WEDNESDAY, Sept. 15 — An independent review of the policies and procedures at the Lansing Police Department pointed to a litany of concerns regarding inadequate staffing, low morale among local cops and issues regarding police transparency and accountability.
In the wake of widespread unrest in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder last summer, Mayor Andy Schor mandated a “comprehensive, community-driven, independent review” on all Police Department policies and procedures — including on the use of force, de-escalation techniques, bias-free policing, accountability, oversight, community engagement and more. As part of that review, the Legal Solutions Law Firm solicited input from a wide range of Greater Lansing residents, governmental officials, interest groups, activists, attorneys and journalists (including City Pulse publisher Berl Schwartz). The findings were released yesterday in a 47-page report. News stories and editorials from City Pulse were referenced at least seven times in the footnotes of the review.
Here are some of the key takeaways:
At night, no more than 10 officers are on the streets of Lansing at any given time, investigators found. This level of service has resulted in “prolonged” response times and, in some instances, has even resulted in callers being told that no officers were available to respond to 911 calls.
Only four of the 12 community police officer positions in Lansing are filled. Staffing shortages have also forced those officers to leave their assigned communities for road patrol.
The Police Department also relies heavily — perhaps too heavily — on mutual aid from other law enforcement agencies, particularly for “serious” crimes like shootings, according to the report. Investigators recommended expediting the hiring process to bring more cops to Lansing.
“The current lack of fulfillment of these slots is a detriment to the full potential and efficacy of the city’s community police officers and their admirable efforts,” according to the recent report.
Additionally, very few officers are equipped to handle certain specialized services, like fingerprinting, which could lead to a dearth in services if staffing shortages continue. The report also specifically cites concerns about a single detective being responsible for 80 cold cases. (A cover story in City Pulse inspired former Mayor Virg Bernero to create a position to review cold cases.)
“Progress in units such as this will remain slow to the detriment of victims and their families, and in the event the detective is unavailable, services may remain at a standstill,” the report reads.
Additionally, many employees cited dissatisfaction with the minimum shift length of 10 hours.
One employee, Bob Merritt, is largely tasked with handling media inquiries to the Police Department. And according to the results of the review, Merritt hasn’t exactly been living up to expectations. The report “identified a sizable constituency that questions whether the department’s main point of contact, the Office of the Public Information Director, is being sufficiently effective,” it reads.
The report also recommends that the Police Department endeavor to make officials more available for public comment in “every possible way” in order to “further establish a culture of rapid transparency and build trust.” In the past, media requests have been ignored altogether.
“If media requests or other requests for public comments are not responded to in a timely fashion, the department risks incomplete information being aired in the public square,” the report found. “Worse, if media requests or others requests for public comment are not responded to at all, the public may draw incorrect conclusions that the department does not possess the requested information, or, most concerningly, does not place informing the public at a premium.”
Merritt and other departmental leaders should also be providing a regular flow of information on police activity on a more periodic basis to ensure that the public stays informed, the report recommended. In direct response, Schor said he plans to begin releasing weekly arrest logs.
More than 13% of the households in Lansing speak a language other than English while at home. Officers should try to build more trust within those communities, the report found.
The report recommended that officers continue to collaborate with community members to develop policies and strategies in neighborhoods that are disproportionately affected by crime.
That includes continuing to eliminate “needless conflict points” like stopping drivers for secondary traffic infractions that might not pose a genuine threat to public safety. Those stops might help cops find contraband, but because they have a disparate impact on Black residents, those stops have also created a lasting animosity within the community, according to the report.
It also recommends that cops find ways to stop badgering and start helping residents with things like diversion programs, warnings and citations in lieu of arrest for certain minor infractions.
George Floyd’s murder triggered one of the “largest mass mobilizations” of unrest in history, leading to a violent protest in downtown Lansing on May 31 last year. Tear gas was deployed on crowds without warning. Investigators found that a lack of an immediate show of force may have contributed to vandalism. The review also cited widespread dissatisfaction with the tear gas and heavy-handed response with a general need to improve police responses to demonstrations.
The report advises that officers minimize the appearance of a military-style operation and eliminate provocative tactics and equipment (like tear gas) that can undermine civilian trust.
The report recommends the Police Department continue to release information on allegations of misconduct against its officers. It also recommended that those public reports be expanded to also include a short summary that encapsulates each incident and subsequent investigation.
Local stakeholders have not been persuaded that the complaint review process is fully transparent or effective, the report found. Recommendations also included the creation of a new citizen review board that could provide additional oversight on complaints against officers. The current reporting system allows for witnesses to be called and evidence to be collected to corroborate each complaint, but that authority is rarely exercised within the Police Department.
Nearly everyone that contributed to the review supported the long-standing requirement that officers wear body cameras. Very few (if any) voiced any concern about how they’re being used. The report simply recommends that local officers continue to ensure the technology is reliable.
More training was recommended for non-lethal weapons like stun guns, which can only be deployed in very limited circumstances, such as when someone is in imminent threat of harm.
The report also advised top officials to continue seeking specialized expertise and routine training in areas like implicit bias on de-escalation tactics. Cops should also be prepared to measure the effectiveness of the training and only continue with what produces benefits.
A key note: “Many actual training efforts are hamstrung by a lack of suitable facilities.”
Tensions are still high between police and the communities they serve. As such, the report recommends more opportunities for local cops to engage with mental health services, nutrition training and financial counseling. A “sizeable” level of dissatisfaction and low morale was reported among officers. Many of them cited high stress levels and traumatic experiences, particularly among detention officers working within the lock-up beneath Lansing City Hall.
The report also cites a lack of “cohesive culture” within the department, in part because officers are dissatisfied with the large role that politics seems to play in budget and policy decisions.
The report also cited “immense challenges” posed by existing Police Department facilities, including the lock-up and police offices attached to City Hall. Some roofs are leaking. Some areas contain fire hazards or have issues with heating and cooling. The lack of first-rate facilities sends a “suboptimal message to the public” as the department is trying to improve community relations. The city’s cramped and outdated downtown facilities also present parking and accessibility issues with the public — all things that could be improved with a police station.
Click here to read the report in its entirety and check back for continued coverage on the topic.