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Friday, December 3, 2021

Eighteen seconds is not a lot of time…

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Eighteen seconds is not a lot of time. That’s how long it took for Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD) officers Carlton J. Howard and Michal P. Dinnsen to fire 11 rounds into 45-year-old Aaron Bailey’s car on June 29, 2017. The officers said they believed that Bailey had a gun. He didn’t.

On that fateful day, Bailey was pulled over by police. About 10 minutes later, for reasons that are not clear, Bailey abruptly drove away. He led police on a short chase, which ended when Bailey’s car hit a tree. Officers Howard and Dinnett, who were driving separate patrol cars, approached Bailey’s severely damaged vehicle. Eighteen seconds later, the officers opened fire. They shot Bailey. To death. In his back. 

No matter the facts of this encounter, there is no “good” story to tell. If the officers acted solely in accordance with their training and departmental policy, it’s tragic because a life was taken. If the officers acted rashly or out of malice, it’s tragic because a life was taken.  Or if Bailey had been armed — and had shot one or both officers — it would have been tragic. Once the chain of events was set in motion, the stakes became high. In fact, they became deadly.

Special prosecutor Ken Cotter was assigned to review the shooting. Ultimately, he declined to press criminal charges against the officers, agreeing that they had legitimately feared for their lives. In his report, Mr. Cotter concluded “there is insufficient evidence to refute either the officer’s claim of subjective fear or the objective reasonableness of that fear.” 

Despite Cotter’s findings, Mayor Joe Hogsett and IMPD Chief Bryan Roach both called for the firing of the officers who were involved. A few days ago, the Civilian Police Merit Board — which has the power to terminate police officers — rejected that recommendation. As a result, Hogsett called for changes to the Merit Board. The officers, who had been on administrative leave, are back on the job. As of this writing, it is not clear whether they will return to patrol duties.

Those are the facts upon which all rational people can agree. (I am mindful that, in today’s surreal social and political climate, a disturbing number of people question objective facts.) Yet, facts — while valid — don’t always provide the full picture. The “full picture” includes not only what happened in this specific instance, but also the troubled historical context of relations between the police and African-Americans across this nation.  

Race is the all-too-common aggravating factor in encounters like this one. Both of the officers are white; Bailey was Black. Considering this “police action shooting” in the context of many others over the years, most African-Americans see its outcome as virtually inevitable. For most of us, the notion that officers so frequently seem to “fear for their lives” in encounters with unarmed Black men is painfully hard to accept. Given the fact that white men are statistically more likely than Black men to shoot police officers, it has become unbearable to accept this explanation. Second, unarmed Black men are more likely to be shot by police than armed white men. That is a damning reality that rubs African-Americans raw, spurring Black parents to have “the talk” with our children (especially our boys) when they are very young.

My goal is to offer suggestions that I hope will protect citizens — and officers. I’m also hopeful that we can strengthen the bonds of trust between the community, especially African-Americans, and police officers. First, I believe that there needs to be a review process for the Merit Board’s decisions. That process should be an aggregate assessment rather than one that questions each decision individually. Thus, the Merit Board should not feel that its role is unnecessary or that someone is constantly questioning their findings. By the same token, there should be a way to correct the board when it is wrong.

Second, I strongly agree with political activist Shaun King that when families win civil cases in these situations, the fraternal police officers’ associations should pay the judgment rather than the cities in which the incidents occur. I strongly suspect that would substantially reduce such shootings.

Third, I’m calling for increased collective action among the faith community, nonprofit organizations and other leaders to coalesce around this issue. Groups like Faith in Indiana and DONT SLEEP have been at the forefront of this struggle; there is room for many others. 

Fourth, it is critically important to elect prosecutors who will charge police officers when they cross the line. I don’t care whether those prosecutors are Democrats or Republicans; this is not a partisan issue — at least for me. It’s an issue of life and death. I am pro-life, not merely “pro-birth”.

Finally, I am hopeful that Mayor Hogsett’s community policing initiative, which mirrors efforts from past years, will be an effective step (among others) to try to help African-Americans be more comfortable with police officers and vice versa. 

I am well aware that my suggestions, even if implemented, would not immediately solve this very complex problem. I understand that officers fear for their lives — with good reason. I understand that their job places them under incredible stress and that they must make split second decisions. Yet, when we continue to have situations like the one involving Aaron Bailey, it’s time to make dramatic changes.

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