Request withdrawn at crowded Zoom meeting: Hiring freeze meant filling vacant sheriff’s deputy jobs needed county council OK

A request from Monroe County’s sheriff, Brad Swain, to fill two vacant deputy positions was not heard as scheduled at the county council’s special meeting convened on Thursday at 1 p.m.

Swain withdrew the request at the start of the meeting.

The only vote taken by county councilors was on a motion made by councilor Cheryl Munson—to use their upcoming Tuesday, June 9, regular meeting as a chance to set the time and place for a separate town hall event. It passed unanimously.

The topic of the town hall, council president Eric Spoonmore told The Square Beacon Thursday evening, would be a discussion of the factors that need to be weighed, for a major structural change, as the council considers “how to resource law enforcement.”

It’s not meant to be a one-off meeting, Spoonmore said, and wants it to be guided by a criminal justice reform study the county has had in the works for more than a year.

Some activists have called for defunding law enforcement. Spoonmore told The Square Beacon that it’s important to understand what the implications would be of not filling the vacant deputy positions.

During public commentary at the county council’s Thursday meeting, Jada Bee, member of the Black Lives Matter B-town Core Council, drew the county council’s attention to the general issue of over-policing Black Americans. “We do not need more cops. We do not need more policing. We need less policing and we need more legislation to protect people of color…All over the country, Black communities are being over-policed,” she said.

The council’s Thursday Zoom meeting was attended by around 250 people who were protesting police brutality, and over-policing nationally and locally. Videoconference government meetings were made possible by an executive order issued by Indiana’s governor Eric Holcomb as part of the COVID-19 health emergency.

At the start of the Swain withdrew his request to fill the vacancies. He cited “a lot of unknowns on the budget” as the reason.

After the special county council meeting was noticed as required under Indiana’s Open Door Law, at least 48 hours in advance, news of the planned meeting reached community activists. They likely set a record for the number of people in attendance at a public government meeting in Monroe County—certainly in the last several weeks, and probably much longer.

Recent events have sparked widespread public engagement on law enforcement issues. At the Monroe County courthouse, every day since Friday, May 29, demonstrators have protested the killing by Minneapolis police of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, along with other recent police killings of Black men and women.

Floyd was killed on May 25 when a Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, pinned him down with a knee-on-neck hold for almost nine minutes. The scene, which included three other police officers watching Chauvin, was captured on video.

Jada Bee also responded to remarks earlier in the meeting from councilor Cheryl Munson, who said that demonstrations across the country are “not always peaceful.”

Jada Bee said, “The protests have been peaceful until the police turned them violent. All of them have been peaceful until the police turned them violent.”

Filling a vacant deputy position doesn’t normally have to be approved by the county council at a public meeting. But in late April, the county council imposed a hiring freeze.  The resolution establishing the pause orders a freeze that’s in effect through July 1. The resolution states:

No department shall hire full or part‐time staff without receiving advance, written approval and permission from the Council, which must occur during a noticed, public meeting.

The health department and the probation department have been allowed to make hires under the framework of the freeze, since it was implemented.

According to Spoonmore, Sheriff Swain followed the framework set forth in the hiring freeze, which says: “If a department has a vacant position which it determines is a public‐safety or necessary position and must be filled before July 1, 2020, a written request to fill the position shall be made by that department to the Council.”

The timing of the meeting led some to conclude that it was an attempt by the council to avoid public scrutiny. During the meeting, councilor Geoff McKim walked through the timing of the request to fill the vacant deputy positions, which the sheriff had started a month ago.

From the public’s perspective, McKim said, it looked like an “emergency” even though it was scheduled significantly ahead of the meeting. McKim said the council needs to think about how to do a better job communicating the public the purpose of its meetings, beyond providing what’s legally required.

Sheriff Swain does have a time-sensitive issue for filling the vacancies, he said, related to how the training academy works. A deputy has to be on the payroll to get a place in the academy, he said, and there’s a new academy coming up in just a few weeks. For one of the deputy positions it was important to have them on the payroll so that they would be eligible for an academy spot. The other deputy vacancy is planned to be filled by a former Monroe County deputy sheriff, who doesn’t need to go through the academy.

Once the hiring freeze expires on July 1, Swain will no longer need to ask the county council to approve filling the vacancies. Asked by The Square Beacon if the hiring freeze could be extended, Spoonmore said it was possible.

But the factors going into the decision on an extension of the hiring freeze would be the same as those that prompted the hiring freeze—the clarity of the county’s financial picture. The financial blow from the COVID-19 pandemic is going to be severe, Spoonmore said, and will probably be “really bad a long time into the future.”

Spoonmore added that the county can’t continue to operate under a hiring freeze forever.

Spoonmore told The Square Beacon that the upcoming conversation on how to fund law enforcement is something he wants to be guided by the report from a criminal justice reform study that the county has commissioned. “I am desperate to get my hands on that criminal justice report,” Spoonmore said. Spoonmore stressed that a big part of the job of councilors will be to listen.

A statement from the Black Lives Matter B-town Core Council to The Square Beacon is also oriented in part towards upcoming conversations on the topic.

Ultimately, the withdrawal of [Sheriff Swain’s] proposal is a success for the whole community. However, there are still questions surrounding the need for additional police in the light of the outbreak of police violence at the recent national protests. This conversation about limiting, defunding and abolishing the police is overdue in Monroe County.

While it was physical acts by police that drew protestors to attend the county council meeting, public commenters and Zoom chat contributors were also critical some verbal behavior of public officials during the meeting.

In her remarks, councilor Marty Hawk said, “I look forward to hearing the people that want to speak today and to see how we can come together as a community to make certain that we are safe and that we are civil.” It was the word “civil” that drew scrutiny from one public commenter: “While you are talking about respectability politics and civility, we. are. dying.”

Spoonmore said at the meeting that he had another engagement that he had to attend at 2 p.m., so that was a “hard stop” for him. The response during public commentary: “Although you’re done at two o’clock, you have a hard stop, people dying is my hard stop. Police murdering black people is my hard stop.”

The county’s chief technology officer, Eric Evans, committed an unforced error when he expressed some frustration about the difficulty in assessing which meeting attendees should speak during public commentary. Evans acts as the Zoom meeting host for county meetings, which means he selects which attendees to un-mute, among those who have their “hands raised.”

As the council considered how to approach public commentary, councilor Kate Wiltz said she wanted to prioritize hearing from people of color. When Spoonmore expressed some doubt about whether it would be feasible to entertain public comment, Evans said, “We can do public comment, it’s just how am I gonna decide who’s Black enough to talk?”

Evans made an apology in a statement reported by Indiana Public Media:

My statement offended a great amount of people and I can understand why they would feel that way. I am deeply sorry. If I could do it over again, I certainly would, and I would be clearer about the technical difficulty I faced. I sincerely apologize to all who were offended. I will do better.

Councilor Peter Iversen bridged the painful pause that ensued after the remark from Evans, Iversen asked Spoonmore, who was presiding over the meeting as council president, to allow Jada Bee to speak: “I think she might have some insight into how we can move forward with public comments.”

Local demonstrations against police brutality will continue Friday and Saturday. Friday’s event, described as a “peaceful march/protest”  starts around 3 p.m. at Dunn Meadow and will wind up at the county courthouse. Saturday’s online event, “Black Against the Wall,” is hosted by Black Lives Matter on Facebook starting at 3 p.m.

[auto-transcribed YouTube video of June 4, 2020 Monroe County council meeting]

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