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Report says IMPD likely escalated tensions at protests in May 2020

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A committee assembled by Mayor Joe Hogsett to analyze the way police responded to protests and riots in May 2020 concluded officers likely escalated tensions downtown and did not communicate effectively over the course of the weekend.

Hogsett assembled the committee — called the Response Review Committee — in June to evaluate Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department’s response to the unrest and give recommendations.

IMPD provided the panel with a minute-by-minute breakdown of what happened over the long weekend, May 29 through June 1. The panel interviewed IMPD members, including Chief Randal Taylor, along with Hogsett and Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears. The panel also interviewed people involved in protests.

The independent committee was made up of three people: Deborah Daniels, an attorney at Krieg DeVault LLP and former U.S. attorney; Myra Shelby, partner at Ice Miller LLP and former associate justice of the Indiana Supreme Court; and Sean Huddleston, president of Martin University.

What the report says

IMPD likely escalated tensions downtown

“This report will describe how various aspects of the police response, intended to control and contain the actions of the marchers, only served to frighten and enrage the crowds, and more violence, vandalism and looting ensued,” the committee wrote.

Protesters have said they felt police showed up ready for a riot because many were in “riot gear” — helmets, vests and other equipment.

(Read the full report below, or click here.)

The report says IMPD had its Event Response Group (ERG) — the officers in tactical gear — downtown when the crowd only included about 50 people May 29. Other officers assigned to patrol downtown were in regular uniform, but the presence of ERG officers “raised the temperature of the crowd significantly,” the committee wrote.

Officers initially pulled back after a former deputy mayor, David Hampton, talked to organizers about how to keep the growing crowd calm. The crowd eventually became too large to manage, though, and IMPD command staff decided to close all streets leading to Monument Circle, where the crowd was.

The report says more officers were eventually called in — it’s not clear when exactly — including members of the ERG grenadier squad, the only officers allowed to use 37 mm launchers to launch CS gas, otherwise known as tear gas, which is nearly impossible to target. All officers are equipped with small gas canisters.

Officers began using tear gas around 8 p.m. at Alabama and Market streets, and other officers used pepper balls.

“Included in the crowd of peaceful protesters were children, even infants, whose parents had not anticipated this kind of response from police and many of whom had brought their children with them — not unusual for peaceful demonstrations,” the committee wrote. “The children, too, were affected by the uncontrolled gas.”

The committee noted people in the crowd didn’t start damaging property until after police used tear gas.

The crowd downtown May 30 was even larger, and the report says it was clear some people went that night “bent on violence.” Two people were killed that night, and there were multiple shootings.

The committee also found two prominent examples of “kettling,” where police confine protesters to a small area as a form of crowd control.

Witnesses said the technique — combined with the physical effects of tear gas — made them feel trapped and unsafe, and that police didn’t seem to differentiate between peaceful and disruptive protesters.

IMPD didn’t have a complete plan

IMPD witnesses told the committee the department doesn’t generally use a specific Incident Action Plan (IAP), which is recommended by the National Incident Management System (NIMS), a system developed following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. IMPD adopted the NIMS approach “some years ago,” according to the report.

There was no strategy for the protests in May, other than general objectives such as “keep the peace.”

The panel consulted the Police Executive Research Forum, a national police standards and practices organization, which said police departments should have an IAP for major events and update it every 12 hours. The organization said an IAP should include specific objectives, including deciding the “arrest philosophy,” such as whether to arrest someone for property damage or person-on-person violence. 

IMPD implemented an IAP on June 6, a week after protests began, but the IAP didn’t include specific objectives or a strategic approach.

“The failure of IMPD to develop a strategic plan focused on de-escalation, coupled with other factors … likely contributed to continuing escalation of tensions between police and marchers during the course of Friday evening and again on Saturday,” the committee wrote.

IMPD needs better training for these types of demonstrations

“It is highly unlikely that the IMPD officers whose actions escalated the tensions of the crowd during the weekend of May 29 did so deliberately,” the committee wrote, citing a lack of training.

The committee identified the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA), which must approve curriculum for the IMPD Training Academy, as a potential roadblock. A member of a task force assigned to study the ILEA told the committee the instruction is “brusque” and similar to a military boot camp approach.

“In short, it appears that ILEA trains police to be warriors, not guardians — but the jobs of the military and peace-keepers are very different,” the committee wrote.

As an example of the committee’s concern with ILEA, the agency warned IMPD it couldn’t update its use-of-force policy without approval. IMPD has said it will train its officers according to the new policy until told otherwise.

Communication was lacking

The committee concluded IMPD had inadequate internal and external communication. Even within the ERG group, only the “alphas” — the leaders of each squad — were briefed before each day’s events.

Officers who were called in after things got more chaotic apparently weren’t given much instruction other than to go downtown and maintain order.

On May 30, there was a “calling all cars” order that brought more officers downtown, but their only instruction was to keep the peace.

“In retrospect, some in IMPD leadership indicated that front-line officers have trouble seeing the big picture; they are dealing with what is right in front of them,” the committee wrote.

The command center, which IMPD members said was too crowded and disorganized, moved three times and wasn’t helpful in contributing to communication or coordination.

IMPD members also sought guidance from the prosecutor’s office on arrest and charging policy, but representatives from the prosecutor’s office said they felt their only appropriate role was to tell IMPD what state law required.

“Not surprisingly, the two agencies ended up acting somewhat at cross purposes,” the committee wrote.

IMPD wasn’t ready

“IMPD leadership readily admitted that they had not anticipated crowds of this size and were unprepared for what they faced,” the report says.

The committee did not totally condemn IMPD for not being ready for such a demonstration because riots have been rare in Indianapolis and throughout Indiana. There were warning signs, though.

Some in IMPD leadership told the committee they had intelligence from earlier in the week that something would occur over the weekend, and the city was “ripe for robust protest,” the report says, because of the police shooting death of Dreasjon Reed earlier in May.

It wasn’t always clear who was part of the crowd

The committee said almost everyone it interviewed agreed there were three or four types of people downtown the first night: peaceful protesters, people who wanted to observe and be part of history, people engaged in “nefarious activity” and “opportunists” who vandalized and looted, and outside activists.

The outside activists included local right-wing groups who said they were there to “protect the monuments” and some influenced by antifa, the report says.

Overall, though, there didn’t appear to be a “significant presence” of outside groups, the committee wrote, and most people appeared to be from the Indianapolis area, with some coming from other parts of Indiana.

The “vast majority” of people downtown protested peacefully, the report says, but some took advantage of the chaos to commit crimes and damage businesses.

“The IMPD response failed to differentiate between these two very different groups of people, with highly unfortunate consequences,” the committee wrote.

Recommendations

Improved training 

“The training provided to IMPD must include the protection of the First Amendment rights of those who demonstrate and engage in public protest,” the report says. “The training should include cultural competence, differentiation between lawful protesters and criminal actors, and de-escalation training.”

Better planning and communication

IMPD needs a clear strategic plan for each day of such a demonstration, the report says, and the plan should be communicated each day to officers before they report.

De-escalation

The committee credited IMPD with emphasizing de-escalation in its updated use-of-force policy that was announced later in the summer, but the committee also noted the department had talked about de-escalation before, including after the fatal police shooting of Aaron Bailey.

“IMPD appears to have relied on tactics designed to control disorder rather than facilitate protected speech,” the report says.

Excessive use of force

Officers should not use tear gas to disperse crowds, the committee wrote, and shouldn’t use pepper spray and pepper balls unless it’s to “control individuals who are in fact committing offenses.”

IMPD and the city agreed following the protests to not use tear gas on people protesting peacefully.

Trapping crowds 

“Kettling” only heightens tensions, the committee said, and shouldn’t be a tactic.

Avoiding an “aggressive posture”

“Officers interfacing with such crowds should, if at all possible, be attired in ‘soft’, or normal, police uniforms,” the committee wrote. “Officers equipped with riot gear should be staged nearby in case of need but out of sight of the crowds.”

Improving community outreach

“IMPD needs a more robust outreach to the Indianapolis community, including real community policing and two-way communication with residents throughout the community,” the committee wrote. “IMPD leadership must improve its current relationship with the community, which must start with active listening.”

Reactions

In a statement, Mayor Joe Hogsett pointed to IMPD’s updated use-of-force policy and two new civilian-majority boards as examples of the department making changes.

“IMPD will continue to adapt and improve its policies and practices to best serve the needs of Indianapolis, leading through transparency and community-led, community-engaged policing,” he said. “We value the conclusions made by this report, respect the tremendous amount of work that went into this important document, and will work to implement the recommendations.”

Indianapolis City-County Council President Vop Osili said the council will review the report.

“I look forward to our continued work with IMPD and the community to ensure the lessons learned from last summer result in real change as we continue to move forward to restore trust between our community and our law enforcement partners,” he said in a statement.

Indy10 Black Lives Matter responded to the report in an eight-page document.

“Though we appreciate certain points … we disagree with the overall framing and characterization of state-sanctioned violence in Indianapolis that the report seeks to
address,” the group wrote.

Among other things, Indy10 cited the Recorder’s coverage and said the report left out details about officers using pepper spray May 29. The group also disagrees with the committee’s finding that IMPD changed its tactics May 31, citing a viral video of officers beating two women on a sidewalk. Two officers were later indicted on charges including battery and obstruction of justice.

“To suggest that improving interpersonal relations between the community and those tasked with enforcing such laws (IMPD), the overarching claim made in the report, further obfuscates the root causes of violence in Indianapolis,” the group wrote.

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

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