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Board of Public Safety discusses Bloomington Police Department’s strengths, weaknesses



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The Bloomington Police Department headquarters is located at 220 E. Third St. Bloomington officials including Mayor John Hamilton, Police Chief Michael Diekhoff, fire chief Jason Moore and BPD Deputy Chief Joe Qualters participated in a Board of Public Safety special session Tuesday. Anna Brown

The Board of Public Safety had a special session Tuesday to replace its June 16 meeting that was interrupted by a hacker. In the meeting, many of the Bloomington Police Department’s policies were brought up in light of the recent killings of Black people by police officers in America.

Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton began the meeting with a speech thanking the board members and police officers and condemning police brutality in Minneapolis, Louisville, Kentucky, and other cities.

He talked about many of BPD’s strengths, including being one of the first agencies in Indiana to adopt body cameras six years ago, the creation of the downtown resource officer program to work with people experiencing homelessness and having neighborhood resource specialists and a social worker.

“I want to remind all of us, we have to continue to embrace and nurture the culture of community policing and the strong and deep connections between our police department and our entire community,” Hamilton said.

He also acknowledged that racism has been a part of Bloomington’s history.

“We are not immune to its impacts today,” he said. “We have collective responsibility to listen to all ideas and welcome all suggestions and questions and consider sources like 8 Can’t Wait and Campaign Zero and others for how best to move forward in our public safety efforts.”

Bloomington fire chief Jason Moore and BPD Deputy Chief Joe Qualters gave monthly reports on call volumes, job openings and general trends.

Moore said the fire department’s call volume has been back to a more average number after COVID-19 caused calls to dip, but the number remains much lower than last year. The department has four open positions after two firefighters retired and two left to run family businesses. Moore said they will be opening up the hiring process for the four positions shortly.

Board member Rafi Hasan said he’d like to see diverse hiring candidates, and Moore said this might be more possible now because of a recent rule change that allows the department to recruit firefighters within 50 miles instead of just within Monroe County and surrounding counties.

Qualters said the number of calls for police picked up a little bit in May compared to April but is still not up to the usual average. There was again an increase in weapons-related calls, a concern Qualters said that the department has had in recent months as well.

There were significantly lower numbers in overall arrests in May 2020 compared to May 2019 and a smaller number of domestic violence than last year. BPD’s social worker Melissa Stone had 15 referrals in May, and the neighborhood resource specialists had 23 calls.

“Despite COVID, the police social worker Melissa stays very busy, and, again that has been a very, very successful position for the department,” Qualters said.

The department is hiring three officers, two of whom will start June 29, Captain Ryan Pedigo said. Two of the applicants have master's degrees in social work but will be working as officers.

Chief Michael Diekhoff then talked about measures the department has taken over the years to reduce the likelihood of BPD officers harming or killing people.

Diekhoff said officers are required to wear body cams whenever interacting with a member of the public on the street. The department is nationally accredited through the Commission on the Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies, which only 5% of agencies in the U.S. have achieved.

The department implemented all but two of the recommendations in President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing. They do not follow the flexible schedules recommendation because of a collective bargaining agreement, and they do not follow the taser recommendations. Diekhoff didn’t specify why.

BPD reports 14 different data sets to the Police Data Initiative and also publishes data on the city’s B-Clear portal. Officers are required to go through four and a half times the training required by the state, Diekhoff said. Much of this training incorporates de-escalation training.

Diekhoff said that BPD policy largely already lined up with the 8 Can’t Wait policies that reduce police violence. Some BPD policies didn't directly state the 8 Can't Wait rules but implied them. Diekhoff said the policies were adjusted to more clearly state the rules. Some, including the ban on shooting at a moving vehicle, still are dependent on if an officer deems their life or some else's life to be in danger. Details on how BPD lines up with the 8 Can’t Wait policies can be found on an FAQ page Diekhoff made.

Diekhoff spoke about the many calls for stopping police from responding to people in mental health crises, people with addiction problems and people experiencing homelessness.

“What has happened is, those types of calls, with funding being cut everywhere, they just kind of defaulted to police departments,” Diekhoff said. “Because that has been the case here locally also, we saw the need to create specialty units to respond to those types of calls.”

BPD created the downtown resource officers unit to work with people experiencing homelessness, and Diekhoff said they also regularly used their social worker in this setting.

“We recognized that people who were experiencing homelessness or people who had some kind of mental health crisis may commit crimes, but the reason they are doing that is the situation, the homelessness situation or the mental health situation,” Diekhoff said. “So arresting them wasn’t appropriate, but partnering with social services agencies and getting them services was.”

There will soon be a 24-hour crisis center staffed by Centerstone, a mental health and substance abuse treatment center, which will be a place for officers to take people experiencing mental health and addiction crises instead of taking them to jail.

Several Centerstone employees spoke during the public comment period about the positive relationship they have with BPD.

Greg May, administrative director at Centerstone in the adult services division, told a story about a day when he was called by an officer to assist with a client who was standing in the middle of an intersection obstructing traffic in all directions.

“The downtown resource officers called us, myself and another social worker, we went down, de-escalated the situation, removed the person from the road, let the police take care of police business and we took care of the client care business,” May said.

Linda Grove-Paul, vice president of adult services at Centerstone, also spoke. She works with about 20 other police agencies and said BPD is one of the best.

“Having a police department that actually wants to get away from criminalizing people with mental health and substance issues is frankly pretty unusual,” she said.

She also acknowledged the work that must be done in policing.

“I think there aren’t quick easy solutions,” Grove-Paul said. “Criminalization of Black and brown people has been around forever, as well as people with mental health and substance issues, and if you have both, life is much harder.”

Community member Ruth Aydt commented on the disproportionate number of Black people arrested in Monroe County. She said she’s been doing work with the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bloomington and Monroe County NAACP to collect race and criminal justice data, and in the numbers, she has seen racial disparities.

She said she read a statement in the paper recently that said out-of-town visitors who are arrested can skew demographic statistics of arrests. But she said data disproves this. In a collection of data from Jan. 1, 2019, to June 30, 2019, 20.3% of defendants with addresses in Monroe County in BPD cases were Black while 17.2% of defendants with addresses outside the county in BPD cases were Black. According to census data, Black people make up 3.6% of Monroe County’s population.

“I think as people, it’s very easy to think we know an explanation for what’s going on, but I would encourage BPD, since you have all this wonderful data that you’re collecting, to actually go back and see if, in fact, it is people from out of town, if the skewing is happening,” she said. “Based on what I’ve been able to look at from other data sets, it’s just not the explanation.”

Board member Luis Fuentes-Rohwer commented on his uncertainty on what should happen next but said he had confidence that the board and BPD can work together to better the system.

Board member Maqube Reese said she has had intense discussions with Diekhoff about what it’s like to be a Black woman in America and be worried about her nine brothers and the Black and brown students she works with at IU as an academic advisor. She said she’s happy about the work BPD has done, but there is room for improvement.

“These conversations won’t stop,” Reese said. “I feel like this board is in the position to ask the tough questions, to have those hard conversations about what should we do and what shouldn’t we do.”

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