FRIDAY, April 17 — The Lansing Police Department plans to ramp up enforcement efforts should protests continue to involve social distancing violations and gridlock in the capital city.
Some officials in Lansing were roundly disappointed by a lack of meaningful enforcement of social distancing mandates on Wednesday during “Operation Gridlock.” Hundreds of demonstrators left their cars, refused to socially distance and clearly violated state orders.
And none of the blatant violations this week resulted in any actual legal consequences in Lansing. The Michigan State Police took a largely hands-off approach; LPD didn’t issue a single citation.
In response, Lansing Mayor Andy Schor announced today that additional precautions will be taken for future demonstrations after many of those who participated in the rally “put the safety of residents, first responders and their respective communities at risk,” Schor said.
“The hands-off approach didn’t seem to curb dangerous behavior,” explained City Council President Peter Spadafore. “While I hope there aren’t future events like this, we really do need to have a more thorough plan in place to enforce the law and protect our citizens out there.”
“We’re Lansing. We’re used to protests. We know how to handle traffic problems. We know how to handle large crowds. It seems that all of that historical knowledge just went out the window this week,” Spadafore added. “There just wasn’t a coordinated plan to ensure safety.”
The Michigan State Police handled the State Capitol lawn, the epicenter of Wednesday’s protest. The Lansing Police Department, with some assistance from MSP, was responsible for monitoring the rest of the city, controlling traffic and ensuring the crowds played by the rules.
However, officers at either agency didn’t issue citations to anyone, even if they were in clear violation of the social distancing guidelines. Instead, the order of the day was about warnings.
MSP officials told MLive that the “extreme discretion approach” was based on a handful of factors, including protecting the right to gather and protest while balancing the potential arrest of dozens of protestors with an angry, cooped-up crowd that could've quickly become violent.
Police Chief Daryl Green insists that his officers did not follow the same protocol, noting that tickets could have been issued for distancing violations. His officers simply decided against it. But next time around, he’ll consider issuing a directive to ramp up enforcement against violators.
Green focused first on “actual physical public safety” — essentially ensuring crowds kept calm. And while hundreds were still warned about standing too close together, none were ticketed. The takeaway: Police could have been done more to protect residents. And next time, they will.
“This was unprecedented,” Green told City Pulse. “Moving forward, we’ll monitor these situations and take appropriate action as necessary. I can’t guarantee we’ll have 100 citations next time, but if we have an opportunity to take enforcement action, we’ll do it.”
Under new guidance from the mayor’s office, the Police Department has been directed to seek out additional assistance from other law enforcement agencies in the region for future protests. Officers will also watch for social distancing violations with a closer eye, Schor explained today.
“Knowing that this is going to happen again, that there are plans for more protests, we always review what we can do and what works and what doesn’t work,” Schor added. “We can always make adjustments, especially for these new styles of precautions that must be taken.”
Schor said Lansing was only prepared for a “normal protest” — not a gathering of thousands with gridlocked streets during an unprecedented lockdown order and a worldwide health crisis. In the future, traffic could also be restricted from some residential neighborhoods, Schor said.
At a press conference this afternoon, Schor said the city will also consider closing lanes near major hospitals to ensure access and working with the Michigan Department of Transportation to restrict highway access into Lansing.
“It was a different rally and a different protest than we’ve ever seen before,” Schor added. “Protesters had said they were going to be circling the Capitol. We really didn’t know the effects that would have on the rest of the city. We’re going to be ready for this new reality.”
Green knows that actual tickets and fines can serve as an important deterrent for those who choose to ignore the governor’s order on social distancing. A police presence — with real enforcement — also adds some teeth to the mandate, showing violations carry consequences.
But he also knows he needs to strike a delicate balance between protecting the public and his own staff. Every officer that comes into contact with someone to write a misdemeanor ticket risks further exposure to the virus, and the potential for at least 14 days off duty in quarantine.
“I understand that people want more tickets and they want more arrests, but every time we pull those officers, those resources, away for something like writing a ticket, our state of readiness goes down. We’re less prepared for something else that could take place,” Green said.
Hospital staff at both McLaren and Sparrow in Lansing also took to social media this week to complain about the gridlocked streets. Some emergency personnel were late to their shifts. A few ambulances were briefly delayed in traffic, but no other significant delays were reported.
Local streets were noisy and filled with racist imagery Wednesday. Noise ordinances might have been violated. Hundreds more had clearly crossed the governor’s social distancing mandates, endangering countless thousands across the state as they converged on Lansing.
Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail said officials are learning as they go, but she was pleased to see plans in the works for heavier handed enforcement for future demonstrations.
“Have we ever dealt with something like this before? Probably not,” Vail said. “This was new. We know how to handle protests. We know how to handle epidemics. We supposedly know how to handle pandemics. All of these conflating at one time? It’s just unprecedented.”
“I get allowing free speech. But people from all over the state traveled into Ingham County and interacted with all sorts of people here,” Vail added. “We have to have some sort of balance to the right of free speech and the right to protect our community under this executive order.”