A video captured on Aug. 29 and spread on social media showed an Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD) officer punch a 17-year-old outside of Shortridge High School after officers responded to a fight at the school.
The student’s family has filed a federal lawsuit against the officer, and IMPD placed the officer on administrative leave while the Internal Affairs Unit conducts an investigation.
The incident ratcheted up a truth that’s been there since the Carolina colonies formalized a slave patrol in 1704 and Boston established the first municipal police department in 1838: Black Americans, especially those who are poor and in urban areas, carry with them a laundry list of reasons to not trust police.
But some community leaders and experts say the onus is on both the police and community to mend this relationship.
“Let’s work to establish actual relationships with law enforcement,” said Indianapolis City-County Council President Vop Osili. “It’s not a them-versus-us thing. We’re all operating in the city of Indianapolis.”
Osili said the community has a responsibility to learn law enforcement policy and procedures — posted online at indy.gov — along with getting familiar with officers, showing up to meetings and even taking part in trainings such as the Public Safety Citizens Academy. IMPD also hosts Fair and Impartial Policing training, where community members learn about the science of implicit bias and the training officers get.
Toby Miller, director of the Race and Cultural Relations Leadership Network, helps oversee the six Community Resource District Councils, which create community programs to reduce crime. Miller has worked with IMPD on improving its relationship with the community but said citizens could do the same thing by joining a district council, for example.
“The community can’t just say, ‘OK, the police need to do better,’ and not be part of the solution,” he said.
Herbert Mutumba, collegiate liaison for local civil rights group Don’t Sleep, agreed that some of the responsibility is on the community. He referenced a recent peace festival at Frederick Douglass Park, where organizers met with police to let them know what was going on, and police were at the event to interact with people.
At the same time, Mutumba said, people are “slowly but surely getting fed up” by instances like the one at Shortridge because it can feel like a hopeless battle against a perpetual wave of racism and brutality.
If that incident had happened 20 or 30 years ago, Indianapolis Police Department — which was later consolidated with the county sheriff’s office to become IMPD — likely would have handled the fallout differently. Miller said the department used to “bunker up” to protect the officers after something like that, a practice he estimated began to change in the mid-1990s.
Part of why that culture has changed, he said, is simply because of technology. America’s problems are now Indianapolis’ problems — and vice versa.
“IMPD is impacted by what happens in Ferguson or in Baltimore or in Cleveland and Charlotte,” Miller said. “All of these incidents that are occurring nationally … all of that impacts the local experience.”
Joe Slash, the former deputy mayor who was also president of the Indianapolis Urban League, said the creation of the citizens complaint board in the 1990s added a layer of transparency that has held IMPD more accountable now. He said relations between the community and police used to be much worse than today.
“We’ve come miles from where we were back then,” said Slash, who is also in his fourth term on the police merit board. “If you think it’s any problem now, you should’ve lived with us back in the ‘70s and ‘80s and early ‘90s.”
Aside from an effort to be more transparent now, IMPD is counting on a return to beat policing to improve its status with the community. In a beat policing system, officers are responsible for a smaller area and ideally interact with residents more often. It’s a change from zone policing, where officers are in charge of a larger area. Departments often use this technique when they don’t have enough officers.
Beat policing is what IMPD Lt. Kendale Adams was accustomed to from his early years with the department. Adams, who has been with IMPD for 22 years, recalled one time when he patrolled the Riverside area and saw some kids playing basketball. He ordered some pizzas and talked with them.
“When we drop those biases and we start to have conversations, we start to realize there’s a lot of things we have in common,” he said.
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.
RACE AND CULTURAL RELATIONS LEADERSHIP NETWORK EVENTS
The Race and Cultural Relations Leadership Network is celebrating its 25th anniversary with events throughout September and into October.
• Voices, a play about race relations in America and Indiana — 6-9 p.m. Sept. 17 at Wendell Phillips School 63, 1163 N. Belmont Ave.
• Implicit bias training — 1-5 p.m. Sept. 19 at Peace Learning Center, 6040 Delong Road
• Reparations 101 — 2-4 p.m. in the Center for Black Literature and Culture at Central Library, 40 E. St. Clair St.
• Festival of Faith — 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sept. 22 at Indiana War Memorial Plaza, 55 E. Michigan St.
• Community-Based Organizations and Race: Roles, Responsibilities, Risks, Rewards — 3-5 p.m. Sept. 28 at Hovey Street Church of Christ, 2338 Hovey St.
• Race and Cultural Relations Leadership Network 25th Anniversary Celebration — 4-6 p.m. Oct. 5 at Landmark for Peace Memorial, 1702 Broadway Ave.