Ingham Co. Health Centers slams ‘failed’ protest response

Chairman: Inadequate enforcement puts Greater Lansing at risk


The Ingham Community Health Centers’ board of directors is calling on the city of Lansing and the Michigan State Police to ramp up enforcement of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive orders on social distancing ahead of yet another protest expected downtown on Thursday afternoon.

In emails obtained by City Pulse, board members said they were “deeply troubled” by the response of both the Lansing Police Department and the Michigan State Police and their failure to adequately enforce social distancing measures at several anti-lockdown protests in Lansing.

“Not only have these protests brought people into Lansing who then gathered on our streets, but they did so without practicing social distancing or wearing face masks,” Board Chairman Todd Heywood said in a letter dated Monday. “We cannot support the city’s failure to enforce public health orders specifically designed to protect the health of our community.”

The health centers’ board also slammed the Michigan State Police in a separate letter.

“The failure of the MSP to issue citations on April 15 for violations of the executive order was a failure that resulted in a significant increase in risk to the health safety of Lansing area residents and essential frontline workers,” Heywood wrote in a letter to MSP Director Col. Joseph Gasper.

Under an executive order, protests are allowed to continue but crowds must keep a six-foot distance from those outside of their immediate household or risk a misdemeanor charge. Still, crowds of people — many armed with rifles — were spotted huddled closely together under umbrellas and blatantly ignoring the state directive. None were ticketed or fined.

Cops warned several people to keep their distance from one another at two rallies at the Michigan State Capitol lawn in recent weeks, but no tickets were issued, police said. Enforcement can be difficult and warnings always precede written tickets, they explained.

“Lack of enforcement of the executive orders was a rejection of solid public health measures and dramatically increases the potential exposures of untold numbers of city and county residents,” Heywood wrote in both letters.

“We implore you to actively and aggressively enforce executive orders and county health orders in any and all future protests in this great city,” he said. “The health of our citizens is at stake.”

The Capitol lawn is under the jurisdiction of the Michigan State Police. The Lansing Police Department assists as requested, but is otherwise tasked with monitoring the surrounding block. Some county sheriff’s deputies and East Lansing police officers have been called in to help.

MSP Lt. Brian Oleksyk told City Pulse this month that the protests “actually went pretty well,” noting that ensuring people keep their space can be a challenging task for police officers. Cops are also handling a delicate balance of First Amendment rights to peacefully assemble. Calls to MSP headquarters were not returned this week.

Lansing Mayor Andy Schor said the Lansing Police Department is already doing everything it can to minimize any risks to the public and to adequately enforce executive orders on social distancing during these demonstrations.

“Our officers gave out many, many warnings when people failed to socially distance,” Schor said. “ You can’t exactly follow someone around after they’ve been warned or it would be harassment. It’s not like officers can stand there and watch them.”

Schor said officers are also treading lightly in order to protect demonstrators’ freedom of assembly and not to put a limited police force at unnecessary risk for COVID-19 transmission.

“In order to issue a violation, you have to get their personal information,” Schor said. “If they refuse, then you have to get hands-on with them. There’s always a concern about people being infected, including among our own police force. Every contact they make increases the chance.”

MSP officials told MLive that the “extreme discretion approach” was based on a handful of factors, including protecting the right to gather and protest while balancing the potential arrest of dozens of protestors with an angry, cooped-up crowd that could’ve quickly become violent.

Despite numerous live videos and photos to the contrary — including those in City Pulse — a spokesperson for the State Police was quoted on the Grand Rapids TV station WZZM asserting that protesters on foot at the recent “Operation Gridlock” rally had, for the most part, practiced adequate social distancing.

Heywood claimed the clear contradiction leaves the public to “draw the conclusion” that MSP “provided inaccurate information serving to minimize a very real public health threat” in Lansing.

Lansing Police Chief Daryl Green told City Pulse last month that tickets and fines serve as an important deterrent and shows those that ignore the order that violations carry consequences.

But he also recognized the need to strike a delicate balance between protecting the public and his own staff. Every officer coming into contact with someone to write a misdemeanor ticket risks further exposure to the virus, and the potential for at least 14 days off duty in quarantine.

“I understand that people want more tickets and they want more arrests, but every time we pull those officers, those resources, away for something like writing a ticket, our state of readiness goes down. We’re less prepared for something else that could take place,” Green explained.

Heywood and Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail have still called for heavier-handed enforcement at demonstrations in order to better protect the community as well.

“We do not know how many low-wage, essential workers at convenience stores, gas stations and other retail establishments may have been exposed to, and may subsequently contract, the novel coronavirus,” Heywood wrote in his letter. “This could increase the stress on our already burdened healthcare delivery programs and could have been mitigated with simple citations.”

“I get allowing free speech. But people from all over the state traveled into Ingham County and interacted with all sorts of people,” Vail said last month. “We have to have some sort of balance to the right of free speech and the right to protect our community under this executive order.”

Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon, in the meantime, is armed and ready to roll out misdemeanor charges to anyone found in repeated violation of the governor’s executive orders.

“Our focus is on compliance, not prosecution. But when prosecution is the necessary step, we will,” Siemon said in a recent letter to Schor. “I am dismayed by the illegal actions of many of these protesters and encourage a police response that ensures the restrictions are followed.”

The next rally in Lansing is scheduled for Thursday. Visit for coverage.



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