(This story was updated at 4:59 p.m.)
SATURDAY, April 10 — Five of the eight candidates who joined a Black Lives Matter forum today said they’d work to divest from the Lansing Police Department if elected in November.
And only one of them — Farhan Sheikh-Omar — is planning to run against Mayor Andy Schor. The others included incumbent City Council members Kathie Dunbar and Brian Jackson, as well as Oprah Revish and Nicklas Zande, two Council candidates vying for election in the 2nd Ward.
Councilwoman and mayoral challenger Patricia Spitzley said she supports “transformation” over divestment. Former three-term Mayor Virg Bernero flatly opposed police divestment. And 4th Ward challenger Elvin Caldwell said that he’d be more inclined to “improve” rather than divest.
“We need to understand that police officers do not stop crimes. They do not prevent crimes. Police officers respond to crimes,” Sheikh-Omar said. “I believe that we need to hire more social workers, more therapists and counselors, more de-escalation professionals. When we’re talking about defunding the police, it’s not a punishment. We’re just trying to make it easier for our police officers to go after the bad guys — the ones that really need to be arrested and prosecuted.”
Alongside Bernero and Spitzley, Sheikh-Omar was one of three mayoral candidates to join today’s “community conversation” on public safety and police reform hosted by the Lansing chapter of Black Lives Matter. Schor declined an invitation, citing legal advice to skip the forum due to pending litigation filed against the city and him by BLM coleader and fired firefighter Michael Lynn Jr.
The other mayoral challengers, Arielle Padilla, Jeffrey Scott Handley Jr., Melissa Huber and Larry Hutchinson Jr., either declined to participate or didn’t respond to invitations from BLM officials.
Second Ward Councilman Jeremy Garza sent his "regrets" he ciuld not attend, according to BLM. His challengers — Revish and Zande — outlined their platforms, which also included police divestment plans. At-Large Council challengers Saturn Wells, Jeffrey Brown and Grant Blood didn’t attend. Council President Peter Spadafore also declined an invitation because of Lynn's suit against the city.
In addition to serving as one of Sheikh-Omar’s first public appearances after announcing his mayoral campaign last month, the forum offered candidates a chance to address the death of Anthony Hulon last April, who was killed after being pinned to the ground by four Lansing cops.
Attorney General Dana Nessel announced yesterday that none of the officers involved will face charges in the incident, though an internal probe and a wrongful death lawsuit is set to continue.
Here are some of the highlights:
Sheikh-Omar is a 25-year-old Kenyan refugee who lost an election to First Ward Councilman Brandon Betz in 2019. He also lost a bid for Michigan’s 68th House District against Rep. Sarah Anthony in 2018. He told City Pulse last year that he studied political science at Lansing Community College and was an assistant teacher for Ingham Intermediate School District.
He announced his mayoral campaign (which isn’t accepting donations) on Facebook last week.
“I believe Lansing needs a leader that listens to the needs of our community and stands with the people to find solutions,” Sheikh-Omar said. “When there’s no transparency and no accountability, there’s no progress. That’s what we’ve seen from the current administration.”
Sheikh-Omar said city officials cannot wait any longer for state funding to begin making immediate improvements to mental health services in Lansing — including progressive concepts like more social workers and “de-escalation professionals” at the Police Department.
“Not only am I Black man, but I’m also a Muslim man — I have faced the worst of both worlds in America,” he explained, noting that efforts to erode racial discrimination in the city will depend on “dialogue” with residents. “We cannot just create an alliance and say that we’re going to solve this.”
Additionally, Sheikh-Omar outlined a platform that includes shutting down the police lock-up at City Hall, plans for “intervention programs” to disrupt gun violence and handing over mayoral appointment authorities to the City Council. He also voiced a desire to work with lawmakers to erode qualified immunity protections for police officers and to enact requirements that local cops also reside within the city of Lansing — though both are outside the scope of the mayor’s office.
Bernero — who served three terms as mayor — labeled Sheikh-Omar a “newcomer.” He leaned on 12 years of experience in responding to most questions, including repeatedly touting how his administration had implemented 95% of President Barack Obama’s suggested police reforms.
“I have not been quiet. The people of Lansing know me. I have led the most diverse cabinet in Lansing’s history. I put body cameras on cops,” Bernero said, noting that police reforms are still “by no means done.” “We have a lot of work to do. The mayor has to take responsibility. The mayor has to lead, and I just don’t see that kind of leadership coming from the Mayor’s Office.”
Bernero’s platform on police reforms includes rerouting calls for mental health issues, substance abuse and homelessness to other social support agencies. He also said he wants to put “pressure” on state lawmakers to bring in the cash to make those plans possible in Lansing.
“Our police department needs to be of, by and for the people,” Bernero added. “But I don’t support disarming or divesting from our police officers. Disarming police when citizens have access to huge amounts of firepower, I think, would create a terrible, dangerous situation.”
Instead of divestment, Bernero said he’s rather focus on more training, an increased focus on diversity in recruiting new officers and a deeper level of engagement and officer accountability.
Spitzley has long opposed plans to reduce funding at the Lansing Police Department. Instead, she supports finding new ways to “transform” public safety in the capital city, she explained.
“I’m running for mayor to bring a level of respect, clarity and teamwork into city government that has been long overdue. Only by working together with respect and honesty can we correct course,” she said. “Residents deserve better. I’m running for transparency and accountability.”
Among her police reform strategies: Close the jail and ramp up funding for “social programs” that are already working to mitigate crime before it can begin. She said she also wants to hire a grant writer to help local nonprofit organizations and bring on more community police officers.
“For our Black youth in Lansing, we have to be your village. We don’t need to create the wheel to do this. There are social programs and groups doing fine work on the ground right now,” Spitzley said. “We need to work with groups that already have boots on the ground right now.”
More community police officers will also enable dispatchers to reroute calls “outside the traditional 911 system,” Spitzley added. More transparency regarding misconduct reports will also lead to enhanced accountability — which all starts on the top floor of City Hall, she said.
“I will be a leader. That’s the foundation of what must be done,” she said. “The mayor is chief enforcement officer, fire officer, public safety officer. Through their leadership, all else flows.”
City Council (2nd Ward) Candidates
Revish is an LGBTQ activist who works for the Salus Center in Lansing. Her first remark at the forum today acknowledged that the city occupies Native American land, followed by a platform that includes the complete dissolution of the Lansing Police Department.
“It’s hard for me to envision a future where police still exist. My first thoughts are that we should invest in our communities and divest from police,” she said. “How do you reform something that, at its root, is antagonistic to Black people? There is no way to do that. You have to get rid of it.”
Revish also outlined a platform that included a laser focus on the city’s 2nd Ward, including ensuring that streets, sidewalks and parks are “uplifted and upgraded like the rest of the city.” She also expressed a desire to engage with community groups before pursuing reforms.
“I’m not interested in going back to things as usual before the pandemic. We know now, more than ever, that didn’t work,” she added, noting plans to close the jail, change police policies, divest from the Police Department budget and be more “proactive rather than reactive.”
Zande, 19, graduated last year from Everett High School and is a freshman at Lansing Community College. He also interned for City Clerk Chris Swope and served as a delegate for the Ingham County Democratic Party. He said the Police Department budget is “a little too high” and outlined plans to reinvest those dollars into “social programs and other departments.”
“My neighbors don’t like it when cops are patrolling neighborhoods, even my white neighbors. That should tell you something,” he said. “This is a clear problem and we must fix it.”
Zande also said the Police Department needs additional oversight and internal policy changes.
City Council (4th Ward) Candidates
Jackson described himself as a “family person” with “respect for everyone” in his opening remarks. He also thinks he brings a balanced opinion and “open mind” to the City Council. Among his top priorities: Amend and eliminate city ordinances — like jaywalking and driving without headlights — to reduce unnecessary contact between police officers and local residents.
“I think police need to have resources to focus on serious things,” Jackson explained. “I’m not saying police go out and intentionally try to hurt people. I just think that having these opportunities and not having proper training can make it a dangerous position for everybody.”
Caldwell is a Realtor and legislative consultant who said he’s running against Jackson to promote local job opportunities, advocate for economic development, protect local neighborhoods, create public and private partnerships and to “make dignity a top priority.”
He also supports “improving” the Lansing Police Department rather than divesting from it — including plans to add a layer of citizen review to complaints of police misconduct.
“I don’t think we need to throw out the Police Department as a whole,” he explained. “We need to engage with leaders, unions and institutions that keep them all undercover, pull off that shield of immunity. I also think that bad reports should follow those officers into and out of Lansing.”
The “biggest” issue at the Police Department, Caldwell said, is a lack of transparency. Caldwell also encouraged residents to call him directly at 517-225-6389 to express their opinions.
City Council (At-Large) Candidates
Without a challenger, Dunbar might have had the most comfortable seat at tonight’s event.
She said she’s running for re-election out of a desire to continue pushing for human rights, social justice, racial equity, environmental protection and to defend Lansing’s “most vulnerable.”
Her platform included continuing a review of use-of-force policies at the Police Department and adding a layer of citizen-led oversight to police misconduct complaints. She also said she wants to increase transparency and work to find viable ways to close the lock-up beneath City Hall.
Rewatch the forum on the Facebook page for the Lansing chapter of Black Lives Matter. The next candidate forum hosted by Black Lives Matter is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Thursday, May 6.
Editor's Note: Due to a reporter's error, this story required a correction. Mayoral candidate Farhan Sheikh-Omar announced his campaign against Lansing Mayor Andy Schor last month.