Lansing mayor rolls out racial justice plan amid social unrest

Schor pledges to rethink policing as racial tensions flare in Lansing

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Click here to read the Racial Justice & Equity Community Action Proposals.

TUESDAY, June 16 — In the midst of a national movement geared toward racial justice and police reform, Lansing Mayor Andy Schor rolled out plans today for a more socially equitable future in the capital city. But exactly how that will pan out still depends largely on input from the rest of the community, he said.

“We’re listening. We know that there are issues and we’re formulating action steps,” Schor told City Pulse in a live interview. “This is the time to address these issues. We’re in a state of heightened awareness right now among all citizens. This is a time to listen, and this is only just the start.”

George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis ignited a national uprising against police brutality and the disproportionate rate at which cops across the country systematically target and kill people of color. Lansing was no exception to the fervor. Protests occur daily. Residents want change.

Schor announced the city’s first concrete response to the recent unrest in the form of a one-page document titled “Racial Justice and Equity Community Action Proposals.” He said he recognizes that it’s still only just an outline, but hopes it’ll give birth to broad reforms in Lansing.

Among the more significant steps detailed in Schor’s latest proposal are plans for the city to hire a diversity officer and to initiate Lansing’s first diversity, equity and inclusion plan — including an “environmental scan,” with help from Teresa Bingman, a local lawyer and municipal consultant.

The idea: Review policies and procedures, spot weaknesses and implement solutions, he said.

The mayor’s appointed Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council pitched the diversity officer to Schor more than six months ago. After sitting idle for months, the plan will be finalized this year.

Bingman will also help assess and coordinate additional racial bias training for the Mayor’s Office — and eventually all city departments — as part of a sort of racial equity master plan.

And despite demands from the Lansing chapter of Black Lives Matter, local protest organizer Paul Birdsong and dozens of other critics, Schor has no plans to resign from office. Absent a recall, it seems activists and community organizations will have to work with Schor for changes.

“The answer was no. I plan to continue to do my work for the city of Lansing.” Schor said, responding to calls to resign. “We have to figure out what the community wants. There is some systemic work that can be done. I think we’re in a decent place, but there is still work to do.”

Lansing Police Chief Daryl Green doesn’t think George Floyd would have been killed in Lansing.

“When that situation happened in Minneapolis, we kind of went into defense mode. It wasn’t our department. The first thought was this couldn’t happen here in Lansing,” Green said. “I still don’t believe it could happen here. I believe our officers would’ve stood up and intervened to stop it.”

Schor pledged this week to reaffirm existing police policies geared toward deescalating violence, exhausting non-lethal alternatives and reviewing all instances of police force.

President Barack Obama’s mayoral pledge calls for reviewing use of force policies, engaging the community for a diverse range of input, publicly reporting that feedback and enacting meaningful change — all efforts that Green and Schor recognize have already been in place.

“Some of it is in practice. Some of it is in policy,” Schor said. “We’re now putting it all into policy.”

Another mayoral pledge agrees to eight specific police reforms from 8cantwait.org that include banning chokeholds and strangleholds, de-escalation training for officers and a mandate that officers exhaust non-lethal alternatives — and verbally warn — before using any lethal force.

It also calls for a comprehensive review and enhanced reporting on all instances of police force.

Green, however, said Lansing has largely had those protocols in place for years, in addition to a host of meaningful, hands-on training for racial equity and eliminating racial biases in policing. Cops in Lansing are also already hired, in part, based on their ability to empathize, Green said.

“I think we’re already a lot more progressive than a lot of agencies,” Green added. “But this is still an opportunity for us at the Lansing Police Department to get our systems and policies and training and people together to produce a better product in how we serve this community.”

But how do you repair a local system that, perhaps in large part, doesn’t need too much fixing? And what role does the Lansing Police Department play in a national overhaul of public safety?

“That’s a good question,” Schor said. “There’s always more work that can be done.”

Over 17 years of reporting racial demographics from traffic stops, the Lansing Police Department has never recognized a problem with racial profiling — even while statistics have often shown a higher proportion of minority drivers stopped and searched nearly every year.

“There is no clear evidence that would suggest systematic problems with when, how and against whom LPD officers enforce traffic laws. Likewise, there is no evidence that officers are systematically using traffic stops as a pretext for biased policing practices,” city reports state.

Reports released last year, for example, show that of those that came in contact with the LPD in 2017, 34% were black, compared to 24% of the city population, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. White drivers accounted for 49% of traffic stops despite representing 61% of the city.

And about 10% of stops listed the race of the driver as “not apparent,” records showed.

Also, black drivers in Lansing were involved in about 54% of all searches (and with 56% of discovered contraband) conducted by LPD in 2017, compared to just 34% for white drivers. Additionally, about 35% of those traffic stops involved those between the ages of 20 and 29.

LPD officials have suggested that although searches are disproportionately involving black suspects in Lansing, it is “improbable” that driver demographics will match the population anyway. And those searches all have “clear justification” and are often tied to another crime.

Still, LPD continues “to see no pattern of problematic behavior of LPD officers — notably, no evidence of ‘racial profiling’ — emerging from these (sic) data,” according to the latest report. Schor insisted this week that nothing seemed “out of whack” in traffic stop demographic reports. Green said Lansing has one of the largest regional training budgets, remains at the forefront of a wildly effective “community policing” model and reviews every allegation of officer misconduct.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement, Green explained. The community is upset for a reason. And it’ll take some “frank discussions” to get to the root of the issue, he said.

“We already view our policies and procedures to be progressive, but it was humbling in a sense that we can still do better,” Green added. “No matter if we’re ahead of the curve when looking at other departments, it doesn’t mean we need to work hard and make sure this doesn’t happen.”

Part of Schor’s latest proposal also outlines plans for enhanced “police reconciliation” training later this year, which takes a humanity-centered approach with community involvement and includes a clear emphasis on how various police techniques inherently harm black communities.

Green doesn’t necessarily believe more training is the answer, he said, but it certainly can’t hurt.

Longer term city plans call for continued community input, as well as a deeper look at the budget amid a growing call to “defund” police departments nationwide. Schor isn’t opposed to reallocating resources and services, he explained, but also isn’t quite prepared to make cuts.

It’ll also take a lengthy discussion with the City Council before broader changes can take effect.

“It’s a matter of where we put our resources to do effective policing,” Schor said. “If we find there are other agencies that can do this, and we do need less policing, then I’m open to the conversation. I’m not saying one way or the other. I’m saying this is a community conversation.”

By the time you read this, calls to “defund the police” from across the country, including in Lansing, will have passed through 80 rounds of media filters, and as many rounds of backlash.

Media gatekeepers hastily declared that protesters don’t really mean “defund” the police and insisted that it’s simply a shock slogan meant to jolt the system into reform. This came as a surprise to angry and sorrowful citizens who were calling for just that: Dismantling the police.

Fed up with a law enforcement system they see as rotten to the core and designed from Day 1 to hunt down, control and murder black Americans, more thoughtful people than ever are saying that it’s time for a sweeping reset. The idea is just beginning, but two general aims are clear.

The first is to “reduce contact between the public and police,” according to anti-criminalization organizer Mariame Kaba, who suggested this can be accomplished through dramatic budget reductions, forcing police to skip routine traffic stops and minor infractions that often turn violent.

The second goal, advocates contend, is repurposing police budgets for basic human needs and services, from health to housing to education, desperately needed in underserved communities. Added City Councilman Brandon Betz: “Instead of increasing spending on punitive approaches, we need to address the root causes of poverty and crime by investing in our people.”

Schor’s proposal makes no mention of divestment, but suggests budget adjustments may be necessary regarding a “resource allocation” for enforcement, services and a “social safety net.”

LPD takes between 85,000 and 100,000 calls annually, officials said. And many of them don’t require a badge and gun to show up on the scene. Green said uniformed officers are not always an appropriate response for calls involving mental illness, substance abuse and homelessness.

Lansing is a regional standout for hiring a licensed social worker to join its police department, but even still, she’s only one person. And without police officers and a more robust “social safety net” to provide support for residents, many calls could be left unanswered through divestment.

“After midnight, we’re often the only show in town to respond,” Green said. “A lot of these other issues have been put on the backs of police departments. It’s not a crime to have a mental illness or to be homeless, but we’re responding to those issues because people are calling.”

“Right now, the infrastructure to address those issues otherwise just isn’t there,” he added.

Police officers nationwide have been expected to fill the void left by shrinking mental health services. Studies show that up to 20% of U.S. police encounters involve people with mental health or alcoholism. An astonishing one in four people with mental illness have been arrested.

Reformers have called for “unbundling” these services from law enforcement. Betz has voiced plans to force a priority shift through at least a 10% budget cut for police. Council President Peter Spadafore, for instance, is even bouncing the idea of renaming the Police Department as the “Public Service Department” to encompass police, fire, mental health and other services.

“It’s a small change from a semantics perspective,” Spadafore added. “We’re still always going to have the need for patrols and investigations, but we need to look closely at these calls that are coming in. The mental health and welfare checks don’t always require an officer with a gun.”

The CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) program in Eugene, Oregon — as an example — dispatches medics and mental health counselors to people who need help, including the homeless. The program reportedly accepts more than 20% of local 911 calls.

Responders are trained in crisis management, de-escalation and do not carry guns. Program coordinator Ben Brubaker told NPR earlier this month that the program saves the Eugene Police Department about $15 million annually by diverting calls that would otherwise go to patrol cops.

In Lansing, salaries and benefits account for a whopping $37.3 million, or about 80% of the Police Department’s $46.5 million budget. Training and equipment accounts for most of the remaining annual expenses. Green said jobs would be lost if funding was slashed too quickly.

“There will always be a need for police, particularly for violent crime. But what I think we’re hearing now is that society wants to see some of these functions addressed in a different way,” Green said. “I think a frank discussion is important. The infrastructure still needs to be built.”

Part of those discussions will involve talking to residents who often expect a speedy and uniformed response for often minor issues — and some that cops aren’t equipped to handle.

“A lot of times, the community calls the police for issues that aren’t really police issues,” Green said. “Part of this is having a discussion about what officers should and should not respond to.”

Green said his department is already reviewing calls to get a better sense of what types of encounters might be better handled through other community agencies like the Community Mental Health Authority of Clinton, Eaton and Ingham Counties or another service provider.

“In Lansing, people expect an officer to physically respond to the scene. Is it always necessary? I don’t know. Maybe that changes,” Green said. “Residents need to understand that our forces are limited and that we’re also trying our best to mitigate any potentially negative interactions.”

The mayor’s Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council plans to host a town hall “listening session” later this month to gather more community feedback. The Police Board of Commissioners will also facilitate more community dialogue on policies guiding use of force.

To demonstrate commitment to the reforms, the Lansing City Council is expected to follow Ingham County officials in declaring racism a public health crisis in the city later this month. Additional “listening sessions” will also be scheduled through the City Council, officials said.

In the meantime, a web page will be made available soon on the city’s website that includes statistics on crime and policing, a programmatic budget breakdown, a listing of various social service agencies and how they’re funded and details about “economic mobility” work in Lansing.

“This is a community conversation,” Schor added. “We want to bring all voices to the table.”

Staff writer Lawrence Cosentino contributed to this report

 

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