Three years of records detailing complaints filed against officers at the Lansing Police Department will remain hidden from public view after city officials blocked their release in a recent Freedom of Information Act request.
The Lansing City Attorney’s office last week shot down a City Pulse request to review any complaints of misconduct among city police officers — and the records to show they were handled — dating back to 2016. An appeal was also denied.
“A blanket release of all information subjects the city to legal action or could subject us to an unfair labor practice,” explained Mayor Andy Schor. “I will not put the city in a questionable legal position through a broad release of employee personnel information that violates our policies and their rights of our city employees.”
In May, City Pulse sought to review any complaints of officer misconduct at the Police Department since 2016, along with records to show how those internal investigations were handled. That was more than a month before an officer repeatedly struck a teenage girl and was placed on administrative leave amid an ongoing internal probe.
Since then, Police Chief Michael Yankowski has called for a renewed sense of transparency within his department. Citizens have rallied against police brutality and the disproportionate rate at which people of color are targeted within the criminal justice system. Some have also pushed for more public accountability.
“We expect more from our local police force and we will not allow this to be covered up and swept under the rug.” said Joan Waters-Austin, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter chapter in Lansing, during a recent demonstration organized in front of Lansing City Hall. “Police policing themselves will never lead to justice.”
But the results of that probe — along with an unnamed number of other reported incidents of misconduct — will only be retold through the lens of the Police Department and the city officials with inside access to the investigations. The complaints and reports themselves are entitled to a heavy degree of privacy, officials decided.
“I share as much as I can with the public and have been very transparent during my tenure as police chief,” Yankowski added. “Recent examples validate that. Final determination is balanced by the rights of our officers and employees as well as our collective bargaining agreement, so we will follow our policies and the law.”
City officials opted to withhold all misconduct records in their entirety without exception.
The reason given: Lansing’s interest in maintaining the privacy of those records outweighs the public’s interest in their release. Besides, some of those investigations rely on internal cooperation. A public spotlight might make that difficult.
“If an incident arises and we feel that we need to release information proactively for the public good, then we do so,” Schor said in response to the request, noting that the city’s appointed Board of Police Commissioners and its independent investigator also provide “significant citizen oversight” through publicly accessible meetings.
Under the City Charter, the City Council president could have overturned the denial and provided whatever records she saw fit to release upon City Pulse’ appeal. But the Council’s current president, Carol Wood, declined to do on Monday afternoon.
“I really wish I could’ve been more helpful here,” Wood added. “Our hands are tied on this one.”
The issue of publicly releasing police misconduct reports has been repeatedly litigated across the country. Laws in some states exempt them from release. Others give discretion to the individual agencies. In Michigan, they’re only considered exempt if the agency determines that its own departmental privacy outweighs public interest.
And that’s Lansing’s tack: “Such investigations require the cooperation and information provided by employees. Should such information be disclosed, it would have a chilling effect upon internal investigations,” officials said.
After a black teenager was repeatedly struck by a white Lansing Police Department officer last month during a controversial arrest on Dakin Street, local activists (particularly those within the Black Lives Matter movement) have called for departmental change. And they weren’t too pleased to hear about the latest move from the city.
“There’s no time in recent history that LPD transparency was more important than now. The community is fearful, angry and trust is waning fast,” said Michael Lynn Jr., a firefighter suing the city over alleged and unrelated racism. “This refusal is dangerous, irresponsible and gives the optics that there is something to hide.”
Lynn is also the co-founder of Lansing Residents United, a “group of concerned citizens united with one common goal, to create positive change in our city,” according to a Facebook page dedicated to the group.
“This is exactly what I’ve been trying to avoid,” Lynn added. “I’ve tried to communicate to the powers that be how important this is, time and time again. They’ve been listening but obviously, they aren’t hearing us.”
The ACLU of Michigan in 2016 filed a lawsuit against the East Lansing Police Department on behalf of Michigan State University student Evan Stivers over a similar request for citizen police complaints. While a ruling was never reached, officials there agreed to release those complaints immediately upon public request.
“Without the ability to hold officers and their departments accountable for their actions, the number of cases involving law enforcement misconduct and abuse of power will only grow,” according to an ACLU release published shortly after the settlement in the Stivers case. Calls to the ACLU were not returned for this story.
An attorney at the Michigan Press Association said state law allows for personnel records of law enforcement officers to be shielded from public release, but only if city officials can appropriately balance public interest with their perceived right to privacy. It’s an argument that can usually only be fully resolved in the courtroom.