact us to share what you see in these videos.

You can watch the video of last night’s meeting at the City’s website by clicking here.


Note: This article was corrected on Feb. 28 at 10:30 to correct the spelling of Officer Stephenson's surname. (We originally had it as "Stevenson.") © 2013-2020 East Lansing Info