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IMPD gets credit for policy updates, but activists still concerned about oversight

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Under previous guidelines from Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, officers weren’t forbidden from shooting at and from moving vehicles, nor were they forbidden from using chokeholds.

That changed recently when the department announced updates to its policies that outline when and how officers can use lethal and “less-lethal” force.

Some of those who have been most critical of IMPD said the changes are welcome updates to a section of the department’s General Orders that hasn’t changed since 2016 — the department usually updates its use-of-force policies every four years — but they also made clear this can’t be the conclusion.

“It’s a critical step,” said Katie Blair, director of advocacy and public policy at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Indiana, “but we know that a few trainings and updates to IMPD’s policies are not gonna cut it.”

The new policy went into effect when it was announced July 29, and the department said officers could begin training as soon as this month.

Dave Rozzell, pastor at The Way of Yeshua Fellowship and Ministries, called the updates a “somewhat encouraging” sign that IMPD is willing to meet some demands. Rozzell is also public relations director for the local chapter of the National Association of Black Veterans but spoke only for himself as a community activist.

The updated policy includes an emphasis on de-escalation, which didn’t get a mention in the previous policy from 2016. Now, the first section of the policy says officers must “never knowingly or intentionally escalate a situation in violation of this section.”

The updated policy also says officers should use force that is proportionate to the circumstances and that officers have to stop and report any use of force that violates laws or department policies. Both of those directives are new.

In a section dedicated to “less-lethal” force, officers are directed to only use a chemical spray — tear gas, for example — when someone is in “passive resistance only.”

But talking about tear gas and other chemical agents is a non-starter for some because it has been banned in war since shortly after World War I.

“If they’re banned in international warfare, they ought to be banned in American streets,” said Jane Henegar, executive director of the ACLU of Indiana, which recently filed a lawsuit on behalf of Indy10 Black Lives Matter against IMPD for using chemical weapons against protesters.

IMPD has defended its use of tear gas as a means of “riot control.”

The most common criticism from those interviewed for this article is that there isn’t enough civilian participation on the various boards that implement these guidelines and hold officers accountable.

“It’s not enough for us to simply have policy,” said Jessica Louise of Indy10. “We need to know what happens when inevitably officers violate these policies.”

A new Use of Force Review Board will examine use-of-force incidents, but it’s not yet clear how many civilians will be on that board. And an imperfect process for choosing civilians leaves the possibility that civilian seats — which are supposed to represent the community in holding IMPD accountable — are filled by what Louise called “police sympathizers.”

City-county councilors Keith Potts and Crista Carlino recently called for a new General Orders Board to replace the current General Orders Committee, which has final say when it comes to department policy.

The new board would include civilians, whereas the current committee includes two appointments from the chief and one appointment from the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP). 

As it stands now, activists can give credit to IMPD for the updates to its use-of-force policy while remaining worried the department’s bureaucratic functions will limit the effectiveness of any reform.

“So all of this basically says IMPD is judging itself,” Rozzell said. “You don’t get any civilian oversight until after all of the decisions have been made.”

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

Police stand around at the corner of East Washington and South Pennsylvania streets after arresting at least three people May 31, the first night of curfew in Indianapolis. (Photo/Tyler Fenwick)

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