In his nearly 40 years as an Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD) officer, Matt Steward saw officers use their money to keep strangers’ lights on and stock empty cabinets with groceries.
He’s also been horrified by videos of Black men and boys — George Floyd, Philando Castille and Tamir Rice, among many others — killed by police throughout the nation. As an African American, Steward understands there is a divide between police officers and the Black community but hopes they can be brought together through conversation.
Using his not-for-profit, Steward Speakers Series, Steward will start the conversation through “Bridging Conversations: Police and the Community” to discuss policing, social justice and mental health. The virtual event will be 7 p.m. April 24 and moderated by author and activist Marc Lamont Hill.
Steward said Hill was chosen to moderate the panel because he has spoken out against police brutality in the past. Steward said he didn’t want the conversation to focus only on the good he believes police do in their communities.
“We want to build trust and transparency,” Steward said. “It’s really hard to do anything else with a group or individual if there’s no trust there.”
The panel will include eight IMPD officers who will discuss their experiences on the force and their work in the community. Steward said he plans to have a separate panel later to speak with community members about policing.
Steward, who retired as a police officer in June 2020, said the community and police have more in common than people think.
“I just want the two communities to know that police officers are members of the community and some of the [Black] community members are police officers,” Steward said. “We go to the same churches, barber shops and grocery stores that you do. We have on that police uniform for eight hours a day, five days a week. But when we take off that uniform, we’re just members of society. We want the same things you do.”
Tensions between police and the community peaked nationally and locally in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd and killings of Dreasjon Reed and McHale Rose in May. Those deaths highlighted the divide between police and protesters.
IUPUI Chancellor Nasser Paydar said this is an important conversation for the city. IUPUI is a sponsor of the event.
“IUPUI is proud to support the Steward Speaker Series as we provide forums for conversations that shape our society,” Paydar said in a statement. “Working hand-in-hand, we welcome thought leaders who raise awareness and advance knowledge, especially as we participate in critical dialogue that impacts our community’s health and safety.”
Steward said he and other officers he worked with were heartbroken by the video of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdering George Floyd, but every police officer shouldn’t be judged for his actions.
“We’re public servants not perfect servants,” Steward said. “Sometimes we make mistakes. Sometimes we have officers who do the wrong thing. But 99% of police officers are good, decent people just doing their jobs, and I think the same of the overall community.”
NiSean Jones, founder of local activist group Black Out For Black Lives, isn’t convinced a productive conversation can take place with only one side represented.
“Community members need to be involved in every aspect of the conversation when it comes to the community,” Jones said. “That’s like politicians having conversations about education without any teachers there. How can they have an effective conversation and say, ‘Oh, I think we’re holding ourselves accountable’ when there’s no one there to hold them accountable?”
While no events have been planned at this stage, Steward wants this conversation to be recurring, with more diverse panels of police officers and community members.
“We understand that there is a gap, but how do we go about bridging that gap?” Steward asked. “We just need to sit down and talk and listen. Sometimes I feel like the community talks in one direction and the police talk in another direction. This is a chance to speak directly to one another.”
Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.