Lauryn Smith sat on the sidewalk during a sit-in on Indiana Avenue earlier in September and thought about whether it’s actually possible for police to have a good, trusting relationship with the community.
It is possible, she decided, but not likely.
“How do you want to form a relationship if we can’t trust you? That makes no sense,” she said.
Therein lies the problem for Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department as it tries to add more officers and sell the community on its “beat policing” model. There’s a legitimacy problem that has to be addressed first.
Why is the answer more police?
IMPD has a staffing goal of 1,743 officers but is consistently short of that — currently by about 85 officers. The department’s proposed 2021 budget, which would be a $7.3 million increase from 2020, includes the money to reach that goal.
The idea is IMPD needs more officers in order to shrink the geographic size of patrol areas from “zones” to “beats.” Despite still being short of its staffing goal, the department recently announced a move from 78 beats to 106. This process began in 2016.
Mayor Joe Hogsett said in an interview the beat policing model allows for officers to build relationships with community members in ways that just aren’t possible with zone-based policing.
This way, Hogsett said, residents can go to police officers they actually know because officers are supposed to have more time to get out of their cars and get to know the communities where they patrol.
If those officers don’t spend their whole shift responding to calls, the thinking goes, they can get to know residents’ concerns and earn the trust of people who have information about crime activity.
IMPD Chief Randal Taylor said mistrust comes from things that have happened in the past and currently the department “does a great job with citizens.”
“I don’t believe anyone in the community has always has bad experiences with the police,” he said in an interview.
Two IMPD officers were recently indicted on charges including battery after they were caught on camera beating a woman in May during protests that were sparked in part by the fatal shootings of Dreasjon Reed and McHale Rose. These incidents often hurt the relationship between the police and community.
“We’re not gonna be able to change overnight,” Taylor said, “because the injustices have happened over a period of time.”
IMPD Deputy Chief Josh Barker used to be a beat officer in the area of 10th and Rural streets in the early 2000s and said he took pride in getting to know the residents and business owners.
“I think that those interactions are happening, but it’s definitely been a process to get back to that style of policing,” he said.
Hogsett said he’s just trying to help the department get back to where it was before Indianapolis Police Department merged in 2007 with the sheriff’s department to become IMPD. The department took on more responsibilities and couldn’t keep up with staffing — plus there was a hiring freeze during former mayor Greg Ballard’s administration — which led to a zone-based model.
“For too long we have lived in a city where in too many neighborhoods they don’t really know their officers,” Hogsett said.
‘I see that as shady’
Monique Buckley, standing outside of her car near 42nd Street and Post Road, shook her head no when asked if she could see herself having a conversation with an officer.
“I see that as shady,” she said.
After going back and forth on whether it’s realistic to think police and his neighbors can have a good relationship, Diondray Owens, standing next to Buckley, thought about all the possible ways that interaction might go sideways.
What if he moves too quickly and the officer thinks he’s reaching for a gun?
It’s these types of fears that have to precede any kind of conversation about trust and cooperation with police.
Gallup published a poll in August that showed 48% of respondents have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in police, which marks the first time in 27 years it’s been below 50%. About three-quarters of Black respondents said they have some or very little confidence in police.
Another July poll from Gallup showed 80% of Black respondents want police to spend the same amount of time or more in their area, but what these responses don’t capture is an apparent generational divide.
Smith, who said police can’t hope to build a relationship without trust, is a 20-year-old college student at IUPUI. Her generation seems more likely to outright reject these attempts by police to make inroads with the community.
Then there are those like 53-year-old Anthony Fultz. His father still works in the Cook County Sheriff’s Office in Chicago, where Fultz is from, and his mother is retired from there. He moved to Indianapolis in 2011.
“All cops ain’t bad, but they all ain’t good either,” he said.
Fultz is clear that he doesn’t believe police are going to transform any high-crime or violent neighborhoods for the better — he’s much more optimistic about the community getting resources to help itself — but that doesn’t mean police are the “enemy,” he said.
What’s the impact on crime?
Indianapolis saw a decline in homicides last year for the first time in nearly a decade, but there were already 127 homicides this year through Aug. 29. There were 159 homicides in all of 2018, which was the last record-setting year for Indianapolis.
The city’s murder rate in the late 1990s and early 2000s was better than it has been in recent years, but it was also much lower in 2011 and 2012 when there were fewer officers.
Taylor said it’s possible that even if all goes well, the department’s strategy could just lead to a reduction in low-level crimes and not violence. Violent crime outside of homicide has declined this year.
The department will look for “small victories” in the short term, Taylor said.
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.