What happens when inadequate infrastructure and racism collide

Pedestrian safety is a hot topic in Indianapolis, and not only among organizing groups like Indy Bike and Pedestrian Safety. Like so many U.S. cities, the lack of basic transportation infrastructure is often deadly for pedestrians, drivers, cyclists, and others.

In the past six months, Indy Pedestrian Safety Crisis identified 368 incidents of pedestrians or cyclists being struck by a vehicle, with 23 resulting in death. When journalist Scarlett O’Hara of Fox59 reported on the topic last year, 40 pedestrians or cyclists were killed by motor vehicles by article’s publication date of December 5.

One of those pedestrians was Tiaera “Tee” Sherice Thomas. Her family will be the first to affirm that the lack of action from political leaders in Indianapolis and Hendricks County is a mounting but unaddressed issue. Tee’s family plans to prevent more deaths by sharing her story and starting a movement to protect and improve our ability to safely walk, bike, and be outside.

Where is pedestrian safety?

Tee Thomas’ mother and aunt sat down with the Indianapolis Liberator to share Tee’s story and explain why they are not giving up on seeking justice for Tee and all victims of the intentional decisions of municipal, state, and federal policymakers and urban planners.

Tee was at her uncle’s housewarming party in Hendricks County on July 02, 2023. Despite her demanding schedule as a mother and working two jobs (one at FedEx and one as a home healthcare worker), Tee always made time for her family. Because she consumed alcohol at the family gathering, Tee made the right decision: to leave her car at the gathering and walk home. Unfortunately, that decision wasn’t enough to prevent her death.

Just before midnight, Tee’s aunt, Tosha Bankhead, heard a knock on the door. She opened the door to Avon Police Detective Alex Stephan and a chaplain. They were there to inform Bankhead that, according to the official police report, Tee was struck and killed by a gray 2013 Ford Focus. Det. Stephan said that the driver was very apologetic and asserted the collision was an accident. The Avon Police Detective even claimed that, because Tee had alcohol in her system, she was at fault for being struck and killed by the driver. “When someone is walking, then the pedestrian has the right-of-way,” said Bankhead.

Tee’s death occurred on a poorly-lit section of Ronald Reagan Parkway in Avon, but her family recognizes that instances like this aren’t confined to that area.

In a 2016 Indy Star article, John Tuohy and Tony Cook noted two main factors that make Indy’s infrastructure so hostile to pedestrians: a lack of sidewalks and streetlights. For 35 years, Indianapolis had moratoriums on the construction of additional streetlights and sidewalks that clearly put pedestrians at risk. These moratoriums ended in 2016, but they caused large swaths of roads with no sidewalks and no lights. In other words, despite the moratoriums’ expiration, their legacy is still responsible for pedestrian deaths.

Family: Detective’s details “don’t add up”

Det. Stephan told Tee’s family that the teenage driver was attempting a U-turn at an intersection when striking Tee, emphasizing how “apologetic” the driver was. While Stephan focused on the sentiments of the driver, Bankhead was busy questioning the narrative. She claims that, at the time and location of the collision, there was nowhere to feasibly execute a U-turn. The injuries Tee sustained—a fractured skull, several broken bones, and significant damage to her internal organs—were more severe than those that a responsible U-turn could cause.

Taken together, the inconsistencies between the injuries that Tee sustained and Avon Detective’s emphasis on the driver’s regret and his implication that Tee was responsible for her death because she had been drinking, led the family to dispute the official police narrative.

“They (Avon PD) uprooted everybody’s life by not giving us closure, not giving us answers and not doing what they are supposed to do,” Bankhead said in conclusion. “We’re in Hendricks County. That’s what they tried to say about George Floyd. They say he caused his own death because he had fentanyl in his system. No, you put your knee on the man’s neck.”

Tee’s family said it took three months to get Tee’s belongings back from the Avon Police Department. When Tee’s purse was returned months later, there were obvious items missing from her purse like Tee’s driver’s license, Current Bank debit card, and cash. The police wanted access to Tee’s cell phone records to see if that may have distracted her, yet according to Bankhead the teenage driver’s cell phone records were not requested to verify that he was not using his phone while driving at the time of the incident.

A path forward

Tee’s family, understandably devastated by the loss of their loved one, wants to work to help those affected by deaths caused by hostile infrastructure, including Tee’s three-year-old daughter.

Tee’s family is organizing a community motorcycle ride on July 6 in honor of Tee and the child left without her mother. The family hopes to use this ride as an opportunity to raise funds for Tee’s daughter and to raise awareness of the dangers pedestrians—especially poor or Black pedestrians—face in central Indiana. Many organizers around pedestrian and bike safety are pushing for a Vision Zero plan that would push for improved infrastructure so that it is safe for people to walk and bike in their city.

Featured photo: Tee with her three-year-old daughter. Used with Tee’s family’s permission.