OPINION

Records battle shows lack of police accountability in Lansing

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(Kyle Kaminski is a reporter for City Pulse.)

As a newspaper reporter, I’m intimately familiar with Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act.

Lansing Mayor Andy Schor’s administration has also made a routine out of forcing local media outlets — including City Pulse and the Lansing State Journal — to use the legislation to obtain even rudimentary-level details and supplemental records over the most insignificant of topics.

So, earlier this summer, when several maskless Lansing Police Department officers pointed guns at my back and mistakenly detained me in front of my downtown apartment, I expected a FOIA request would be the only way to eventually pry loose any police reports or video footage.

The case of mistaken identity was admittedly a jarring experience, but the total disregard for pandemic-related precautions showcased by the officers’ bare faces was much more alarming. Chief Daryl Green later promised to investigate and discipline any cops who broke any policies.

Naturally, I was curious what would become of the whole ordeal.

More than a month afterward, the Police Department reached back out: My complaints against at least one of the several officers involved had been “sustained” — meaning that some form of departmental policy violation, likely one involving face masks, was found to have been violated.

Top cops didn’t list which policies were broken or whether discipline resulted from the internal investigation. Any more details, as expected, would require a FOIA request, they explained.

Last month, and about two months after the incident, the City Attorney’s Office finally responded: I wasn’t to get a single record from the city. No reports. No videos. No documents related to an internal investigation into policy violations. No details about sustained complaints or discipline.

Given that police in Lansing are largely expected to police themselves over alleged misconduct, I wasn’t entirely shocked by the flippant disregard for transparency. Internal investigations at LPD often never see the light of day. And when they do, they’re often heavy with redactions.

Because this incident also revolved around an unsolved shooting, city attorneys had claimed that videos of me being mistakenly detained by maskless cops could “interfere” and “influence” witness testimony too. It could also somehow taint a jury and stifle a fair trial, attorneys claimed.

Additionally, and most concerning: These internal investigations require cooperation from police officers, attorneys said. Knowing that results from those probes could go public would create a “chilling effect” at LPD and could push cops to clam up during interviews, city attorneys claimed.

It’s the same defense the city used in denying City Pulse access to hundreds of internal investigations into alleged misconduct earlier this year. And it’s simply unacceptable reasoning.

Shielding police records, especially to those who filed complaints to trigger investigations, clashes with the broader public interest of police accountability and transparency. The public — and especially the individual complainant — deserve to know what becomes of their complaints.

And you’d think cops, if they’ve got nothing to hide, would have no problem being forthcoming.

Lastly, the city, as usual, argued its interest in privacy simply outweighed the public’s interest in disclosure — a clear sign that members of Schor’s administration are apparently more interested in covering their own asses than being forthcoming in the face of public criticism.

It’s a situation we’ve seen play out on many issues facing the city of Lansing, most recently involving the death of Anthony Hulon in the city jail and beneath City Hall and the dearth of details that followed.

Naturally, we called bullshit and immediately filed an appeal to City Council President Peter Spadafore. And last week, Spadafore must’ve agreed when he opted to overturn the denial and order the release of redacted versions of incident reports, videos and internal investigations.

The same day Spadafore attempted to steer lawyers in Schor’s administration back on course, however, the City Attorney’s Office shot back with another roadblock in the form of a $200 bill. Officials also demanded an upfront deposit of nearly $100 to even get started on the request.

Here’s the thing: I don’t intend to pay that bill, and I think it’s ridiculous this administration would request it be paid. Would I like to know whether any cops were punished for failing to wear masks during a pandemic? Sure, but I found a more meaningful takeaway: Transparency at the Lansing Police Department leaves much (much) more to be desired. Reforms should start there.

Not everyone is as familiar with public records requests. That extra hurdle, in and of itself, is an overt barrier to the expedient release of information to the public. And when it involves allegations of improper conduct, there should be as few barriers as possible to accountability.

And the idea that cops might freeze up during future investigations if the public were to catch wind of their proven misconduct? Bull. Taxpayers deserve to know whether they’ve hired good cops and if top brass is doing anything at all to hold them accountable for their misdeeds.

The city, instead, is arguing that total accountability requires an overlaying level of secrecy to be effective. I’d challenge Schor’s administration to think long and hard about that reasoning and whether it falls in line with the reforms that are desperately needed at the Police Department.

Do better. The residents of this city deserve nothing less.

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