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Local tribe 'appalled' by inaccurate racial description of Wayside stabbing suspect

CMUPD explained 'Native American' suspect description was exact words of witness


A police cruiser sits outside the Central Michigan University Police Department building on Oct. 28. (Melissa Frick | Senior Reporter)

Leaders of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe have voiced concerns over the use of the physical description of a "Native American male" suspect communicated by Central Michigan University Police Department while investigating the Feb. 22 Wayside Central stabbing.

City and university police responded to the stabbing just before midnight on Feb. 22. CMU officials sent out a Central Alert around 12:15 a.m. alerting students that a stabbing had occurred close to campus.

In the alert, CMUPD described the suspect as a "Native American male wearing a tan shirt and red baseball cap," and warned that the unidentified suspect was still at large. 

Frank Cloutier, the tribe's public relations director, said members of the Saginaw Chippewa community found the initial suspect description "appalling." 

"Native American is an ethnicity, not a race," Cloutier said. "It’s such a vague and general term. You can’t identify an individual by their nationality or ethnicity. It was a very generalized and unprofessional thing to do.”

Cloutier questioned the procedures used by police to identify suspects through witness descriptions.

“You’re at a nightclub late at night,” Cloutier said. “If I was the officer, I would wonder about the quality of information I was getting, and whether it was clear and consistent. Just assuming the information that was provided, I don’t think is a responsible thing to do in the heat of the moment. If you’re looking for a Native American, how would you identify that individual?”

Although the incident was handled by Mount Pleasant police, it was CMUPD that sent out the Central Alert with the suspect description. Central Alert is the university emergency notification system that is sent to all students, faculty and staff. 

The calls are sent to over 20,000 users when there is a confirmed safety risk to the campus community.

"As required under the Jeanne CLERY Act, CMU Dispatch activated the Central Alert Notification System to alert the CMU campus community in an effort to keep our campus safe. We used the information we had at hand — this is an example of how we often are required to make decisions within a moment’s notice in order to protect our communities," said CMUPD Chief Larry Klaus in a statement provided to Central Michigan Life. "The intent of the Central Alert message that evening was to keep our students and campus safe – it certainly was not to offend our friends and colleagues at the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe. We have reached out to the tribe and look forward to further discussing and learning from any concerns they may have."

CMUPD Public Information Officer Lt. Cameron Wassman explained the decision to use that description, which was an exact, verbatim description of what a witness told to police. 

"We try to give the best description possible based on the information at that time," Wassman said. "Every little piece of information – including someone’s race, someone’s gender, someone’s ethnicity – are very important in putting out a suspect description.

"If we would’ve just said 'some guy who fled the scene,' that wouldn’t really be too helpful."

When police send out a Central Alert, it often contains the most updated information that is available to police at the time, even if that information isn't yet public. Police who arrived at the Wayside Central scene later reported that witnesses had given conflicting suspect descriptions.  

"In many cases, that information that we have isn’t even public information at that point," Wassman said. "It’s real-time, police information either coming from officers who are on the scene or the initial reports by witnesses or the people that call 911."

Although the incident was handled by Mount Pleasant police, university police and residential staff assisted in locating the suspect on campus, which Wassman said resulted in the case being wrapped up in under two hours. Police released a second and final Central Alert around 2:15 a.m. signaling that the suspect had been identified and detained.

Since the case had such a quick turnaround, university police did not send out another Central Alert updating the community about the suspect's identity, Wassman said, because they did not want to overwhelm users with calls.

"We want to minimize the number of messages we send out," he said. "It's not efficient or functional that every time a little bit of information changes, we send out a new message. Had this incident gone on, and we still did not know where the suspect was, we probably would have sent out an updated suspect description."

Although the case was turned around by police within two hours, the suspect was not publicly identified until his arraignment over 24 hours later. 

Octayvious Sanchez-Lewis, a 19-year-old black CMU freshman, was charged Feb. 24 with three counts of assault with intent to murder and two counts of carrying a dangerous weapon with unlawful intent.

During the following day of uncertainty, Cloutier said that members of the tribe were anxious about who the alleged Native American suspect was.

"There was a level of concern because for such a small-net community, we were wondering if this was a co-worker, or a neighbor, or a family member," Cloutier said. "We spent a day wondering if we knew the individual or if it was from our community." 

When the suspect was revealed to not be a Native American man, Cloutier said members of the tribe were upset and confused.

"To all of a sudden find out that just because someone at a night club said it was a Native American, and it turns out to be an African American, where was the professionalism in the officer who originally reported that? Where was their obligation to do the due diligence and get it right?" Cloutier asked. 

"We’ve heard concerns within our community of, you know, ‘Here we go again, just assuming that because they’re a person of color that they’re one of us,' ... which doesn’t do anything for our (community relationships)."