East Lansing City Council discusses racial bias after police excessive force allegation

The back of Farhan Sheikh-Omar's shirt at an East Lansing City Council meeting, Feb. 27, 2020 | Anna Liz Nichols

After an internal investigation, the East Lansing Police Department (ELPD) determined that there was not enough evidence to prove or disprove an allegation of excessive force against a 19-year-old Black man earlier this month. 

The issues of race and police brutality took center stage Thursday night as the ELPD presented a video of the incident at an East Lansing City Council meeting, followed by enraged public comment.

In the early morning hours of Feb. 9, ELPD officers arrested three men fighting in and around the 7-Eleven on the corner of Grove and Abbott Street. The third arrest and subject of the incident, Uwimana Gasito, was left with large wounds on his forehead after four officers restrained him in order to put handcuffs on him.

Gasito alleged police brutality in a Feb. 13 Facebook post video, which he said he was recording while his friend was arrested and when police threw him to the ground and scraped his head back and forth on the pavement for recording.

“This is my story. This is my truth. This is my pain,” Gasito said in his Facebook post.

ELPD Captain Chad Connelly, lead investigator of the incident, told the council once he was made aware of the post, he spent 13 hours gathering information for the internal investigation. The goal was to determine if any department policies or procedures had been violated. 

Through footage from the 7-Eleven and police body cameras, witness testimony and interviews with all the officers involved, the ELPD established the events that unfolded and the protocols they followed.

The footage from inside the 7-Eleven shows Gasito and his brother, Anthony Zarwea, at the cash register when East Lansing resident Chandler Lee enters and starts a fight. Police reports say Lee, a white man, accused the other two of touching his girlfriend’s butt prior. The woman wishes to remain anonymous.

The altercation transitioned outside, where two officers were doing routine rounds in their car when they saw the fight. Bodycam footage shows Zarwea throwing a punch at Lee but missed, striking a 7-Eleven worker in the head.

More officers arrived at the scene and one officer arrested Lee for disorderly conduct and put him in a patrol car. Three officers arrested Zarwea, who is shown on body camera footage resisting getting into a patrol car. 

Meanwhile, Gasito said in his Facebook post he was filming what he thought was the illegal arrest of his brother when police told him to back up from their work. Gasito is told in the video more than five times to move back before being told it was his last warning. Officers then continued to tell him to back up a few more times before telling him he was under arrest for disorderly conduct.

The video shows four officers restraining Gasito, one holding his upper back, neck and head as he flails his limbs screaming in pain and swearing at the officers for arresting him.

When an individual resists arrest, Connelly said certain regulations are in place for ELPD. Officers are expected to use the same force they are being presented by the individual or one level higher. They also are permitted to escalate further, ultimately to lethal force if necessary.

Practices to combat active resistance in arrest are using knee strikes, hand strikes, pressure points and pepper spray, according to Connelly. None of these practices were used.

Many public commenters brought up that the video shows Gasito resisting arrest, but does not disprove that an officer dragged Gasito’s face back and forth on the ground, creating the wounds police later say they treated. 

Farhan Sheikh-Omar at an East Lansing City Council meeting, Feb. 27, 2020 | Anna Liz Nichols

Both Connelly and ELPD Deputy Chief Steve Gonzalez said there is footage of officers administering medical care for Gasito’s wounds at the station, but did not present it to the counsel at the Thursday meeting.

Though police said their investigation was inconclusive, ELPD Chief Larry Sparkes told the council officers followed proper protocol during the arrest and City Attorney Thomas Yeadon agreed. No officers have faced disciplinary action.

“For my review of this incident, it was a lawful arrest he clearly had no right to resist,” Yeadon said. “Once they said, ‘Put your hands behind you back,’ that’s what should have happened. Unfortunately it didn’t.”

Gasito has not filed a formal complaint against ELPD. The department conducted the investigation solely because they were made aware of his Facebook post.

All three individuals arrested that night were asked to be interviewed during the investigation. Connelly said only Lee followed through on plans to be interviewed.

Sparkes said the officer stabilizing Gasito’s “has strongly stated he did not intentionally cause the abrasion.”

“It is important to note that statements from 10 police officers and two civilians on scene stated they did not observe any excessive force or unprofessional behavior on the part of ELPD and that is supported by video review,” Sparkes said.

East Lansing Mayor Ruth Beier | Anna Liz Nichols

East Lansing Mayor Ruth Beier gave a lengthy comment addressing racial bias and her own known and unknown biases. She said after watching the video., it is clear that no excessive force was used and she thanked ELPD for their work.

“I am assured that the officers did not use more force on the black people involved than the white people involved because of their color,” Beier said. “There was more force used on each person based on the amount of resistance and fighting that had to occur to secure the person.”

Before the incident, Beier said she had concerns that police in her city were stopping more people of color than white people, so she asked and received data from ELPD about traffic stop demographics. She said that although, so far, she hasn’t found evidence of racial discrimination, there is a system being put into place to continue to moniter the data.

A large concern Beier said she has is Swatting, the act of residents calling the police on individuals as a form of harassment. She urged the community to fight their own biases and think twice.

Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens said he’s in an uncomfortable position balancing his experience as a person of color and results of this investigation. He is the only person of color on the council and talked about police coming to his dorm for no apparent reason and searching. He was a student at Michigan State University in East Lansing only a few years ago.

East Lansing Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens | Anna Liz Nichols

“I hope that we continue to work on public safety oversight, regardless of the outcome of this situation,” Stephens said. “Be it my own personal experience and those in our community and others that have that inherent fear, it warrants us continuing this conversation.”

Many public comments shamed the police for failing to use verbal tactics to de-escalate the initial fight and ignoring Gasito’s cries of anguish. 

Farhan Sheikh-Omar, a Lansing resident, said the treatment he has received in East Lansing as an African refugee like Gasito is unjust. Sheikh-Omar said he’s been coming to East Lansing to pray at the mosque for years and consistently gets pulled over, not because his plate isn’t up to date or his license is expired.

“They want to know if we are lost. The police didn’t know whether we knew where we were going or not,” Sheikh-Omar said. “I’ve been going to this mosque for 14 years. That’s how long I’ve been in this country; it’ll be 15 years in July.”

“We’re not lost.”