here’s no escaping the national conversations surrounding police misconduct, officer-involved shootings and other use-of-force incidents toward racial minorities in recent years. Nor should there be.
Running from a problem usually exacerbates it. So in June 2017, when two Indianapolis police officers fatally shot 45-year-old Aaron Bailey, an unarmed black man, Mayor Joe Hogsett and Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Chief Bryan Roach were right to respond with a swift pledge to change the way the department operates.
Today, another layer of that reform will be rolled out in the form of a Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, a group of 35 Indianapolis stakeholders responsible for implementing a road map for recruiting, hiring and retaining a more diverse police force.
Capt. John H. Walton Jr., a 36-year IMPD veteran who was named director of Diversity and Inclusion, has spent months mapping out a strategy to bring together officials from the corporate, faith-based, educational, political, private and non-profit sectors to help IMPD figure out how to change the face of the department.
“I’ve been fighting for greater diversity, equality, fairness and justice in law enforcement pretty much my whole career,” said Walton, who is past president of the Minority Police Officers Association and current president of the Greater Indiana chapter of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE). “When an opportunity opens up to be able to impact or effect change from inside out, that’s an opportunity that I feel I am blessed to be given.”
Walton isn’t working from a model; Indianapolis is taking its community policing initiative to a new level by involving citizens in its hiring practices. But who better, Walton asks. These men and women — from the Muslim Alliance of Indiana, the Baptist Minsters Alliance, the Jewish Community Council and the Diversity Roundtable of Central Indiana, to name a few — are immersed in issues of race, ethnicity, religion and gender daily.
“Everyone agrees diversity is important, so why hasn’t it happened yet?” Walton said. “I believe now that law enforcement is at that door where we understand that change needs to happen. Because the power of diversity gives us the ability to look at complex situations and problems from many perspectives and come up with solutions that are not thought of if we’re operating in the same bubble.”
While Hogsett says he hasn’t set any measurable benchmarks for Walton’s task force, he has. It’s simple: he wants members of the police department to look like you and me.
“What we are attempting to do, in an intentional and meaningful way, is accelerate the pace of IMPD diversity and inclusivity,” Hogsett told me earlier this week. “I had been interested in making sure that IMPD, at least during my tenure as mayor, better reflects the community it is sworn to protect and serve. The numbers are getting better, particularly over the last year, but there is still a disproportionately low number of African American police officers, Latinx police officers, and women police officers.”
Numbers don’t lie. IMPD’s demographics under-represent this diverse community it serves. In a city where slightly more than half of its residents are female, women make up only 19 percent of IMPD’s ranks. African-Americans comprise 28 percent of the city population but about 16 percent of the police force. Hispanics account for nearly 10 percent of Indy’s population — more than three times the percentage within the police department.
“Maybe it’s a bit Pollyannish to presume we can directly reflect the population as a whole, but that’s certainly my goal,” Hogsett said. “It’s not just because I think it’s good policy, although it is. I think it actually helps improve policing. More people will come forward and take ownership, and provide relevant information and leads. It’s not only the right thing to do but the prudent thing to do.”
Can increasing the number of minority police officers improve the relationship between the community and IMPD? That’s certainly the hope.
That relationship has been strained for many years, but reached a critical point after Bailey’s death. African-American leaders have decried what appears to be two systems of justice, including one where law enforcement officers can inflict harm on minorities.
After the shooting, a prosecutor cleared officers Carlton J. Howard and Michal P. Dinnsen of any criminal charges. Still, Chief Bryan Roach recommended firing the officers after members of his command staff determined the officers failed to apply their training and were unreasonable in firing a total of 11 shots into the rear of Bailey’s car. But nearly a year after the shooting, a Civilian Police Merit Board found that Howard and Dinnsen had not violated department policy or training.
In the wake of the shooting, Hogsett and Roach pledged to overhaul use-of-force policies, provide officers with implicit bias training and establish an Office of Diversity and Inclusion.
It was a bold move for a mayor criticized for stating that the merit board failed in not firing the officers, and for the chief, who is still working to mend his relationship with police who felt he didn’t have the backs of officers working Indy’s dangerous streets.
Roach acknowledged that he feels some anxiety about the diversity initiative, but is committed to it. He knows a mountain of work lies ahead in “trying to do what’s right and fulfill expectations of the community.”
“But it’s also change — and change is always difficult and always brings a certain level of concern,” Roach said. “It means changing the way we do things and getting that message all the way down to the officer who shows up at your door.”
Out of the bad, out of the tragic, out of overwhelming pain, good can often be born. Today, Hogsett, Roach and IMPD officials are taking an important step in ensuring that Aaron Bailey did not die in vain.