Changes to East Lansing’s police oversight commission powers leave members dissatisfied

City Council approves seven amendments to an ordinance that establishes its role


(This story has been updated to correct misinformation in a previous version that misstated the number of members of the East Lansing Independent Police Oversight Commission. The correct number is 11.)

THURSDAY, March 21 — Members of the East Lansing Independent Police Oversight Commission expressed dissatisfaction at changes by the City Council that they say weakened the panel’s authority.

“ELIPOC is not and should not be an advisory commission,” Vice Chair Kath Edsall told the Council on Tuesday as it was considering seven amendments to the 2021 ordinance establishing the 11-member commission.

“ELIPOC already has very, very limited powers. Reducing those powers further does not align with the stated purpose of the commission. If this Council does not desire real change, then be transparent and dismantle the commission,” she said.

Despite members’ concerns, the Council voted unanimously Tuesday to “make clear that the commission has no disciplinary authority or involvement over ELPD officers,” City Manager Robert Belleman said.

Another amendment redefined the commission’s role as “advisory.”

The changes were suggested by the city’s labor counsel, Gouri Sashital, who said they became necessary due to ongoing litigation with the police union.

“As a result of the dispute between the city and the union regarding whether the ELIPOC is a mandatory subject of bargaining, the city filed an unfair labor practice charge against the union in August 2022. That matter has been pending for some time,” Sashital explained Tuesday.

“Because the ordinance does not clearly prohibit the commission from making disciplinary recommendations, the question of whether the commission had a role in that process was open for interpretation,” Sashital said.

“The purpose of those amendments was to clean up something that’s already happening in practice.”

“The commission is not involved in discipline, they do not make recommendations, they do not receive information about discipline,” Sashital said. “But, to the extent that the ordinance does not make that clear, these amendments would, and would essentially codify what’s already happening in practice.”

Still, several sitting and former commission members raised some concerns over members’ right to free speech and a perceived effort to diminish their collective powers and responsibilities. Some were upset that they weren’t made aware of the amendments until March 1, five days before they were first introduced at the Council’s March 5 meeting.

The commission tried to delay the vote ahead of Tuesday’s meeting but was unsuccessful.

In a March 8 letter, the commission’s former chair, Erick Williams, called for an additional revision to require the ELPD to respond to recommendations from the commission within 60 days.

That suggestion was seconded in a March 12 letter from commission Chair Ernest Conerly and Edsall. In that letter, the pair called the amendment process “very concerning.”

“Even more concerning is that these changes are a result of a challenge to our existence by the police officer union dating back to 2021,” they wrote.

Conerly and Edsall pitched three additional amendments that included the 60-day response requirement Williams advocated for days before.

“The 60-day period is reasonable, and the department can determine the details to include in its response,” Conerly and Edsall wrote.

They also sought to amend a part of the ordinance that required “at least two” of the commission’s members to be licensed social workers or psychologists to allow formerly licensed professionals in those fields to serve on the body. The pair suggested this change would be positive, allowing those with expertise in those areas to utilize their knowledge even if they’re retired or have changed careers and allowed their license to expire.

They also proposed a revision that would permit the commission to consult with independent legal counsel “who is not also representing the interests of the city, including the police department,” if it decides such counsel is required.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Councilmember Dana Watson asked Sashital if she had considered any of the additional amendments suggested by Conerly, Edsall and Williams.

“I do not have a position on those other than I do not believe it is in the city’s best interest to delay voting on this amendment” tonight, Sashital replied.

Watson inquired about some members’ concerns that the amendments that would prohibit the body from making disciplinary recommendations to the ELPD would infringe on their individual rights to free speech.

“The changes only affect what the commission as a body can do,” Sashital said. “If the commissioners want to speak on their own behalf, I don’t see how those changes would impact their ability to do so. My only concern is that the body, when it acts as a body, that it confines itself to the responsibilities and the powers that have been given to it under the ordinance and under these amendments.”

Before voting, Mayor George Brookover prefaced his approval by citing the city’s collective bargaining agreement with unions. He said it was his duty as mayor to “steer the city out of potential litigation.”

“My concern is, if we don’t make these changes, then I think there’s a reasonable possibility that there will be an unfair labor practice decision that will then say that the union is right, and we must now negotiate about the involvement for the police oversight commission in the whole collective bargaining process,” Brookover said. “I don’t want that, I don’t think that’s good for the city.”

Brookover added that he was open to implementing additional amendments at a later date.

“I have considered the suggested changes from at least some of the members of ELIPOC, and nothing that we’re doing tonight militates against the possibility of looking at other amendments to this ordinance in the future,” he said.

Councilmember Mark Meadows agreed. He cited Williams’ suggestion that the ELPD be required to respond to inquiries from the commission within 60 days as “one of the items that I think we need to address in the future.”

Watson said she found it “unfortunate” that the commission members weren’t notified about the potential changes before March 1, but she backed the amendments.

“I’m going to vote in favor out of reasons like the ones the mayor mentioned, and also because it sounds clear that their freedom of speech is not going to be blocked. And this changes nothing that they’ve done. They can continue work as they do and as they are,” she said.

In summarizing the decision, City Attorney Anthony Chubb said the changes were implemented due to “pending litigation and some concerns where we feel it’s necessary to best protect the interests of the city by making those amendments.”

The next meeting of the East Lansing Independent Police Oversight Commission is scheduled for April 3.


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