INDIANAPOLIS — In exclusive interviews, two IMPD officers who were on the frontlines of a weekend of rioting in downtown Indianapolis last spring tell CBS4 that they felt like “scapegoats for a political agenda” following a report that found officers’ aggressive dress and actions precipitated two nights of violent civil unrest.
The officers asked CBS4 to protect their identities due to potential political, community or departmental blowback for speaking out.
The interviews mark the first time IMPD officers who were engaged in restoring peace to the downtown area have spoken publicly, though one admitted he testified before Mayor Joe Hogsett’s hand-picked three-member commission tasked with examining the police response during late May and early June of last year when thousands of demonstrators walked the streets of Indianapolis to protest social injustice and law enforcement response.
The “Final Report of Independent Review Panel Regarding the Response of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department to the Community Protests of May 29-June 1, 2020, in Downtown Indianapolis” found that the appearance of officers in helmets and gas masks armed with batons incited the crowd to violence, the protesters felt hemmed in by police “kettling” of the crowd and that frontline officers were let down by a lack of planning and strategy by IMPD commanders.
“I’m talking to you because I feel like there’s one side of the story that’s really being told, and there are facts of that story that just aren’t quite right from the viewpoint of those that were actually there,” said one officer.
Another officer, who said he was dispatched to downtown as a member of the Event Response Group, was on duty on Monument Circle early in the evening of Friday, May 29 when the crowd of protesters began to swell.
“We had our helmets and per our training, when the helmets come out, you usually take out your baton with that,” he said. “The normal riot gear we don’t use because that’s more of a defensive thing, and it’s more like full body protection. We never had that during the course of the weekend at all.”
The commission found, after taking testimony from IMPD commanders, Mayor Hogsett and his staff and demonstrators, that the presence of officers wearing tactical protective gear caused anxiety in the crowd that led to violence.
“We were initially told to keep the Circle closed from vehicular traffic and any more pedestrian traffic,” said the officer. “Initially, we were pretty close to the protesters, and then at some point there was a command decision to back up the officers to the alley just north of the Circle and between Ohio and Monument Circle.
“We were told the stay there and not to let them go out and march because of traffic and the amount of protesters, and we didn’t have the amount of officers that we would normally have for a pre-planned event to shut down traffic patterns to be able to allow them to march safely.”
Soon the size of the crowd overwhelmed the officers assigned to observe them, and the protesters began to roam the streets, some jumping on cars, throwing projectiles and committing vandalism just after sunset.
“I recall the first instance where ERG did deploy riot control agents would have been at the intersection of Market and Illinois — large crowds,” said one officer. “There were protesters that were jumping on top of cars, there was already property damage that had occurred. This was no longer a peaceful protest or anything that would fall under the First Amendment. This was destruction. City property. We had reports of people being injured.”
A second officer said riot control agents, including pepper balls and chemical spray, were deployed per IMPD policy and training.
“It seemed to have the effect as it was designed to do,” he said. “I felt like a lot of folks that were there just to watch started leaving after the gas was deployed. Those that were down there to commit violence threw a lot of the canisters back at the police and dug in and stayed.”
One of the officers recalled responding to 47 Prime-Indy’s Steakhouse at 47 South Pennsylvania Street, where the first acts of vandalism occurred.
“There were tipped over tables, broken plates, food all over in the street. I’m pretty sure their front window was cracked or their door was shattered, and then after that, it just seemed to go downhill. There were more 911 calls, people calling for help, and we were still being told to stay out of the area.”
“Was there ever either indicated or specifically verbally said ‘stand down’?’” the officer was asked.
“Yes,” he said. “We were told to stay away from the crowds.”
IMPD commanders tell CBS4 that officers were told to give the crowd some room to move in an attempt to de-escalate the tension but not to specifically “stand down.”
IMPD reports examined by CBS4 indicate that the atmosphere deteriorated quickly as soon more windows were broken, Circle Centre was breached by looters and officers came under attack.
“I can tell you personally from my experience that my time on this department that was probably the only time when I ever thought that I was not gonna make it home,” said one officer. “There were gunshots going off all around, explosions, either from fireworks or fires being set. There were bricks being hurled at the officers from above from the parking garages. They were busting real close to you. A total lack of any control.”
The violence continued until approximately 4 a.m. Saturday when the crowds thinned out.
One ERG officer said he went home and slept for 90 minutes Saturday morning before being told to report back for duty.
“I hope that the command staff seen what worked and what didn’t during last summer’s riots. You can’t stop thousands of protesters with a hundred officers or less,” he said. “You can’t protect the businesses, who their livelihood depends on their business, and you can’t protect that with minimal manpower because you’re afraid of upsetting a few.
“The way the police have been portrayed over the last nine months have been scapegoats for a political agenda,” said the officer, “and I feel that revealing my name could have repercussions from my department or the city.”
The Hogsett-appointed commission found, “It is important to note that the chaos and destruction that occurred cannot completely be laid at the feet of front-line IMPD officers, who, as indicated, were unprepared for and insufficiently trained to address a demonstration of this magnitude, were given insufficient direction by their superiors and were unaccustomed to demonstrations for the purpose of protesting the police themselves.”
One officer who served on the front lines that weekend was dismayed by the damage and mayhem he witnessed.
“I just want to say reports, news clips, they can only give a small slice of what was really going on downtown, and I’m thankful a lot of people in our community didn’t have to deal with what we did down there on those two nights,” he said. “I think this was the case of the police department taking the exam before they had the class.”