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Reimagining police in Indiana: Are there any clear answers?

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Community members, police officers and local officials will all tell you changes are needed when it comes to policing in Indianapolis. But depending on whom you ask, you’ll get a myriad responses about what will actually work.

We need to defund the police. We need to abolish the police. We need reformed policies. The list goes on.

Alongside the ongoing national conversation surrounding police and systemic racism, residents of Indianapolis are grappling with an increase of violence in their city.

So far this year, 145 people in Indianapolis have been murdered. According to data collected from WRTV-6, at least 111 — 77% — of the victims have been Black. 

Beyond violent crime committed by other members of the community, a study conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that Black men in America have a 1 in 1,000 chance of being killed at the hands of a police officer.

‘Defund them, refund us!’

In Indianapolis, the deaths of Dreasjon Reed and McHale Rose have led to calls from community members for defunding the police, if not abolishing the institution altogether. 

Members of the Indiana Racial Justice Alliance have been chanting “Defund them, refund us!” throughout the ongoing protests, calling for money currently directed to the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD) to be reallocated to community organizations. 

Mat Davis, a founding member of the alliance, said working to combat mental health issues, substance abuse and food insecurity would greatly reduce crime in the city, particularly among Black and low-income Hoosiers. 

Some members of Indy10 Black Lives Matter have taken a more radical stance, calling for the complete abolition of police. 

In response, Indiana State Police (ISP) Superintendent Doug Carter said it isn’t as simple as reallocating funds into the community. 

“In a decade and a half, maybe that could be a reality,” Carter said. “… Unfortunately, often with mental health issues comes violence, either to an individual or another person. This is usually the result of a violent encounter or a domestic situation.”

However, Carter said police officers are often tasked with being “superhuman,” and departments simply don’t have the resources to handle the follow-up care that may be needed following a traumatic event. 

While many in the community argue the answer to this issue would be to reallocate funds to community organizations equipped to help people through crises, Mayor Joe Hogsett’s response has been to call for increased funding for IMPD for the 2021 fiscal year. 

In his “state of the city” address earlier this month, Hogsett laid out his proposed budget, which includes $261 million for IMPD next year, a $7 million increase from 2020. Gov. Eric Holcomb also expressed a need for more funding for state police in order to better train and make sure officers have the resources they need to do their job effectively and safely, he said.

Hogsett also recently announced federal agents are in Indianapolis as part of the federal program Operation Legend to help combat violent crime and drug trafficking. The program comes with $250,000 for IMPD.

Despite worries from community members that Indianapolis will soon resemble Portland — where local officials said they were “illegally taking on the role of riot police” — Carter believes Indianapolis will be different. 

“I would never be concerned about the backlash for doing the right thing,” Carter said, referencing disdain from community members regarding Operation Legend. “Indianapolis has become a very violent city. These agents will live on the fringe and bring specific expertise that we think every agency has, but they simply don’t. … They’re here to support, not to take over.”

‘We’re not without sin’

With tension between police and the Black community at a peak, IMPD Chief Randal Taylor thinks the solution — both to the tension and the city’s crime rate — may be in beat policing. 

In a previous interview with the Recorder, Taylor said giving officers a smaller area to patrol could lead to better relationships and fewer homicides. 

“I mean, we can make arrests,” Taylor said. “… But there’s always someone to take their place. When you start looking at beats and those things, your goal is to start building the relationships prior to people making those poor decisions or going off and pulling triggers.”

Carter agrees. 

“Right now is not a popular time to be me,” Carter said of himself and other officers. “We own some of this, and we’re not without sin. … I really think that if we have those relationships prior to a crisis, we can get through almost anything.”

‘Rethink what public safety means for everybody’

Maybe, some activists and groups believe, the answer to crime and police brutality isn’t to increase the number of police or defund departments, but simply to reimagine policing in Indiana. 

“We have asked the city of Indianapolis and other large cities in Indiana to reimagine how they do policing in their communities,” said Jane Henegar, director of the ACLU of Indiana. “We want them to rethink what public safety means for everybody in the community.”

Specifically, Henegar said Black and brown individuals are most likely to be targeted by police. For this reason, the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus (IBLC) recently announced its Justice Reform Policy Agenda. The proposed changes offer possible solutions to not only reducing crime, but also fostering stronger relationships between the police and the communities they are sworn to protect and serve. 

Included in the agenda are calls to ban no-knock warrants and chokeholds — the latter of which IMPD banned in its recent revision of the use-of-force policy — as well as the creation of a civilian review board and the decriminalization of marijuana. 

According to a 2020 study conducted by the national ACLU, Black Americans are 3.6 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite a comparable usage rate between the two demographics. In an Aug. 13 press conference, Rep. Robin Shackleford, chair of the IBLC, said policies which have led to young adults — primarily African Americans — serving long sentences for marijuana possession is a way in which “we have failed our youth.”

Further, the IBLC called for a review of officer training and for training to be updated annually, something Holcomb addressed during an Aug. 18 announcement about initiatives meant to improve equity in Indiana. Experts will evaluate training received from the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy — from which many Indiana police officers graduate — to modernize the training and make changes where necessary.

“Policing in America had its inception in slave patrols and enforcing Jim Crow laws,” Henegar said. “That’s a major reason why we simply can’t tinker around, change a policy here, policy there. We have to totally reimagine policing and start with something new that focuses on serious crimes.”

Henegar said roughly 5% of arrests nationwide are for serious offenses, such as murder or sexual assault. The other 95% of arrests made are for lesser charges, such as marijuana possession or traffic infractions. According to Henegar, many of these arrests are the result of a “system that targets people of color intentionally … and we can find other ways to address those issues than have a militarized police force.”

While police brutality is often thought of as simply a racial issue, it’s also a socioeconomic issue. 

According to a 2018 study from the American Public Health Association, police-related deaths are significantly more likely to occur in lower-income neighborhoods.

That could be, in part, because poverty drives crime. In return, a criminal record often makes it harder for one to escape poverty, according to Henegar.

“The fact that we tend to underfund certain public resources has resulted in criminalizing or burdening poverty,” Henegar said. “Many of the people who get caught in the cogs of a low-level offense then get further pulled down with fees and fines, extorted from them because there’s a drive for the system to pay itself, and it pays for itself on the backs of poor people, which is tragic.”

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

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