Cops and councilors shut community out from budget discussions: Herman Whitfield III’s mother says the “silence is deafening”

by Sam James

Note: We are mobilizing for community turnout at the next meeting on September 6.

Expecting the Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee to hear more details on the proposed $324 million IMPD budget for 2024, Indianapolis community members crowded into the Public Assembly Hall at the City County Council building August 16. Instead, the Coroner’s Office, the Forensic Services Agency, and the Office of Public Health and Safety presented on the work they’ve done over the past year, with a few comments on how they would use their proposed 2024 budgets.

Council members quickly shut down comments that brought up the police’s budget. The sheriffs, meanwhile, shut down the most basic forms of free speech, at least for some, before the speech could even be heard.

Marion Co. Sheriff clamps down on free speech at Council meetings

Upon entering the building two days after the Mayor presented his budget giving even more money to the cops, community members and organizers, including those with the Indianapolis Liberation Center, were surprised when sheriffs approached and informed them that paper signs were not permitted past security.

Sheriffs distributed a piece of paper listing restricted items. Only one single line, reading “Signs/Banners/Handbills (of any size),” was highlighted in yellow:

When questioned, the sheriff’s deputies could not say whether the list of banned items was available anywhere the public could access.

“It’s just like how knives and guns aren’t allowed,” one said. “A paper sign is a little different than knives and guns, don’t you think?” retorted one annoyed attendee. Indeed, signs were listed among razor blades and illicit drugs.

Ice Miller Attorney Greg Stowers, who oversees the council building’s operations, officially confirmed the Sheriffs were, in fact, using their power arbitrarily to prevent the public from voicing their objections to the Committee and, therefore, other members of the public.City councilors appear to have been unaware of this new restriction. In an email response to community organizer Wildstyle Paschall, Stowers wrote:

“It was brought to our attention by a deputy sheriff there were some signs that were on large wooded stakes or poles. We were told the deputies restricted those because they saw them as a potential safety concern. Signs are and will be allowed in the Public Assembly Room.”

Whether the deputy lied to the councilors or the councilors are lying to their constituents is unclear. What is clear is that our first amendment rights to free speech were violated and the rule was arbitrarily enforced.

Paschal posted video evidence confirming the Sheriffs selectively and exclusively targeted people critical of the proposed budget that allocates around 30 percent of the $1.56 billion to the cops (IMPD & Sheriffs).

The signs taken from one community member consisted of two pieces of paper taped together. Meanwhile, other signs with sticks attached were present in the committee hearing.

Words of praise for non-law enforcement response team, but no money for expansion

The Office of Public Health and Safety launched the first clinician-led crisis response team in July. This pilot program received $2 million in funding last year, with the goal of operating 24/7. Currently it is only available from 10am to 8pm, with a proposed timeline to expand to 24/7 service by December.

Non-IMPD crisis response has been a long-standing demand of the community, with Indy10 Black Lives Matter and PSL Indianapolis consistently calling for such a program over the past 5 years. While the Hogsett administration pats itself on the back for finally taking action, it is still far from good enough. Right now, the team is only operating in Mile Square, and according to the presentation on Wednesday, there are no current plans to expand service to the rest of the city. 

Herman Whitfield III was murdered by IMPD officers responding to a call for help with a mental health crisis in April of last year. The IMPD’s Mobile Crisis Assistance Teams were unavailable at the time of the call, as the city only pays for them to operate on weekdays from 8am to 6pm. The clinician-led response team we have today would also be unavailable, as Whitfield’s crisis occurred on the northeast side.

Herman’s mother, Gladys Whitfield, attended Wednesday’s committee meeting to urge councilors to speak out on behalf of her son.

According to Mrs. Whitfield, the only councilor to express their support for her family is Ethan Evans. The Whitfield family has the support of Senator Andre Carson, who has reportedly written to the Department of Justice asking for an investigation into her son’s death. 

“I don’t understand,” she told councilors as the buzzer indicating two minutes had passed went off. “What are people supposed to do outside the hours the mental health teams are unavailable? I haven’t heard anyone address that, and I think that’s critical. My son’s life wouldn’t have been taken from us.”

Council members restrained themselves during Mrs. Whitfield’s comments, but they showed no such restraint for Jake Watkins, a member of the Communist Party of Indiana who is helping lead a campaign for the Whitfield family. Barely four sentences in, Watkins was interrupted by multiple councilors demanding to know how his comments on the IMPD’s deadliness “relates” to the agenda. As Watkins skipped forward, attempting to finish his statement, councilors could be seen sighing, rolling their eyes, and even slamming their fists on their desks.

Watkins’ discussion of the IMPD’s history of violence was, of course, relevant to the discussion of the 2024 OPHS budget. In comparison to the IMPD’s $324 million, the clinician-led response team has been budgeted only $1 million for 2024. Again, there are no plans to make this service city-wide. If our council members took the police murders of Black residents seriously, they would be fighting for a reduction in police spending and an increase to the OPHS budget. 

As Gladys Whitefield said at the closing of her remarks, the silence is deafening.

DEI initiatives take center stage in Forensic Services

The Forensic Services Agency spent a significant amount of time on its successful initiative to increase the diversity among its staff, which the Council requested at last year’s budget meeting. The agency was pleased to report that 67% of new hires to the FSA are now people of color, and that among leadership people of color make up 11%.

While this was good enough for the Council, the skeptical attendee might note that while DEI initiatives are all well and good, focusing on hiring diversity in a field that is plagued by junk science and wrongful convictions isn’t actually the progressive win that Council Democrats see it as.

The FSA plans to use its 2024 budget increase to move to a “much needed” larger lab and put more money into its DNA unit. No plan to ensure rigorous standards are enforced for forensic evidence used in trials was shared.

Marion County Sheriff’s Office to present September 6

The budget hearing on the Marion County Sheriff’s Office will take place on Wednesday, September 6 at 5:30PM in the People’s Assembly Room. This will be the public’s only chance to comment on the $130 million going to fund the Sheriff’s department for next year. And the public’s only chance to comment on the ridiculous budget of the IMPD for 2024 will be on Wednesday, September 13 at 5:30PM in the People’s Assembly Room. 

Keep in mind that the Council’s budget hearing schedule is subject to change. It is a favorite tactic of the political establishment to change agendas at the last minute when they expect a large crowd. When they don’t change the agenda at the last minute, they often take up stalling tactics, dragging out routine work and putting the hot-button issue at the end of the meeting, hoping for people to leave before they begin discussion. We must be dedicated and disciplined if we are to effectively counter their manipulations.

For those of us looking to build a society centered around meeting people’s needs instead of criminalizing people for being poor and oppressed, it is vital we stand up and speak out on how our money is spent. Our tax dollars should go to serving our communities that are right now struggling with loss of employment, rising food and housing prices, as well as a lack of access to quality education and healthcare.

The sheriffs will not prevent our right to free speech on September 6. Join us to ensure that doesn’t happen! We say “no” to more money for cops!