INDIANAPOLIS—Rep. Carolyn Jackson spent 30 years as a probation officer at the Cook County Adult Probation Department.
Now her experience informs her legislation. In House Bill 1128, Jackson, D-Hammond, calls for mental health checks for police officers. She was emotional as she said a friend was shot on duty.
“They came back to work after a couple of days and, and everybody seemed to think that he was OK, but as it turned out, he was not OK,” Jackson said. “And, you know, things just kind of spiraled out of control.”
The bill requires the Indiana Law Enforcement Training Board, which oversees the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy, to establish a psychological fitness test, which officers would be given following potentially traumatic events.
“A lot of times, they don’t want to come out and say, ‘You know what, I’m really hurting’, or, ‘This is really bothering me,’ and sometimes you don’t know,” Jackson said. “And they’re suffering. And not only are they suffering, but those individuals around them are suffering as well because they don’t know how to deal with it.”
This is just one of many bills being introduced this session involving policing in Indiana. Other members of the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus are introducing legislation along with Republican lawmakers and former police officers.
In a separate bill, Jackson, who serves as the chaplain of the Black Legislative Caucus, hopes to establish a database of police misconduct. It would give police departments background information on officers in order to prevent departments from unknowingly hiring officers with a history of malpractice, Jackson said. She said officers often resign upon committing a fireable offense, and without shared information between departments, the officer can be easily hired to a new agency.
“What if there is no way for another law enforcement department to know that these different things have transpired, that you have this long record of doing things?” Jackson said. “Then they think you are the greatest person to hire because you have experience, you have training, and you have a lot of quantifications behind you.”
Jackson said that when an individual’s history of misconduct is revealed, supervisors say they had no knowledge of the offenses because the officer was at a different department. This database would not only protect citizens, Jackson said, but protect police departments from hiring incapable officers.
Rep. John Bartlett, D-Indianapolis, also a member of the Black Legislative Caucus, authored another bill requiring Indiana State Police oversight in cases of excessive use of force.
“So if a local policeman shoots someone, he doesn’t go before his buddies and they say, ‘No, it was justifiable,’” Bartlett said. “I want the state standard to be set, and I don’t care if you live in a small town or a big city, in a rural community, urban community. Everyone goes before the same commission, and everyone has to abide by the same rules.”
Bartlett denounced the idea of defunding the police, an approach that has gained support in some cities in the wake of the George Floyd killing in 2020.
“I tell the folks in my district, that’s not what you want to do. Defunding the police, that’s not an answer,” he said. “We need to do some fine-tuning with the police.”
Bartlett said more energy needs to be focused on decreasing the number of homicides in Marion County.
“We need to take a long hard look at ourselves, and it’s that time,” Bartlett said. “We ended up with 255 murders in Marion County. And we marched in protest because the police kill one person. One person is wrong, and I’m not downplaying that.”
The person Bartlett referred to is 21-year-old Dreasjon Reed, who was shot in May 2020 after being pursued by police for reckless driving. The incident was partially caught on Facebook Live. IMPD found a weapon at the scene and believe it belonged to Reed. Bartlett publicly denounced Reed’s murder.
“It’s now time that we begin to look at not only the police but look at ourselves as well,” he said.
Bartlett said he is hosting town halls to find the solution to this problem. At 72 years old, he said things have changed since his youth, and he wants to sit down and take notes from citizens on how crime can be decreased in Indianapolis.
Some advocates don’t believe reform is enough
Jessica Louise, a community organizer for Indy Ten BLM, said the group pushed for mental health checks for officers before transitioning their goal from reform to defunding as a means to abolish the police. She said this would consist of pulling money from police department funding and using it for community projects and services with the goal of eventually disbanding police departments.
“I think the legislation is just one piece of the puzzle,” Louise said. “Legislation can offer itself more to reform that abolition, and we’re students and studiers of abolition.”
Working off the idea that people commit crime because their basic needs haven’t been met, Louise said working to address these needs would decrease criminal activity in the city.
“Our hope is to reallocate any funding that comes into community initiatives that serve people’s basic needs, and as that happens, study and watch the level of activity and police response, and then utilize that to push forward with abolition,” Louise said.
The national Black Lives Matter website does not discuss abolition, but does prioritize defunding police.
Initially, her organization sought reform.
Seven years ago, under former Indiana Metropolitan Police Department Chief Rick Hite and former Indianapolis Mayor Gregory Ballard, Louise said the group called for cultural competency and implicit bias training along with mental health checks for officers.
“We attempted to be consistent with those suggestions,” she said. “We took them to two organizations as well as the chief of police and the mayor at the time, and those aren’t things that they found to be of benefit or that they wanted to devote their energy to.”
A recent example cited by Louise was the police killing of 19-year-old McHale Rose in Indianapolis in May 2020. IMPD Chief Randal Taylor ordered the four IMPD officers involved returned to duty after being placed on administrative leave for three months.
“Chief Taylor had an opportunity to navigate that process with more grace than he has, and he chose not to,” Louise said.
A separate bill that would require de-escalation training, make chokeholds illegal in most instances and have mandatory record-sharing between departments passed unanimously in a House committee Tuesday.
The bill was authored by Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, and co-authored by three other legislators, including Robin Shackleford, D-Indianapolis, chair of the Black Legislative Caucus. In testimony before the committee, the lawmakers said they aim to use reform measures to build trust between police officers and their communities.
However, Louise said it’s too late for police departments to gain trust.
“We’ve had to shift our energy from reform again to defunding and abolition,” she said. “Unfortunately, that trust is gone, and every opportunity that they’ve had to rebuild that trust and every opportunity they’ve had to build transparency and accountability, they’ve shied away from.”
Jackson said that a lot of the legislation introduced for police reform isn’t new, but a summer of protests and discussions with their constituents highlighted that it is overdue.
Republican lawmakers are seeing state oversight of IMPD
With Indianapolis hitting a high in homicides with 245 killings in 2020, former police officer Sen. Jack Sandlin, R-Indianapolis, introduced legislation to create an advisory board over the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department. Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, is a former member of the Indianapolis City-County Council and is also an author of the bill. The bill has 10 Republican co-authors.
Sandlin, a former councilman, said the bill came about because he saw no action plan from IMPD or the City-County Council.
“Something bold needs to happen to address the crime and violence and the response to the police morale,” Sandlin said.
The five-person board would consist of Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett and four members appointed by Gov. Eric Holcomb. The board would appoint a police chief, serve as the merit board, and create and execute rules for the department.
Bartlett called this idea “crazy.”
“If you’ve got a flat tire, you don’t get rid of the car. You change the tire,” he said. Instead, he said the Indianapolis City-County Council should continue to oversee the department.
In a press release, Rep. Cherrish Pryor, D-Indianapolis, a member of the Black Legislative Caucus, said this was an attack by Republicans in an attempt to gain control of the local government in Indianapolis and encouraged the Indiana General Assembly to instead focus on passing criminal justice reform bills.
Sandlin said he didn’t want to create government oversight of IMPD, but he has been getting calls from people in the community, businesses and law enforcement officers telling him something needs to be done.
“I spent a career in policing. I think I grasp the concepts and what’s going on, and I hate it that we’re here,” Sandlin said. “But, you know, there’s really nothing going on to address the issues.”
Sandlin said the appointment of the police chief by the board, rather than by the mayor of Indianapolis, would remove political aspects of the job. Under the current state and city leadership, members appointed by Holcomb, who is a Republican, would be serving on the board with Hogsett, who is a Democrat.
“There are some agencies in the U.S. where they appoint a police chief for a determined period of time and then that chief can be removed only for cause, which eliminates some of the political nuances that go on in policing,” he said.
Louise said it’s troubling that the Republican Party, which typically advocates for smaller government, is advocating for extending state government to a city police department.
“It kind of seems ironic that, now that we have two civilian majority boards, that now they’re wanting to step in and take that power from, you know, civilians and community members, and give it to the state,” she said.
Sandlin said the board would still allow the current Citizens’ Police Complaint Board to operate and that members of the board would be primarily selected out of the City-County Council.
“If you have a board that’s working toward the professional operation of the Metropolitan Police Department and makeup such that it represents the community,” Sandlin said, “I think you have the opportunity for better communication and less nuts-and-bolts political influence.”
Sandlin emphasized he hopes this change will increase communication between law enforcement and the Indianapolis community.
“We used to have great communication between law enforcement and in the community, and it’s just almost nonexistent at this point,” Sandlin said.
Sandlin repeatedly acknowledged that the bill is not necessarily in its final form and modifications may come. If signed into law, the changes would begin in 2023.
Taylor Wooten is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.