'If we don't act now, we're going to be next': Protesters march against excessive force in E.L.
EAST LANSING - A large group gathered Tuesday afternoon in East Lansing to protest police brutality.
The protest, which remained peaceful, stems not only from the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis while in police custody, but two excessive force complaints made against the same East Lansing police officer by black men within two months, organizers said.
Protest organizer Farhan Sheikh-Omar said what happened in Minneapolis almost happened in East Lansing, referencing two incidents of excessive force investigated earlier this year involving Uwimana Gasito, who was arrested and pinned down in the 7-Eleven parking lot on Albert Avenue, and Anthony Loggins Jr., who was thrown to the ground and pinned down after being pulled over for failing to use his turn signal.
"We dodged a bullet," Sheikh-Omar said. "We cannot sit back and wait for another black man to die."
Interim Police Chief Steve Gonzales issued a statement prior to Tuesday's protest.
“We fully support people exercising their right to protest over the brutal and senseless
murder of Mr. George Floyd," Gonzales wrote in the statement. "Mr. Floyd’s legacy will lead to lasting, positive change of the law enforcement profession and how we interact with our community. I assure you: we are listening. We urge people to remain non-violent during these protests and treat each other with dignity and respect.”
The protesters marched through East Lansing neighborhoods surrounding City Hall and the police department, walking down Grand River Avenue and Abbot and Albert streets.
Transparency and accountability
Sheikh-Omar said they were looking for transparency and accountability within the East Lansing Police Department.
"We saw what happened to (Gasito). We saw what happened to Mr. Loggins," he said. "If we don't act now, we're going to be next."
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Body camera footage from a December excessive force complaint shows an officer, Andrew Stephenson, kneeling on a black man's neck for some time after he is handcuffed.
The final conversation leading up to the arrest starts around 19:30. An officer threatens to tase the driver if he doesn't put his hands behind his back, then you can see Stephenson kneeling on his neck at 21:31. The man continuously asks why they're being so rough.
A second excessive force complaint from February involving Stephenson did not have video of the head-hold, but ELPD said the same "head stabilization" technique was used to hold Gasito to the ground.
"(Stephenson) likes getting people on the ground and putting his knee on their neck," said Edmund Rushton, a 22-year-old Michigan State University student who has been heavily involved in looking into the department's complaints.
The technique is one a Minneapolis police officer used on Floyd, who died of asphyxiation from sustained pressure, according to an autopsy commissioned by Floyd's family. A medical examiner's report released Monday listed "cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint and neck compression" as the cause of death, USA Today reported.
Stephenson was reinstated in early May after a Michigan State Police review of his actions during the two arrests found his use of force was appropriate given the circumstances. He was on administrative leave for nearly two months during the investigations.
Changing the culture
City Manager George Lahanas said in a statement the government needs to be mindful of the "legitimate concerns" that have been raised about the treatment of people of color in East Lansing.
"We are already in the process and have been actively seeking to involve all members of our community, specifically people of color, in our mission to continue to improve law enforcement in East Lansing.”
James Henson, of Lansing, said protesters don't need to use violence and destruction for their voices to be heard.
"We're gonna be peaceful in our own way," he said. "One way or another. We don't need guns, we don't need knives or weapons. Our skin is another weapon we have."
East Lansing Mayor Ruth Beier said the use of excessive force by police must stop. She wants to outlaw all chokeholds and have the department police things like small fights and failing to use turn signals less, she said.
The fight that took place prior to Gasito's arrest was not dangerous, she said. Those involved had no weapons and were so drunk they couldn't hit each other. There were enough police there for officers to each grab someone in a bear hug, break up the fight and tell them to go home, she said.
A history of complaints
Stephenson has had six citizen complaints filed against him since January 2016. None of those complaints were sustained. The complaints were for excessive force, improper traffic stops, improper detention and racial bias, according to ELPD records released to the State Journal.
MSP described Stephenson's actions as appropriate, but the department will retrain all officers on the use of the "head stabilization" technique, which injured both Gasito and Loggins.
MSP Detective Lt. Erik Darling, who reviewed the excessive force complaint from the December incident, determined the force used was on the "same continuum" with the man's resistance.
"There has been informal direction that this technique has been shown to cause harm to arrestees and it should only be used in extreme, articulable circumstances," a city news release reads.
All charges stemming from Gasito's February arrest were dismissed as a result of the internal investigation. Former Chief Larry Sparkes said the investigation found insufficient information to clearly prove or disprove the allegations.
Sparkes retired in mid-March amid the excessive force complaints. Shortly before his retirement, he issued an apology:
"We recognize that there are things we need to do to improve our internal review process, and we are actively working to make necessary improvements," Sparkes said in the news release. "We apologize to the community for this oversight. This remains a top priority for the police department and we are committed to being transparent with the public as we work through making these improvements."
The protest came two days after Sunday's protest at the Capitol, in downtown Lansing and outside the East Lansing Police Department.
Sunday's protests largely remained peaceful, until protesters say a woman tried to run them over in her vehicle. Police took the women into custody -- but did not arrest her -- leaving the protesters to destroy and burn her vehicle.
Protesters at the East Lansing Police Department also smashed the windshield of one of the department's patrol vehicles.
Reporter Craig Lyons contributed to this report. Contact reporter Kara Berg at 517-377-1113 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @karaberg95.