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Civic, corporate coalition demands action at Statehouse

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A coalition of businesses and civic organizations wants to use its influence to get the Indiana Legislature to make changes in the criminal justice and law enforcement systems.

The Indiana Business and Community Partnership for Racial Equity includes the ACLU of Indiana, Eli Lilly, Indianapolis Urban League, Salesforce and other organizations.
In a letter to state lawmakers, the group said it supports policies that address law enforcement accountability, enhanced transparency and data collection, oversight and community involvement, training based on national best practices, and evaluating and eliminating discriminatory practices.

“The 2021 legislative session is a critical opportunity in our history for all of us — elected officials, advocacy groups, businesses and our employees, police, and community members — to come together to reform our criminal justice system to keep our community and our police safe and to improve police-community relations in our state,” the letter says.

The coalition’s demands — which are in step with the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus agenda — include a statewide standard on use of force with a ban on chokeholds, civilian review boards, independent agencies to review use of lethal force and a limit on the use of bail, fines and fees.

If the idea of a group of established corporate and civic leaders pressuring state lawmakers for policy change sounds familiar, think back to the fight over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in 2015 under former Gov. Mike Pence.

Businesses inside and outside of Indiana revolted, and Visit Indy estimated Indianapolis lost $60 million from conventions that skipped the city because of RFRA.

The lesson: Money talks, and those involved in the Indiana Business and Community Partnership for Racial Equity hope legislators will listen.

Tony Mason, president and CEO of Indianapolis Urban League, said part of the problem is when organizations like his — the ones that advocate chiefly for African Americans and other minorities — go to the Statehouse, lawmakers say their issues are specific to certain communities and don’t impact everyone else.

The sentiment, Mason said, is: “It’s the African American community. There they go again.”

That’s where it can help to have names like Cummins and Eli Lilly on your side.
“When you get people with this kind of corporate clout backing up our position, that helps substantially,” said Mark Russell, Indianapolis Urban League’s director of advocacy and family services.

Michael O’Connor, senior director of state government affairs at Eli Lilly, agreed this is reminiscent of what happened six years ago in the battle over RFRA, but he said this time it’s more like “an exercise in where you put your money versus where you take your money away from.”

Eli Lilly, for example, is part of the Indy Racial Equity Pledge and said it will double the amount it spends annually with African American suppliers and vendors over the next two years.

“If the message isn’t clear now to folks, we need to make it clear that things have to change and we have to do things different,” O’Connor said.

The Indiana Business and Community Partnership for Racial Equity will likely grow over time, Mason said, to include more businesses and organizations. He said the coalition, which came together in the fall of 2020, will likely also broaden the scope of its mission and work with the Indy Racial Equity Pledge and other groups.

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

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