Monroe County commissioners order sheriff to enforce laws on courthouse lawn curfew, camping

An executive order from Monroe County’s three-member board of county commissioners, adopted at their regular Wednesday meeting, directs the sheriff to enforce two existing ordinances regulating how the courthouse grounds are used.

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Monroe County’s sheriff Brad Swain (right) and a deputy next to the Alexander Memorial at the southeast corner of the courthouse square around 2:15 a.m. on June 10, 2020. (Dave Askins/Square Beacon)

The order came in response to anti-police-brutality protests that have taken place nightly starting May 29.

The vote by commissioners to order enforcement came towards the end of their Wednesday meeting.

That meant the meeting was bookended with votes related to the protests. At the start of the meeting, commissioners took turns reading aloud a resolution on criminal justice reform, which they voted to adopt without deliberating further on it.

Among the “resolved” clauses of the ordinance is one that says commissioners “respectfully request the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department to continue to develop written policies which implement Eight Can’t Wait principles …”

Protests nationwide and locally were prompted by the Minneapolis police killing 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 by Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, when the police officer pinned Floyd down with a knee-on-neck hold, a scene that was caught on video.

Nationally, momentum has started to build for conversations about a different approach to funding law enforcement, including de-funding it. At their Tuesday meeting, Monroe County councilors set June 30 at 6 p.m. as the date of a town hall gathering to start listening to input from community members on the topic.

The resolution adopted by county commissioners on Wednesday morning calls the June 30 event a “listening session” and says that the commissioners are committed to attending it.

The two ordinances that the commissioners ordered the sheriff to enforce both relate to the way the courthouse grounds are used.

One restricts public access to the courthouse grounds to the 16 hours each day between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. The other prohibits the use of “camp paraphernalia” on the courthouse grounds. The timeframe given for the county’s intent to remove the tents that protesters had pitched was Friday at 10 a.m. At least 72 hours notice is required, under the ordinance.

Protesters in the early hours of Wednesday told The Square Beacon that they had dismantled their own tents. The dis-encampment came after the group of around 150 protesters had declared victory a couple hours earlier: The enforcement they’d been told was coming at 10 p.m. didn’t happen.

It was around a half hour after midnight when Monroe County sheriff Brad Swain arrived at the courthouse grounds. By then there were maybe a couple dozen protesters there, still demonstrating against police brutality and calling for the defunding of police.

Swain was there with several deputies to enforce the existing county ordinance with its 10 p.m. curfew for the courthouse grounds. No citations were issued and no arrests were made, according to protesters to whom The Square Beacon spoke at the scene.

County attorney Jeff Cockerill said after the Wednesday commissioners meeting that in his opinion, the sheriff does not need an order from the commissioners to enforce an existing ordinance. So the sheriff didn’t need to wait for the executive order from the commissioners.

Asked after Wednesday’s meeting if the commissioners had the authority to order the sheriff to do anything, given that he is an elected official just like the commissioners, Cockerill pointed to state law.

The statute says that commissioners could compel the sheriff to attend their meetings and says he has to follow the orders of the commissioners. (Under Indiana’s county government structure, the commissioners are the executive):

(d) The county sheriff or a county police officer shall attend the meetings of the executive, if requested by the executive, and shall execute its orders.

At Wednesday’s meeting, members of the public used public comment time to push commissioners to explain the timing of their decision to order enforcement of the ordinances.

Commissioners generally said they supported using the courthouse grounds for protests—it’s how the land is meant to be used. But they also talked about the need to make sure the grounds are accessible to the public. An example of obstructing access by the public, cited by county attorney Margie Rice at the county council’s meeting on Tuesday night, was hammocks strung across the steps on the south side of the building.

Commissioners also said that as county government is re-starting, after the COVID-19 shutdown, the county courthouse building is going to be open for use by the public. County employees are starting to come in to work, after being ordered to stay home as a part of the COVID-19 health emergency. That factored into the thinking of commissioners about when they wanted to have the camp gear cleared off the courthouse property.

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