When protesters came face to face with Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD) officers downtown May 30, the anger and confusion from the crowd was palpable.
“Why are you dressed like that?” one protester shouted toward the officers, who were covered in riot gear: protective helmets and gloves and armed with batons — and as protesters would soon realize — tear gas canisters. When someone in the crowd, as IMPD alleges, threw a water bottle, the officers responded with tear gas — a chemical agent banned in war — and chaos ensued, resulting in an injured officer and civilian deaths.
It isn’t just about riot gear and weapons, but the militarization of policing is also about the violent tactics and intimidation used to subdue suspects, experts said. Thomas Stucky, association professor of criminology at IUPUI, said there is an “inherent contradiction” between the military and policing that makes the militarization of police potentially problematic.
“The military is very much a group setting and involves a specific objective they work together to meet,” Stucky, a former police officer, said. “Police work is very different. It involves discretion and individual choices on the part of the officer.”
History of militarization
The militarization of police, however, is not new, and certainly not unique to Indianapolis. While the War on Drugs in the 1970s and the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s was notorious for an increase in police militarization, the process actually started during Prohibition in the 1920s. To combat bootlegging and mafia activity, police throughout the country began stocking up on semiautomatic weapons and tactical vehicles.
In recent years, the militarization of police has made headlines in Ferguson, Missouri, when officers showed up to protests following the death of Michael Brown in tanks and tactical gear. In Indianapolis, activists view IMPD and Indiana State Police (ISP) officers arriving to protests with riot gear as proof officers are trying to escalate situations.
While police say they want better relations with the community they’re sworn to protect and serve, residents say such tactics do little to build trust and a positive relationship.
“They came trying to start s**t,” one protester said May 30, referencing IMPD officers near Monument Circle. “We don’t have helmets and s**t, we just got on regular clothes. We aren’t trying to start anything.”
Stucky said the most effective course of action to bridge the gap between officers and civilians would be to have conversations and building better relationships.
“I’d like to tell you I have the blueprint for how to do that,” Stucky said. “ … Relationships are built over time and nurtured and developed over time. Good relationships recognize that experiences may be different.”
Stucky said both parties, police departments and communities, need to work together to come to a mutual understanding.
“It’s absolutely clear that within the African American community, their perspectives and experiences have been very different than majority communities,” Stucky said. “We would all be well served to start from a place of trying to understand different perspectives. That discussion has to start with an open mind and requires hard work from both sides.”
Stucky said, however, he understands why civilians, particularly Black civilians, would feel a heightened sense of danger when police show up to protests in riot gear.
Mat Davis, the leader of the Indiana Racial Justice Alliance (IRJA), frequently reminds anyone at protests that “Police don’t de-escalate a g*****n thing.” This belief has led Davis and the IRJA to call for defunding IMPD and reallocating funds to community organizations to prevent crimes before they happen by addressing the root causes.
Clashes over funding
Despite calls from the community and Indy10 Black Lives Matter, Mayor Joe Hogsett proposed earlier this year that IMPD would receive more funding in the 2021 fiscal year. Next year, IMPD will receive $261 million, roughly $7.8 million more than the department received in the 2020 budget.
While nothing in the budget confirms any of this money will go toward tactical gear, some community members have expressed concern that more funding will ultimately lead to more militarization of the police — and more civilian deaths — in Indianapolis.
Before Hogsett’s 2021 budget was released, the ACLU of Indiana released the following statement:
“IMDP’s budget makes up more than 30% of the city’s budget. As Mayor Hogsett works with the city council to begin the 2021 budget process, we must shift resources away from law enforcement and towards Black and Brown community-based initiatives that support true safety, health and well-being. … We can demand that our local officials, including city council members and mayors, stop allocating funds for more officers and more militarized equipment.”
Statistically, when police are more militarized, Black and brown communities are more likely to be negatively impacted, according to a 2018 study by Northwestern University.
In the study, researchers found “militarized police units are more often deployed in areas with high concentrations of African Americans, even after adjusting for local crime rates and other community rates. … But there is no firm evidence that SWAT teams lower an agency’s violent crime rate or the rates at which officers are killed or assaulted.”
However, the study did find that the more militarized the police are, citizens are more likely to engage negatively with police and have a distrust of officers.
Stucky, the IUPUI professor, said he isn’t surprised by the findings, arguing that by showing up in riot gear, police are implying they are “ready for a fight” and view the public as a threat.
Toxic to mental health
Dr. Carrie Dixon, a psychologist and member of the Indiana Association of Black Psychologists, knows firsthand the impact police brutality and a fear of police in general can have on the mental health of Black individuals. Moreover, she said police officers, particularly white police officers, have a fear of Black people ingrained in them.
“History has shown that white officers do not perceive compassion as readily when they’re dealing with a Black person as they do while dealing with white people,” Dixon said. “Black people, they see as dangerous, whether conscious or unconscious. White policemen are more apt when they see someone in mental health crises, they are more apt to see that person as being dangerous if it’s a Black person. It’s just in their DNA.”
The issue of mental health and military-style policing has come under scrutiny following the death of Daniel Prude, 41, in Rochester, New York. Police were initially called to respond to Prude’s mental health crisis in March. After an altercation — which included Prude having a bag placed over his head as he sat naked in the street — Prude died a week later from complications from asphyxia. A day before his death, Prude had been in the hospital following another mental health episode.
Many organizers throughout Indianapolis, including NiSean Jones of Black Out for Black Lives, voiced concern about the training individuals go through before becoming police officers.
“It should take longer to become an officer than it does a beautician,” Jones told a group during a protest. On average, a cosmetology license takes 1,400 hours, whereas police officers need just 672 hours of basic training to join the force.
Part of that training, according to Dixon, should include how to best handle mental health issues in those they are apprehending to avoid unnecessary injury or violence.
“Policemen need to learn to understand mental illness and how to de-escalate the problem,” Dixon said. “They can’t do that by yelling and threatening someone who is already out of control. They need training on that, along with training of how to respectfully restrain a subject, especially one who is under mental duress.”
In a previous interview with the Recorder, Indiana State Police (ISP) Superintendent Doug Carter conceded officers are expected to be “superhuman,” but getting changing the current style of policing to one community residents are advocating for would take decades.
Many in the community don’t feel they can wait decades, however.
“If you want to see change happen for the better,” Stucky said, “continuing to do what you’ve been doing may not be the best approach.”
Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.
Police with masks, shields and batons stand on the south side of Washington and Meridian streets May 31, facing protesters on the other side. (Photo/Screenshot from Recorder video)