(This story was updated at 12:45 p.m. to include a comment from Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon.)
FRIDAY, Sept. 17 — Lansing Mayor Andy Schor, Ingham County Sheriff Scott Wriggelsworth and 21 other elected leaders in Greater Lansing are pushing back against recent prosecutorial policy changes that are designed to curb racial discrimination against Black people.
A petition organized by Wriggelsworth was sent to City Pulse this morning through the county’s “non-public alert system.” It’s signed by 22 mayors, township supervisors and village presidents and calls on Ingham County Prosecuting Attorney Carol Siemon to “reconsider” recent changes to internal office policies that guide how felony firearm charges are doled out across the county.
The specific policy change under fire by local leaders was announced by Siemon’s office last month. It 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.
That companion charge carries an additional minimum two-year prison stint. Siemon has labeled it as an “overtly racist” charge, largely because 80% of those sentenced for it in Ingham County have been Black. A detailed presentation last month corroborated those statistics, finding that local cops have disproportionately targeted Black people across Ingham County.
Wriggelsworth has opposed the changes since Day One and has held multiple press conference protests alongside other (mostly white) cops from across the region. Siemon, for her part, hasn’t budged. And she still doesn’t have any plans to reverse course anytime soon.
“I’ve read this correspondence and appreciate these views,” she said “At the same time, I have a responsibility to lead the prosecutor’s office and have been twice chosen to do so by the people of Ingham County. The policies that we have developed were research-based and we will continue to incorporate ongoing data into the development of future policies. We have developed an ongoing set of reforms — addressing public safety, mass incarceration, and racial equity. I can assure the public we are not going to reverse course on bringing about change.”
She also maintained the changes are necessary to boost racial equity in the justice system. And that battle between police and prosecutor has only continued to heat up in the last month.
The changes do not “hold people properly criminally accountable” and boost “likelihood of additional gun violence in the communities we are tasked to govern, serve and protect,” the petition reads, also asking Siemon “reconsider her internal felony firearm charging policy.”
Lansing — among other cities nationwide — have tracked a spike in gun violence and homicides over the last two years. The city charted a record-breaking 21 homicides last year, the highest annual total in at least 30 years. Twenty more have been killed this year. Authorities said two more people were shot and killed yesterday evening on the east side.
After headlines fizzled following Wriggelsworth’s press conferences, he started scheduling individual meetings with elected leaders. And most of them are on his side, Wriggelsworth said.
Here’s the full petition language:
“In light of unprecedented gun violence in our country and here locally in Ingham County, we elected leaders in charge of running our respective cities, villages and townships as Prosecutor Carol Siemon to reconsider her internal firearm charging policy. The current Michigan felony firearm statute MCL 750.227b carries a mandatory 2, 5 or 10 years sentence upon conviction.
“Some city, township and village leaders may see the need to change the penalties associated with this offense but until then to ‘no longer charge the offense except under the most extreme circumstances’ as her policy states, does not hold people properly criminally accountable, increases the likelihood of additional gun violence in the communities we are tasked to govern, lead, serve and protect.”
In addition to Schor, the petition’s signatures include mayors and village presidents in Mason, Stockbridge, Leslie, Webberville and Williamston, as well as township supervisors in Lansing, Alaiedon, Aurelius, Bunker Hill, Delhi, Ingham, Leroy, Leslie, Locke, Meridian, Onondaga, Stockbridge, Vevay, Wheatfield and White Oak townships. East Lansing Mayor Jessy Gregg and Williamstown Township Supervisor Wanda Bloomquist did not sign the petition.
“My goal was to get feedback from, and gauge how they felt about the policy, with a signature page for all 23 officials,” Wriggelsworth said in an emailed statement attached to the petition, “I have met with all 23 elected officials representing their respective units of government.“
Last month, Siemon said cops had been spreading fear-based misinformation about the shift.
“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.”
Siemon said the change will help curb inherent racial biases 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.
“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.”
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.
City Pulse sought to clarify that stance late last month. In response, he noted that “all people” have “implicit biases” but he does not think that “all police officers” have “implicit racial biases.”
“All people have implicit biases. However, not all people have implicit racial biases,” he said “All officers are people. Not all biases are racial, including implicit biases. The trainings we attend focus on all implicit biases and understanding them, not just implicit racial bias.”
East Lansing Mayor Jessie Gregg told City Pulse last month that East Lansing is working on its own series of police reforms and new policies geared toward racial equity. The city has not and will not voice opposition to any of the changes to policies at Siemon’s office, she emphasized.
A spokeswoman for Schor’s office didn’t immediately respond for comment for this story.