Indiana Daily Student

BPD body camera footage shows unhoused Bloomington resident in final hours alive

<p>A still from Bloomington Police Department body camera footage is pictured. Bloomington resident JT Vanderburg died from causes including hypothermia Dec. 24, 2020.</p>

A still from Bloomington Police Department body camera footage is pictured. Bloomington resident JT Vanderburg died from causes including hypothermia Dec. 24, 2020.

The Bloomington Police Department released body camera footage of welfare checks in the hours before the Dec. 24, 2020, death of JT Vanderburg, a 51-year-old man experiencing homelessness whose death shook Bloomington’s unhoused community. The release came in response to a records request filed by the B Square Beacon, which published the footage March 2.

[Related: Community grieving, scared after two people experiencing homelessness die within two days]

According to a BPD press release on Dec. 24, 2020, BPD officers had checked his welfare and offered assistance three times over the course of that night. The press release stated Vanderburg refused assistance. 

The body camera footage shows two of those checks, in which officers contacted two men lying on the ground and asked if they were alive. The videos do not show Vanderburg refusing assistance. In the first video, the BPD officer does not offer assistance. In the second video, the BPD officer asks, “Can I help you with anything?” but Vanderburg is not responsive at all throughout the second video.

[Related: Bloomington official: Sheltering unhoused people isn’t part of ‘core service area’]

The mayor’s office and BPD told the B Square Beacon that nothing in the footage was out of the ordinary for a welfare check and did not cause them any concern.

Yael Ksander, communications director for the City of Bloomington, said the police had been regularly monitoring the condition of people in and around Seminary Park, and the body camera footage are only snapshots of the broader situation. 

“Police are not EMTs, and they are not designated as health care givers,” Ksander said. She said directing calls of this nature to a different agency from dispatch may be explored in the future, but that police are not going to administer emergency medical attention.

BPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the Indiana Daily Student. 

In the first video from the evening of Dec. 23, it was raining, and Vanderburg was covered by blankets. A BPD officer told him and the other, unidentified person in the video that BPD received calls about them and he just needed “to make sure you’re alive.”

When Vanderburg asked why, the BPD officer said, “Because they, they think that you’re hurt or something. But I’m, I’m just making sure that you’re breathing. You’re good, man. Relax.”

In the second video from early morning Dec. 24, when the temperature had dropped to 24 degrees according to the B Square Beacon, Vanderburg had no covering other than his clothes and did not respond when the BPD officer asked if he could help with anything. 

Monroe County coroner Joanie Shields told the B Square Beacon hypothermia was a contributory cause of his death. 

Bloomington Homeless Coalition founder Harry Collins declined to comment on the footage. Marc Teller, a board member of the Bloomington Homeless Coalition, told the IDS at the time of Vanderburg’s death that he held the city responsible due to evictions of overnight encampments.

On March 2, Teller told the B Square Beacon, “This bodycam footage shows exactly what many of us have been saying: The city of Bloomington, its police department, and its leadership are responsible for the death of JT. The officers have blood on their hands. The mayor has blood on his hands. And the administration has blood on its hands.”

[Related: ‘Nothing but a ruse to get what they wanted’: Bloomington residents react to Seminary Park homeless camp clear out]

The eviction Teller referenced occurred on the night of Dec. 9, about two weeks before Vanderburg’s death, and left many of the unhoused people in Seminary Park without tents or other items to keep warm. The park was cleared again on Jan. 14, with officers again taking away tents and other items.

A plaque is set to be installed to commemorate Vanderburg’s death, according to the B Square Beacon. It was paid for by members of the community and the public defender’s office and will read, “The dead cannot cry out for justice. It is the duty of the living to do so for them,” according to the B Square Beacon.

The Bloomington City Council is currently working on legislation to provide clearer guidelines on when encampments can be evicted. If passed, it would require the city to ensure there is enough transitional or permanent housing available and to provide 15-day notice before an eviction. 

It is set for second readings and resolutions at tonight’s city council meeting, which means it could either be voted on or sent back to committee.

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