Top cops from across Greater Lansing are defending an “overtly racist” criminal charge and spreading fear-based misinformation about recent policy changes in the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office, Prosecuting Attorney Carol Siemon said in an interview this week.
“It’s important that people are able to freely articulate their thoughts and feelings, even if I don’t particularly like them,” Siemon said. “But what’s disturbing is that I don’t think there was an accurate reflection of the policies. This was a quick, visceral, emotional response to an idea.”
Two new policies announced at Siemon’s office have fundamentally changed the way several criminal charges are filed across Ingham County. They also triggered a firestorm of criticism from several white police chiefs, led by Sheriff Scott Wriggelsworth.
Wriggelsworth — who has long maintained that structural racism and implicit biases do not exist within the ranks of the Sheriff’s Department — organized two press conference protests to push back against the policies, which he has labeled “garbage.” Lansing City Councilwoman Carol Wood has also since called on Siemon to consider resigning before her term expires in 2024.
One of the newly adjusted policies in Siemon’s office directs her staff to deny warrant requests for possession of drugs, stolen property and illegal firearms during traffic stops initiated by police officers solely for minor, unrelated infractions like illegal window tints or broken tail lights.
Siemon said cops have been known to use those low-level crimes — which she labels as “pretextual stops” — as reasons to pursue other charges unrelated to the initial stop. The policy calls those encounters “fishing expeditions” that have disproportionately targeted Black people.
The other policy shift dictates that those arrested in Ingham County for crimes that involve guns will no longer be charged with a separate two-year felony count for possession of a firearm in commission of a crime — except in “the most extreme circumstances,” according to the policy.
Like the first, this policy is also designed to reduce the racially disparate impact that felony firearm charges have had on Black people. The companion felony charge carries an additional minimum two-year prison stint; About 80% of those sentenced for it in Ingham County are Black.
Siemon said the shift will help curb inherent racial discrimination that exists within the criminal justice system while also allowing prosecutors to focus on the more severe criminal charges that usually coincide with that companion charge for using a firearm in commission of another crime.
Underlying charges like robbery or home invasion have not been impacted by the new changes.
“It can feel counterintuitive to reign in any criminal charge that involves a gun. I get that emotional reaction for sure. But this is a race equity issue and does not actually involve public safety and protecting people,” Siemon said. “I just wish people would do their research on this.”
Interim Lansing Police Chief Ellery Sosebee attended both of Wriggelsworth’s recent press conferences. Afterward, he told the Lansing State Journal that criminals will see the reforms on felony firearm prosecution “as a free pass to carry weapons illegally without consequence.”
Siemon labeled Sosebee’s take as “misinformation.”
“If this charge didn’t work to deter them before, it’s probably not going to change anything,” Siemon said. “It’s not giving them a free pass. If someone carries a weapon and commits a crime, we’re still going after them. Someone charged with assault — or any charge where we tack on the felony firearm charge — will still be charged with that bigger, underlying offense.”
Illegally carrying a concealed weapon is a separate criminal charge that will still be pursued, Siemon emphasized. The key difference: Prosecutors don’t plan to tack on another felony charge that carries a mandatory two-year prison term to run consecutively with the initial crime.
“It’s overtly racist. Maybe it wasn’t designed that way, but that’s the impact,” Siemon explained. “We need to develop trust so people are willing to talk to the police and share information. If you don’t trust the police, then you don’t talk to them. If it has been the policy of the police to just stop a lot of Black and brown young men and search their vehicles, allegedly with their consent, then that doesn’t help. The damage is that people don’t see police as providing for their safety.”
She added: “There’s no deterrent effect to that law. The idea is to toughen up penalties and then people won’t commit the crime. Well, that just doesn’t play out. That’s not how it works. Most people act impulsively or do not expect to get caught. Deterrence is a vastly overrated purpose for harsher penalties. In this case, it’s just totally ineffective in serving as a deterrent for crime.”
Wriggelsworth plainly disagreed with Siemon’s assessment, arguing that an additional two-year prison sentence for anyone who brings a gun to a crime scene can be a natural crime stopper. Besides, those who choose to bring a gun deserve the harsher punishment, he told City Pulse.
“I completely understand her argument. I just completely disagree with it,” Wriggelsworth said. “I really don’t want this to be a sheriff-prosecutor battle. It’s the public’s job to push back against this policy. It’s the victims of gun violence that need to be speaking out against this policy.”
He added: “Criminals should be held accountable if they commit a crime and choose to bring a gun. Turning the cheek to felony firearm charges or ignoring them in most cases makes zero sense. The price of this policy, in my opinion, comes in the form of bullet holes and body bags. We’re in the midst of a gun violence crisis in our community, and this is not a solution to that.”
Miriam Krinsky is the founder and executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, a nationwide nonprofit organization that brings together newly elected prosecutors to help promote a justice system grounded in fairness, equity, compassion and fiscal responsibility. She also served for 15 years as a federal prosecutor and worked as an assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles.
Siemon’s latest reforms are hardly novel concepts, she said. Dozens of prosecutors have implemented similar measures to ban arrests for low-level offenses or use unarmed civilians to handle minor traffic infractions. Washtenaw County prosecutors have also crafted a similar policy to prevent unrelated criminal charges from being filed based solely on minor traffic stops.
And resistance from law enforcement to those reforms is an unfortunate commonality, she said.
“Law enforcement can be wedded to a past way of doing things and simply not realize that things like mandatory enhancements or additional charges and penalties just aren’t needed,” Krinsky said. “They exacerbate racial disparities and they don’t make our communities any safer. And the racial disparities that we’ve seen have led to bonds of trust being fractured.”
Krinsky expects that local cops will eventually “back down” and recognize the necessity of Siemon’s latest reforms. And if not, it won’t matter too much. Only the prosecutor decides whether those arrested for felony charges will actually be charged with them in a courtroom.
“Maybe they all thought that we all had to agree before any changes, but I’m the prosecutor. I would prefer we be on the same page, but at some point I have to do what’s necessary,” Siemon said. “I’ve seen the horrors that go on in this world. I have a position right now where I have some power and leverage and an ethical and moral responsibility to do the right thing.”
In response to a candidate questionnaire, Wriggelsworth told City Pulse in October that “you can’t say all lives matter unless you believe black lives matter,” but otherwise said that he doesn’t believe structural racism or implicit biases exist within the ranks of his department.
East Lansing Police Chief Kim Johnson, Michigan State University Police Chief Marlon Lynch and Lansing Community College Police Chief Daryl Gaines — all of whom are Black — did not participate in either of Wriggelworth’s press conferences. None of them responded to calls.
“I don’t know if that was meant to be a message, but it certainly comes out that way,” Siemon added. “I think the sheriff is very sincere, and he has said that he doesn’t believe institutional racism exists at this department. If you have those underlying beliefs, that says something.”
East Lansing Mayor Jessie Gregg said that East Lansing has been working on its own series of police reforms and new policies geared toward racial equity. The city will not voice opposition.
“I’m not particularly interested in creating opposition between ourselves and the Prosecutor’s Office,” said East Lansing Mayor Jessie Gregg. “You’re not going to see us opposing any of these changes in a public way because I do think it’s more important that we work together.”
Added former East Lansing Mayor Aaron Stephens: “These changes are 100% within Carol Siemon’s purview. Over the last year, we’ve been working really hard on rethinking how we do public safety. The changes that she made were all kind of in line with those ongoing reforms.”
The Lansing Police Department is a different story. City records show that some city cops have ignored a policy issued last year that prohibits them from initiating traffic stops for defective equipment violations that are covered under Siemon’s new policy directives. Despite the edict from former Police Chief Daryl Green, more than 100 drivers were stopped for equipment violations between last July and Feb. 7, 2020 — the most recent city records available online.
The Lansing State Journal also identified at least 48 people in Lansing who have been charged with carrying a concealed weapon stemming from a traffic stop for a minor traffic infraction. Of those 48 arrests, 43 were Black people, most of them under age of 25 and from South Lansing.
Mayor Andy Schor — who has touted Green’s supposed policy reform on the campaign trail — said that he still expects cops to follow that policy, though he noted that he hasn’t personally reviewed each traffic stop since July to gauge whether the new rule was actually being followed.
A spokesman for the Lansing Police Department cryptically said that officers have a “reduced interest” in minor traffic infractions and “will no longer initiate” them within the city. He went on to clarify, however, that officers are legally entitled to continue conducting them as they see fit.
Sosebee has declined several interview requests from City Pulse since he took over the job.
Schor encouraged residents to report cops who violate those policies to the Police Department.
Those complaints, however, rarely lead to discipline. A City Pulse investigation last year found that of the 139 complaints publicly released since 2016, only 17 led to a reprimand. Most were verbal or written warnings. Some involved counseling. Five cops resigned in lieu of termination.
Schor also declined to say whether Sosebee was paid to attend the recent press conferences.
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