Judging themselves, Lansing police dismiss most citizen complaints

City Council eyes new citizen panel to take over oversight of police misconduct complaints

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After a Black teenager was repeatedly struck by a white Lansing Police Department officer along Dakin Street last year, the city of Lansing was in turmoil. Protests formed in front of City Hall. Former Police Chief Michael Yankowski admonished the two officers. One officer involved was suspended.

Video footage showed Officer Lindsey Howley attempting to load the teenager into the back of her cruiser. As the 16-year-old girl continued to put up a fight, Howley cocked back her fist and swung. All told, the girl was struck 14 times — mostly in the legs — in what would later be described by Yankowski as “not the conduct of what we want from our Lansing police officers.” Yankowski blamed inexperience on why Howley continued striking the girl after the first few blows proved ineffective.

Howley’s 30-hour suspension was the most severe punishment short of firing that was handed down by a Lansing police chief based on a citizen-initiated complaint in at least four years. Local activists (including the girl’s family) still wanted more severe consequences, but the quick action seemed to placate the megaphones at City Hall — especially as Yankowski retired from the job.

But this year, and about one month before George Floyd’s killing reignited race-related protests in Lansing, that three-day suspension was quietly appealed and reversed in union arbitration. Mayor Andy Schor said the city “took this matter seriously,” but ultimately it still had its hands tied.

“The police chief has the ultimate responsibility over officers and their discipline. However, under state law, officers are allowed to appeal disciplinary decisions through the binding arbitration process with an outside, independent arbiter,” Schor explained in a statement.

And as city leaders now turn their attention back to racial justice and social equity, a renewed conversation is underway on how to hold police officers accountable when they break the rules.

Additional details about Howley’s appeal — and the justification for the reversal — were not released to City Pulse amid a lengthy (and ongoing) tussle over public access to police misconduct records. So far, the city has only released a small fraction of its internal investigations on police misconduct, and only those that begin through citizen complaints.

More than 400 complaints are still being withheld by the City Attorney’s Office on the basis that the city’s legal interest in privacy on these police matters outweighs its interest in public disclosure. City Pulse intends to appeal the finding to City Council President Peter Spadafore.

But of the 139 complaints released since 2016, most achieved similar non-results. Only 17 — or about 12% — led to disciplinary action. Most were verbal warnings, written reprimands or involved mandatory counseling or training. Five officers resigned or retired in lieu of termination.

While an outlet exists for an independent probe through an investigator hired by mayoral appointees on the Police Board of Commissioners, all citizen complaints filed since 2016 have also been handled entirely by other officers within the Police Department’s Office of Internal Affairs — only being referred out to the Michigan State Police when criminal matters arise.

And the inherent flaws of a complaint system where police are largely expected to police other police is now pushing city leaders to rethink the concept of officer accountability in Lansing.

“We do need some independence there,” said Councilwoman Patricia Spitzley. “That’s not to say that I think the police inherently do anything wrong, but it can be hard for police to police the police. I think that puts everyone in a no-win situation, no matter how above-board it all may be.”

“Now, maybe more than ever, Lansing needs to show its people that LPD is here to ‘protect and serve.’ That is not possible unless all incidents of police misconduct are properly addressed,” said Councilman Brian Jackson, noting the “secretive” process smells of conflicting interests.

Citizen complaints in Lansing rarely — if ever — leave the offices of the Lansing Police Department. Aside from a rarely used investigator on the Police Board of Commissioners, the only check-and-balance for cops accused by citizens of some type of misconduct is other cops.

Complaints can be filed either directly with the so-called “independent” investigator or the Office of Internal Affairs. Both ultimately report to Schor’s office and work at offices housed inside City Hall. The police chief also still retains final authority on whether those complaints are sustained, though officers also have the ability to appeal discipline independently through union arbitration.

The in-house nature of the misconduct investigations isn’t uncommon nationally, but concerns over objectivity has pushed some cities to launch citizen-based review boards to provide some added oversight. National advocacy groups like the ACLU have also pressed for transparency.

“It would require a change in the charter, but we could have an elected citizens commission charged with looking at every single complaint that has been filed,” said Councilman Brandon Betz. “People who are affected by white supremacy need to have a final say in what’s going on.”

Council Vice President Adam Hussain labeled outcomes of recent police complaints “troubling.” “When we take a look at improving our public safety response in Lansing, we have to include officer responsibility and methods of investigating citizen complaints as part of that,” he added.

Schor said he’s “open” to the concept of a new citizen board, but only if the Council takes action as “part of larger internal reviews examining our current system to determine future changes.”

“I’m all ears on this, but the Board of Police Commissioners is a citizen board. If we can strengthen their ability to hold individuals to account, it’s certainly something I’d be willing to entertain,” added Council President Peter Spadafore, who supports increased police oversight.

Research conducted by the ACLU shows that more than 75% of the nation’s largest cities, like Lansing, had adopted some type of police review board by 1997. Many, however, have been notoriously weak (and poorly funded) advisory bodies incapable of conducting their own investigations or handing down any consequences without consent of the police chief.

Their memberships can also carry inherent bias. Many boards are entirely appointed by mayors or other elected officials, which only works to narrow separation from city police departments. Even elected boards can quickly become politicized and bogged down by partisan agendas — which can make it difficult for cities like Lansing to create something independent of itself.

Betz would prefer to launch a new citizen board that operates independently from Schor’s office with members elected directly by Lansing residents. Spitzley and Jackson share similar ideals. Spadafore said he’d rather enhance existing checks and balances within the current structure.

“I don’t know if there’s a way to create true independence,” Spitzley added. “Even if citizens are elected in some way, it becomes political. If it’s appointed, that can also come off as political. I’m supportive of anything we can do to add some transparency and accountability to the process.”

Spitzley said she and the City Council will continue to form plans to bolster police oversight through the Council’s newest Committee on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. Betz would prefer to dismantle the Police Department altogether, but also supports more oversight in the meantime.

“This is a conversation that we’ll need to continue to have regardless,” Betz added. “Even with a reimagined public safety force, there will still need to be oversight in that department, and the only way to do that is with a charter change and to create a truly independent commission.”

Jackson successfully pushed a budget priority through the City Council this week that could also eventually lead to local cops’ carrying business cards that outline the citizen complaint process. Jackson said his concept, if approved by Schor’s office, would make the existing system visible.

2016 - 2020 Complaints to Lansing Police Department

A total of 139 complaints were logged between Jan. 1, 2016, and May 2020 for various policy violations, including unbecoming conduct, unsatisfactory performance and other misconduct.

At least 17 of those misconduct complaints — or about 12% — were at least partially sustained, resulting in at least five officers who resigned or retired in lieu of termination. At least 11 received counseling, written reprimands or verbal warnings. One officer received a 30-hour suspension.

Another 17 complaints — or about 12% — involved documented accusations of discrimination. Only one was sustained against the accused officer, but her suspension was later reversed.

LPD Officers with Sustained Complaints (2016-2020)

Detention Officer Elizabeth Barnhill

Undercover Officer (Redacted)

Officer Brandon Russell

Det. John Chamberlin

Sgt. Charles Funk (Resigned)

Officer Brian Whitsett 

Written Reprimand for Unsatisfactory Performance and Rule Violations

Officer Dalton Reust (Resigned)

Officer Benjamin Hovarter (Resigned)

Officer Alan Berish (Retired)

Officer Trevor Arnold

School Resource Officer Matt Priebe (Resigned)

Officer Leonel Rangel

Officer Lindsey Howley

Officer Bailey Ueberroth

Officer Adam Walter

Listings of Complaints by Dates

2/22/16

Detention Officer Elizabeth Barnhill received a verbal warning for violating departmental policies after she mistakenly gave away one inmate’s property to the wrong person before he was released. All told, the man lost about $500 in electronics, his checkbook and his wallet — with $32 in cash — after the person that received his belongings later tossed them into a field.

Cops later sought criminal larceny charges against the person who received the belongings.

3/11/16 

An undercover officer (whose name was redacted because he is still employed with the Lansing Police Department) was forced to go through counseling for unsatisfactory performance after he lost a suspect’s wallet during a traffic stop. Reports state the officer set a man’s wallet on the back of his cruiser, where it presumably rolled off into the street before he took the man to jail.

All told, the man claimed to have lost his Social Security card and more than $400 in cash was never be found. The officer was ordered to go through mandatory counseling.

5/23/16 

Officer Brandon Russell received a written reprimand for unsatisfactory performance after he had a man’s legally parked car unnecessarily towed from in front of another man’s home. Reports state the car’s owner had confronted Russell. Russell said “go talk to a judge about it” before having it towed away. Internal investigators, after receiving a complaint, later discovered the car had been parked legally and the Police Department paid $140 to have the car released.

7/21/16

Det. John Chamberlin received a written reprimand for unsatisfactory performance after he reportedly failed to follow through on an assault investigation that sat on his desk for months. Reports state prosecutors had tried and failed to reach Chamberlin to discuss a criminal case for several weeks before they were forced to adjourn a criminal trial related to the investigation. Ultimately, internal investigators found that Chamberlin didn’t exercise “due diligence” to complete the investigation and logged a written reprimand into his departmental personnel file.

8/8/16

Sgt. Charles Funk resigned following multiple sustained misconduct violations related to breaking both law and departmental policy, including issues like dishonesty and insubordination. Records state Fink was involved in a traffic crash involving a man in a wheelchair and “may have failed to report it.” No additional details were listed in city records regarding the incident.

Funk filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against the Police Department, which was revived last month after a state appeals court ressurected Funk’s complaints of retaliation against the city. Funk argues that a hostile work environment led to his resignation. The case is still pending.

10/29/16

Officer Brian Whitsett received a written reprimand for violating departmental policies and unsatisfactory performance after he allegedly botched a roadside traffic crash investigation. Records state Whitsett arrived at the scene but never exited his car or inspected the damage. Upon an internal review, video footage could not be located. A report filed by Whitsett also included inaccurate information. No additional details were listed in city records on the incident.

11/22/16

Officer Dalton Reust resigned following several sustained misconduct violations, including unbecoming conduct and using alcohol while in uniform — or in this case holding his badge.

Reports state Reust took an off-duty trip to Lou & Harry’s Bar before getting rowdy, calling a woman a "bitch" and kicking a glass full of beer over employees that were asking him to leave. Reust was eventually escorted out, but not before he reportedly flashed his badge and told staff: “I’m going to see you again.” No additional details were listed in city records about this incident.

10/9/17

Officer Benjamin Hovarter resigned following a sustained report of unsatisfactory performance. Reports state Hovarter arrested a woman for domestic assault based on a call from her husband (who was not present at the time) and did not interview any on-scene witnesses — which “most fit” the criteria of unsatisfactory performance, investigators found.

11/7/17

Officer Alan Berish retired in lieu of termination following a sustained discourtesy violation. Reports state Berish had been inordinately rude to two technicians on a Michigan State Police helpline, later calling back to apologize for his “unprofessional” and “disrespectful” demeanor. He retired instead of facing consequences. No additional details were listed in city records.

11/14/17

Officer Trevor Arnold was referred to counseling after a sustained violation of departmental rules. Reports state Arnold searched a homeless woman for narcotics while en route to a Volunteers of America office. The woman claimed Arnold pulled over beneath a bridge and instructed her to remove her underwear and spread her buttocks in the back of his patrol car.

In an interview with internal investigators, Arnold acknowledged the search but said the woman was never exposed in any way and that he views the report as a “false complaint” against him — part of an orchestrated effort to discredit his community policing efforts within the city. Ultimately, investigators were unable to prove or disprove the complaint. No other details were provided in the report except to note that Arnold was counseled for violating departmental rules.

1/1/18

School Resource Officer Matt Priebe resigned following sexual assault allegations from students at Eastern High School. Reports state students complained about Priebe before he was immediately placed on administrative leave and investigated by the Michigan State Police.

Ultimately, internal investigators identified sustained complaints of unbecoming conduct, non-conformance to state laws and policy violations with processing property and evidence. Priebe later pleaded no contest to five criminal charges in connection to three separate victims, including criminal sexual conduct against a minor, two counts of assault and misconduct in office. He was sentenced last year to one year in jail and has since been released from custody.

5/14/18 

Officer Brandon Russell, also cited in a 2016 complaint, received a 20-hour suspension for “unbecoming conduct.” Reports state Russell reportedly spent more time "hitting" on a woman at a crime scene rather than actually interviewing witnesses and collecting evidence. Russell also reportedly called the woman to ask what type of perfume she was wearing after she went home.

Unsatisfactory performance was not sustained. No other details were provided in the report.

9/17/18 

Officer Leonel Rangel was referred to counseling following a sustained discourtesy violation stemming from an incident at a Dollar General store. Reports state the store’s staff was suspicious of a man who had fallen asleep while looking at a container of Tide pods inside.

Rangel later found the man asleep in his parked car, where he reportedly treated the man more as a criminal than someone who was just tired from a few long shifts at work. Reports state he called the man and his wife “dope fiends” and treated them in a generally disrespectful manner.

Video footage was reviewed. Internal investigators recommended Rangel undergo counseling.

10/1/18 

An undercover officer (whose name was redacted because he is still employed with the Lansing Police Department) received a written reprimand for a departmental rule violation after he pulled up on a man who was riding a bicycle, swung open his door and struck the man to the ground.

Internal investigators, after reviewing the video, labeled the incident as “unintentional” and cleared an alleged charge of excessive force. The officer, however, was still cited for violating departmental policies. No additional details were provided about the incident in city records.

10/9/18

Officer Leonel Rangel, who was cited twice in 2018, received a written reprimand for a sustained departmental rule violation for reportedly unprofessional conduct with a crime victim. Reports state a woman felt “harassed” by Rangel, including one “rude and unprofessional” incident where he reportedly approached her about a past crime while she was at the hospital. Very few details about the incident are available in city records. Internal investigators ultimately cleared Rangel of excessive force and discourtesy issues but found a sustained rule violation.

6/14/19 

Officers Bailey Ueberroth and Lindsey Howley were each accused of excessive force after a teenager’s arrest last year. Video footage showed Howley, who is white, repeatedly punched a handcuffed teenager, who is Black, in the upper leg before loading her into her patrol car.

Officials said Howley was suspended for three days and received additional training. Officials and records show Ueberroth, Howley’s partner, received a simple written reprimand. Records also show Howley’s suspension was entirely reversed upon appeal filed earlier this year.

1/12/20 

Officers Bailey Ueberroth and Adam Walter each received counseling following a sustained instance of unsatisfactory performance. Records state a woman claimed to be the victim of a domestic assault, but both officers asked her to leave the scene and refused to fill out a police report. Both officers received subsequent training. No other details were listed in city records

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