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Michigan State Police leaders challenged over protest response

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — The city's police chief is investigating allegations that Michigan State Police troopers were restrained from helping Detroit cops during civil rights demonstrations — a claim state officials insist isn't true — while troopers complain their leaders appear to be taking sides and "pandering to the protesters."

Protesters are taken down by Detroit police after violating curfew, which they did on purpose in order to get arrested, on Gratiot Avenue near Outer Drive in Detroit, Michigan on June 2, 2020.

Detroit police Chief James Craig said his commanders reported to him that their state police counterparts refused to allow troopers to help Detroit officers disperse unruly crowds during protests downtown unless the chief made a direct request to state police Col. Joseph Gasper.

"That would obviously be a problem, since decisions on the ground need to be made quickly, and often there isn't time to consult someone," Craig said. "But I called Gasper and asked him about it directly, and he assured me it wasn't true."

Michigan State Police Col. Joseph Gasper

Michigan State Police 1st Lt. Michael Shaw said state police never refused to help cops in Detroit and other Michigan cities during protests that started in late May in response to the choking death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

"We've provided plenty of support to Detroit," he said. "We shut down the freeway system like Detroit asked for, we provided aviation support, and the troopers were ready to help. Detroit said they didn't need troopers on the ground, so we sent them to other places that asked for it."

Detroit Police Chief James Craig

Craig said he believes both Gasper and his commanders are telling the truth, and is looking into how the message was relayed to Detroit officers that state police couldn't help them without getting the go-ahead from the top.

"I'm sure my guys weren't lying, and I don't think Colonel Gasper was lying, either, so I've got to think someone lower down in the (state police) chain of command told my staff that on their own," Craig said.

Protests in Detroit have been mostly peaceful, although there have been some problems. In southwest Detroit, a throng of people jumped onto a police SUV during a June 28 demonstration, and the officer drove the vehicle through the crowd,prompting some to insist the officer be fired and charged with a crime.

Other incidents involved a former Detroit officer who was charged with three felonies after reportedly firing rubber bullets at journalists early on May 31; and agitators who threw bottles and metal objects at police hours hours after Detroit cops fatally shot Hakim Middleton, who was captured on video firing his pistol a few feet away from an officer's face July 23.

Nate Johnson, president of the Michigan State Troopers Association union, said he hadn't heard troopers were restrained from supporting local cops, but he said his members are upset over what they see as "pandering to the protesters" by their leaders, and that Gasper marched with demonstrators "right after they were throwing bricks at us."

Johnson said he spoke with state police officials about the rank and file's complaints, and that they assured him they weren't taking sides.

"They say they're just meeting with community leaders to make sure their voices are heard, without having cities being burned to the ground," he said. "It's a new way of policing, which we didn't do 15 years ago.

"I told our leaders when you have troops on the front line one day, having bricks thrown at them and being spit on, and then they see their leaders marching with the protesters a few days later, it most definitely doesn't feel good, and makes it look like they're taking sides," Johnson said.

"I don't think that's (leadership's) intent," he said. "I talked to them about it, and I've been talking to our members as well. Whether or not you agree with it, this is a new way of doing things."

Shaw said state police leaders are committed to remaining neutral.

"We're a police organization; we don't take sides," he said. "We're nonpolitical. In my 26 years here, I've had two Republican governors, and two Democratic governors, and we do our jobs the same way. We don't take sides."

Shaw said he understands there's "some grumbling" that Gasper met and marched with protesters, "but doing our jobs in a professional manner sometimes means we talk to people in the community to see what their voices are."

"Like any law enforcement agency, The Detroit News, or any other workplace, you're going to get people complaining about what management does, when they're not in the room when the decisions are made, and they get the wrong perception," Shaw said.

"Do we have some troopers who are disgruntled? Absolutely," Shaw said. "We also have troopers who are happy with the way things are going."

ghunter@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2134

Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN