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Addressing State-Sanctioned Violence in Indianapolis

Addressing State-Sanctioned Violence in Indianapolis: Indy10 Black Lives Matter’s Response to Final Report of Independent Review Panel Regarding the Response of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department to the Community Protests of May 29-June1 2020 in Downtown Indianapolis 

Though we appreciate certain points made in Final Report of Independent Review Panel Regarding the Response of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department to the Community Protests of May 29-June1 2020 in Downtown Indianapolis (hereinafter referred to as “report” or “the report”), we disagree with the overall framing and characterization of state-sanctioned violence in Indianapolis that the report seeks to address. It is our sincere hope that our elected officials, especially those with jurisdiction over Indianapolis, and the general public alike will consider our thoughts on the report as we continue our fight for Black lives.

A Note on Dreasjon Reed

The authors of the report misspelled Dreasjon Reed’s name as “Dresjean” three times throughout the report (pp. 3, 33).

Points of Agreement

We agree with several factual findings of the report. 

IMPD deployed tear gas before protesters had damaged any property, without sufficient warning, and in an indiscriminate fashion that harmed protesters and bystanders, including young children. Police actions, including this use of tear gas, “escalated tensions” (pp. 5-27, italics added to all quotes from the report or other sources). 

Police declared an “unlawful assembly” even at times when there was no risk to officer safety or public safety. There was no “clear and consistent basis” for declaring an unlawful assembly, with these declarations made “somewhat randomly” and based on the number of people involved (pp. 29, 31). 

IMPD gave conflicting explanations for the confiscation of medical supplies, first saying that they were seized because they had been abandoned, then saying that the bins contained weapons including rocks and sticks. Both claims were refuted by the medics present at the time (p. 30).

Misrepresentations and Omissions of Police Violence

The report described a faceoff between police and protesters, but omitted key details of the encounter. Authors wrote:

“As the afternoon turned into early evening, the number of protesters grew. Confrontations began to occur between IMPD members and protesters. By about 6:00 p.m., tensions were high as police and protesters faced off, at one point standing literally face to face within one or two feet of each other at the inner rim of the Circle (the area inside the street section and surrounding the monument itself). While officers assigned to patrol Downtown were wearing their normal uniforms, members of the ERG were outfitted with tactical gear including reinforced vests, helmets and batons. The combination of the proximity of these officers to the protesters and their attire, in what protesters termed and what is often referred to in lay terms as “riot gear”, raised the temperature of the crowd significantly” (p. 3-4).

Left unmentioned is IMPD’s engagement of protesters and use of pepper spray during this confrontation. Video showed police verbally engaging with protesters. One protester can be heard objecting to an officer’s failure to wear a mask (most protesters were masked; most officers were not). At some point, protesters visibly scattered and shouts of “they’re spraying us” can be heard on the video. Protesters objected to the use of pepper spray, pointing out the presence of small children. Several minutes later, another officer is seen trying to verbally engage protesters, prompting some to accuse police of looking for trouble. Local news coverage from the Indianapolis Recorder stated that around 7pm, after marching around the Circle three times, “protesters said the small number of IMPD officers there at the time began physically engaging the crowd by pushing protesters back,” causing tensions to mount and a line of protesters to form facing police. The Recorder continued, “As some officers began pulling out pepper spray, the crowd grew agitated…The tension hit a peak when one member of the crowd used a water bottle to douse IMPD Sgt. Stephen Fippen. In a matter of seconds, pepper spray was deployed and many in the crowd were sent backwards in an attempt to avoid the mist hanging in the air.” Sergeant Fippen’s presence at the protests during a point of escalation is notable, given that he was disciplined in 2018 after a viral video caught him verbally abusing and threatening a man while using authorized force to apprehend him for resisting arrest and failure to pay a $12.37 tab.

The well-documented use of pepper spray and engagement of protesters by IMPD officers (including at least one officer with a prior disciplinary record) prior to nightfall on May 29 suggest that the proximity of the police and their attire were not the only causes of increased tension (as alleged in the report). While police eventually retreated, the confinement of protesters to the circle, direct confrontation by a line of police, and indiscriminate use of pepper spray marked a shift in the tone of police response that would characterize the rest of the night and the weekend.

The report also detailed “two prominent examples of kettling” that “appear to have occurred,” but speculated on IMPD’s motives in a way that excused police behavior, suggesting that “perceptions of feeling trapped may not have been created intentionally” (p. 30). It is unclear what the intent of IMPD’s orders “to close off all spokes to (streets leading into) Monument Circle, seeking to close it to pedestrians as well as vehicle traffic” (p. 4) could be other than to contain or kettle protesters within the circle. 

The report portrayed IMPD’s tactics on Sunday, May 31 as “less confrontational and more facilitating of legitimate First Amendment protest” (p. 6-7), in the face of significant public evidence to the contrary. IndyStar’s live updates from May 31 indicate that faith leaders staging a peaceful “die-in” protest on the circle at 3pm found their gathering declared unlawful by 5:30pm. IndyStar reporters documented several instances of tear gas deployed against crowds for minor offenses such as allegedly throwing water bottles or spray painting. WTHR interviewed members of a religious congregation who, while holding a prayer vigil on the circle, were caught in the clouds of tear gas deployed by IMPD. A young woman was violently beaten by members of IMPD’s Event Response Group (ERG) as they arrested her for violating curfew. This incident, caught on video, made national news and led to the indictment of two officers on multiple charges of battery and official misconduct. 

In omitting this well-known incident, the report missed an opportunity to examine the organizational culture of IMPD revealed by its response to public outcry over the viral video of the arrest. ERG members, upon the indictment of their colleagues for battery and misconduct, threatened a walkout due to their unhappiness with the charges. Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD) Chief Randall Taylor, during a June 10 council committee meeting while an internal investigation into the arrest was ongoing, appeared to defend or at least mitigate the officers’ actions. He pointed out that officers are authorized to use force when effecting an arrest if the subject resists and stated, “I didn’t like the way it looked, but that doesn’t necessarily make it illegal.” When Councillor Robinson pushed back against the Chief’s mention of “resisting arrest” and described the video evidence of the woman with her arms at her side as police beat her with batons, Chief Taylor claimed that other videos showed the woman resisting arrest. Protest organizers viewed the violent arrest of this young woman and IMPD’s public response as suggestive of a culture of violence and a willingness to excuse violence that permeates IMPD from frontline officers to members of leadership. In such a culture, it is difficult to see how the report’s recommendations could be effectively implemented.

The report’s description of Monday June 1 as peaceful omitted key context of the events described. Authors wrote:

“By Monday, June 1, tensions had calmed considerably. While representatives of the organized groups that normally convene such protest marches had mixed feelings at best about the well-publicized march up Meridian Street toward the Governor’s Residence, not led by them, that culminated in an IMPD officer hugging a protester, that incident demonstrated that a sympathetic approach to those engaging in legitimate protest tends to lead to a more positive and peaceful conclusion than a more confrontational approach. Indeed, it appears that the IMPD sergeant who de-escalated that situation changed a potentially dangerous situation to a peaceful one” (p. 7)

Local independent news footage showed police firing warning shots (whether these were live rounds or “less lethal” munitions is unclear) as protesters approached the Governor’s mansion. Any “de-escalation” on the part of IMPD or state police must be considered within this context, as protesters likely feared for their safety and even their lives. This makes any supposed negotiation or agreement reached between police and protesters very one-sided, as the balance of power clearly favored the heavily armed police. The fact that police were unwilling to deploy tear gas in the wealthy, predominantly white neighborhood around the Governor’s mansion cannot be seen as “a sympathetic approach” given the indiscriminate use of tear gas downtown. It merely underscores the inequitable policing of neighborhoods along lines of race and class — the very injustices that brought protesters to the streets in the first place. The report’s failure to consider the broader social contexts of both police and protesters’ actions raises questions about its utility in addressing the root causes of police violence and community distrust of police.

Report authors speculated that, “[h]ad IMPD leadership been more fully aware of the inclinations of MCPO in terms of making charging decisions, for example, it might have impacted their instructions to their officers throughout the weekend.” Authors seemed to assume that IMPD would not have made so many arrests resulting in no charges had they known the prosecutor’s plans not to file charges. This is inconsistent, however, with IMPD’s prior actions in response to discretion exercised by the Marion County Prosecutor’s office. After Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears announced in 2019 that he would no longer prosecute minor marijuana cases, then-chief Bryan Roach publicly stated that IMPD would continue to enforce the law. Thus, it is unclear why the authors of this report expected prosecutorial policy to have any impact on IMPD leadership’s instruction to its officers in this instance. This speculation is part of a pattern within the report that frequently gives IMPD the benefit of the doubt and blames “misunderstandings” or “insufficient communication” for the wilful actions of officers (pp. 16, 18, 32, 35-37).

As a result of the omissions and excuses outlined above, the report’s unwillingness to ascribe agency or intent to IMPD for police violence against protesters undermines its key finding that “actions of police escalated tensions in the crowd.” Authors suggested: 

“It is highly unlikely that the IMPD officers whose actions escalated the tensions of the crowd during the weekend of May 29 did so deliberately, nor is their misapprehension about effective tactics limited to their agency” (p. 20).

The authors offered no evidence to support the claim that officers’ escalation was not deliberate beyond general excuses such as lack of planning, training, and experience on the part of IMPD. Elsewhere in the report, an officer is quoted as saying “Cops want to be police—we don’t want to hug the problem” (p. 21). This is a deliberate statement of intent that suggests a preference for use of force over de-escalation. While the report attributes such attitudes to “inadequate training,” this is irrelevant to whether the police deliberately escalated tensions. The events omitted from the report’s summary of events, such as the verbal engagements and use of pepper spray on the Circle early in the evening of May 29 and the widespread use of tear gas on May 31 would not appear to support the conclusion that escalation was unintentional on the part of IMPD.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Indy10 Black Lives Matter in June 2020 because of IMPD’s use of chemical agents (tear gas) and projectiles against protestors during the demonstrations discussed in the report. Though the report makes note of this and acknowledges IMPD’s wrongdoing as it relates to this matter, it is unclear why authors deemed it appropriate to provide commentary suggesting the use of expired tear gas poses less of a physical health risk than non expired tear gas (p. 37). Given that authors cite only “the opinion of one medical professional” as evidence to support this claim, the utility of this line of inquiry in a report that purports to seek to address community concerns regarding policing in Indianapolis remains unclear. We wonder whether the authors would have gone to such lengths to minimize IMPD’s use of expired tear gas had it affected them or their loved ones.

The omission of any mention in the report of Mayor Joe Hogsett, the chief executive of the City of Indianapolis, is puzzling. In a meeting the morning of May 30 Hogsett told members of Indy10 Black Lives Matter that the National Guard would not be deployed in downtown Indianapolis. The National Guard was deployed later that weekend in downtown Indianapolis. In its reporting of the report the Indianapolis Star says “Then Deputy-Mayor David Hampton also spoke to members of Indy10 Black Lives Matter about working with police to help keep the crowd calm.” To be clear, we have no prior or current partnerships with any law enforcement agency. Further, we told them that we could not control the crowd and strongly suggested the Mayor use the power of his position to discourage IMPD from making things worse by antagonizing the crowd.

Faulty Frameworks on Policing and Violence

Of the 11 times authors used the word “violent” in their report, 10 described civilians or protests and only 1 described police (the “violent racial repression in the 1960s,” p. 38). Similarly, none of the 24 uses of the word “violence” referred to the actions of police. Many instances of these words described police expectations of protest, or research around policing protests (pp. 8, 10, 12, 14, 15, 24, 32, 35, 36). 

Use of the words “violent” and “violence” to describe the events of May 29 – June 1 in Indianapolis was not sufficiently specific to determine what offenses were being described. Only in one instance was the word “violence” used to describe potential bodily harm: “several reports of shots fired.” Often, the word “violence” was paired with words such as “vandalism,” “destruction,” “looting,” “illegal,” or “disruption” (pp. 6, 41, 42). It is unclear in these contexts whether the term referred to specific harmful actions or was merely used as an intensifier.

In contrast, authors stated that police “deployed” tear gas or pepper balls (pp. 5, 25-28, 31) or “employed strategies to be used for dispersing the crowd” (p. 29). By describing police violence in professional or tactical terms, the report — even where it critiqued such violence — ultimately legitimized it as a valid police tactic under certain circumstances. The authors made no similar analysis of destructive acts by protesters, deemed “violent” even when they did not cause bodily harm. No consideration was given to the fact that civilians may employ property damage as a tactic because property is protected and valued more highly than their lives. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. explained of a looter, “Alienated from society and knowing that this society cherishes property above people, he is shocking it by abusing property rights.” This alienation, the result of organized abandonment on the part of the state, is rarely acknowledged in discussions of violence even though it underlies disorder such as that witnessed in Indianapolis last spring and summer.  

The report made clear its intent to “assist IMPD in improving its response to future First Amendment protests, and to assist the entire Indianapolis community in moving forward in a positive manner that will contribute to greater understanding and trust on all sides.” The authors appeared to envision a best practice for policing that, if followed, would resolve the misunderstandings between police and civilians and allow for peaceful relations between the two. Accordingly, research cited within the report (pp. 8-12) as well as the descriptions of “mutual misunderstandings” between IMPD and the community (pp. 32-37) focused on police behavior and interpersonal relationships between individual officers and members of the community. 

This narrow focus risks constraining the terms of public discourse around policing. The perspectives of those who advocate for transformational, systemic changes in approach to public safety were wholly excluded from this report. Though authors included “suggestions from community members,” (p. 37) they made no mention of the growing calls to divest from policing and reinvest in communities. In September, members of the public submitted thirty pages of public comment to the City County Council Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee in opposition to the proposed IMPD budget. Many of their comments called for reallocating funds from policing to social programs.

Experts in fields ranging from law and American politics to public health have also questioned whether policing truly promotes public safety in light of the harms it causes. The American Public Health Association, the nation’s largest public health professional organization, published a policy brief in November 2018 which found that “policing reproduces inequitable social and economic conditions that precipitate intervention by law enforcement” and recommended “[r]reallocation of funds from policing to the social determinants of health.” 

The authors’ failure to address the significant public and academic discussions calling for public safety without policing limits the report’s ability to truly address root causes of harm in Indianapolis.

Conclusion

Of the seven recommendations made in the report, we believe four would make protests in Indianapolis safer: 

  • “Use of de-escalation techniques rather than disorder control tactics
  • Avoid excessive use of force
  • No encircling of crowds
  • Avoidance of aggressive posture” (pp. 39-40).

However, we do not believe improved planning, training, or community outreach will address violence in Indianapolis, which has its roots in both the institution of policing and the inequitable distribution of resources. 

We must take care when discussing violence and its amelioration from our communities by keeping in mind that state-sanctioned violence harms more people than protesters ever could. Racist laws keep many in Indianapolis unhoused, unfed, and woefully unsupported. To suggest that improving interpersonal relations between the community and those tasked with enforcing such laws (IMPD), the overarching claim made in the report, further obfuscates the root causes of violence in Indianapolis.  

The root cause of violence in Indianapolis is racist, bad policy. We must hold our elected officials accountable and demand change from those who have decision-making power in the City of Indianapolis. When these leaders neglect our communities, we must care for each other through mutual aid projects that bring us closer to the world we deserve. Please consider following the work of Indy10 Black Lives Matter for relevant and timely action steps on this topic.