IMPD officers join panel on community relations to find ways to ‘bridge the gap’

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INDIANAPOLIS – On Saturday night, eight Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officers joined a panel hosted by the Steward Speakers Series, which focused on bridging conversations between police and the community.

The virtual event was moderated by Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, an author, activist and television personality.

Steward Speakers said the purpose of Saturday’s discussion was to focus on bridging the conversation between law enforcement and the community by addressing questions on the impact of mental health and social unrest in the community.

Hill opened up the nearly two-hour moderated conversation by saying, “This is such an important event we’re having this evening, such an important conversation about the role of police in our communities, the question of mental health, the question of social justice and of course, how we can come together to produce outcomes and realities that are better than the ones we are facing right now.”

Social justice and race relations

On the topic of social justice, IMPD Chief Randal Taylor offered opening remarks before the panel weighed in on the discussion.

He said in his 34 years in law enforcement, he has come to realize that there are things that work well, and there are things that need to change.

“One thing that I know is, there is a divide. There is a gap between police and communities,” said Taylor. “I’ve realized that there’s gotta be a way to narrow those gaps, to build those bridges, and in law enforcement, I know that it takes time to get there.”

He said in Indianapolis, IMPD is focused on taking steps to bridge communication gaps and improve relations with the community.

Several of those steps are through beat policing and encouraging officers to get out into the community and engage with the people they serve, an enhanced community safety initiative, which deals with officers listening about concerns in neighborhoods regarding crime and steps to address those, and through IMPD’s Community Engagement Office, to take care of the needs of youth and adults through various programs.

“We’re always going to have to strive to make those changes to do best practices in order to make the community and the police work together,” said Taylor. “It’s not always on the police. The community has to participate in this as well. We have to work hand-in-hand in order to get to where we want to be.”

Hill asked the IMPD officers about their response to the verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin, who was convicted of murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“Me personally, watching that video, that initial video when that happened, we had conversations in our office as law enforcement. It was hard to watch, quite frankly,” said IMPD community relations officer Kim Evans.

Evans said she believes there is a lot of work to do as a nation, as well as healing, and believes it will take time to get there.

“I felt horrified like everybody else,” said community resource officer Madeline Green. “Now it’s time for us to truly do the work of trying to engage the community and work together with the community so we can move forward in doing the right things.”

Det. Robert Henderson said the verdict in the Chauvin trial was a relief, noting that “it has been a trying time for officers.” He said there have been many questions regarding why this happened, but he didn’t have the answers because he said that isn’t the way officers he works with do things.

“I think just the mere relief of the verdict and of allowing us to move past that and allowing us to be able to now see that justice was served and to see that we can now have some dialogue where we can see that the results of the community getting involved, expressing their compassion for justice in itself, to see that, it makes a difference,” said Henderson.

“The dynamics of policing around the country has changed, and I think that alone has allowed us to be able to move forward and to change the perception of police and to change the direction of policing in the future,” Henderson continued.

Many of the officers shared their personal experiences in discussing policing and the events in Minneapolis with their own families in the aftermath of Floyd’s death, which sparked widespread outcry and unrest across the nation.

Mental health and policing

Another topic discussed during Saturday’s panel was mental health and IMPD’s role and responsibility in responding to situations where a person is facing a mental health challenge.

“How often when you’re engaging members of the community is mental health an issue?” Hill asked.

Officer Lamar Saunders said he would estimate around 40% to 50% of daily runs he goes on involve a person struggling with issues related to mental health.

“One thing that is important, specifically for IMPD when we talk about mental health, is that the department’s done a really great job at separating the term of mental health illness from offender,” said Saunders.

“We have units on the departments such as the BHU [Behavioral Health Unit] and MCAT, which is an officer paired up with a clinician” said Saunders.

“Their overarching goal is not to criminalize having a mental health episode,” he said. “It’s to stabilize that person and get them the help they need.”

Saunders said the follow-up to these situations is providing families and these individuals with information on resources — through community partners, hospitals, etc. — to get the person help, but it isn’t always a success.

“At that point, it becomes part of the family’s responsibility to help that individual reach out and follow through,” he shared. “One of the issues that we — at least I run into a lot of times — is I interact with a subject. I make a referral to our behavioral health unit, interact with that person again and say, ‘Hey, did you follow through with those resources?’

“The answer is no.”

He said they find themselves in a “perpetual cycle” of meeting these people again in a crisis situation, and once a crisis is in action, it limits how they can respond.

They try to be proactive, said Saunders, to help people dealing with these issues.

“As a department, we are very clear on the idea of mental illness is not a crime. It’s a momentary situation that hopefully we can step in and stabilize to get you in a better spot moving forward,” said Saunders.

Officer Evans said they have various resources that will engage and travel out into the community.

“Our approach as an agency,” she said, “is, we are bringing our resources to you. We are meeting you where you are at.

“The challenge for us is, we need somewhere more permanent, more long-term supportive housing for people who are experiencing mental illness as well as more stability with medications”

Officer TyAnn Lambert, who has a background in social work, said the mental health system is a “big, black hole” working against many individuals who may need help but do not have the financial means or support to get it.

“It’s really unfortunate because a lot of people really, really want help,” she said. “A lot of times people will call the Eskenazi crisis line, and the first people Eskenazi crisis line calls is IMPD and says, ‘Can you check the welfare of this person?'”

Lambert said it’s not uncommon for people having a mental health crisis, who they respond to help, to dislike the police. So then medics are called, but medics cannot transport without the police.

“We’re already kind of put between a rock and a hard spot, and we really, generally want to help them, but they don’t think that way, and I don’t blame them,” she said. “They want help from a medic, they want help from a hospital, and then we show up, because typically we show up before medics get there because we’re already on that beat.”

She said the misconception in many of these cases is that when the officers arrive first, they are going to take them to jail.

“That’s not the case at all, so it’s just this big, revolving door with mental health, and it’s really, really sad because I think they do want help,” she said.

Saunders explained when officers arrive at a call involving mental health, they are laser-focused on assessing the situation and helping to isolate the person and help them.

He said in certain circumstances, such as a SWAT or negotiation situation, there is an on-call psychologist to respond to assist.

Moving forward and improving relations

“Where do we go from here?” Hill asked in the final segment of the panel’s discussion.

IMPD Deputy Chief Josh Barker said, “2020 brought great change to the discussion on policing in America. If we are to continue progress in community and police relations, we must continue to strive to work together for that progress to continue.

“The police are people, and the people are the police.”

Barker said he feels the community and police need a better understanding of one another’s perspectives in order to get comfortable with police roles in communities, as well as identifying ways and obstacles standing in the way of progress.

“A key component is communication,” Green said. “I know that we do a lot of community meetings in my unit, and we answers the questions. A lot of residents have those questions, and so we answer them as genuinely as possible and inform them of the different reasons we do things in a certain way.

“They get a better understanding, and so we get a better understanding of them as well.”

Henderson said the conversations need to happen between police and both the community members who do and don’t support them in order to make progress on moving forward and closing the gap.

“It’s good to have conversation amongst the community who supports us, but we need to be able to sit down at the table somehow, I don’t know how that will work out, but sit at the table with those who don’t like us and have that same dialogue,” he explained.

“For those who are willing to meet us halfway and kind of give us the opportunity, understanding of our job and why we do what we do, how we do what we do everyday,” she said, encouraging people who want to learn more to join IMPD’s citizen’s academy.

“Just see how that officer’s interacting because I think what you’ll find is here in Indianapolis with IMPD, we are doing what’s right. We love our community, we support our community, and we want to make sure that you understand that we’re doing everything possible,” said Evans.

“These feelings of anger and hurt and distrust, those are some of the same feelings that everybody up here felt when we all went through this together, and we are in this together, and I really believe that with meaningful conversation, with hard conversation, that we can all come through this together as well,” she continued.

Officer Samone Burris said if productive conversations are going to happen, both parties need to come in valuing and humanizing one another.

“I would definitely say going into those situations like, finding the common ground of what we value because if I don’t value you as a person, if I don’t value where you come from, and you don’t value me, you don’t value my uniform, you don’t value the job I do, there’s never a common ground we can reach,” she said.

“If I am going into a conversation in the community, I am going to learn something. Teach me something that I don’t know. Show me something that I may not have known before.

“You’ve never met me in a situation,” Burris said, “so educate me to your experience.”

Hill said, “The work begins the moment we walk out of this room, the moment we go back into our communities and the moment we begin to engage the people and the institutions and the instances, the practices, the cultures that brought us here in the first place.

“We’ve got so much to do, but this conversation tonight has made me hopeful. It’s made me believe that there’s possibility in communities.”

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