Initial thoughts on policing from public to Bloomington city council committee: Sell Bearcat armored vehicle; re-open Joseph Smedley case

A meeting held last Thursday by Bloomington city council’s four-member public safety committee got some initial comments from the public on the topic of policing in the city.

cropped Sims Screen Shot 2020-06-20 at 1.09.10 PM

Opening remarks from committee chair Jim Sims included the statement: “We are here to listen to you, the public.” Sims wrapped up his remarks by saying, “A deeper look into the local law enforcement operations is warranted. We just know that tonight we are here, and we need to listen.”

Sims indicated there would likely be additional such meetings.

During public comment at the committee meeting, an appeal to sell the Bloomington police department’s (BPD’s) Bearcat armored vehicle—purchased two years ago for $225,000—came from a dozen different commenters. They want the proceeds to be spent on social services.

That echoed the call from Black Lives Matter (BLM) B-town Core Council to sell the Bearcat and defund the police made during a June 6 Facebook event.

Others called for the re-opening of the Joseph Smedley case from 2015. An event listed on Facebook, held a year after the 20-year-old’s death, described the case: “In the fall of 2015, a young Black student, Joseph Smedley, went missing and was later found dead in Griffy Lake. The overall lack of appropriate response…left many Black students and folks in the neighboring community feeling as if their lives did not matter.”

Monroe County’s coroner ruled Smedley’s death a suicide by drowning.

The committee’s meeting came in a national context where many cities are reconsidering the role of police in community life.  The re-assessment of the job and the funding of police comes in the wake of 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.

Asked at last Friday’s weekly press conference of city leaders if he would consider ordering the sale of the Bearcat or re-opening the Smedley case, Bloomington’s mayor, John Hamilton, did not explicitly rule out either move. He also didn’t indicate any action should be anticipated.

On the question of re-opening the Smedley case, Hamilton said, “There are those who want that reviewed, and we welcome…any new data or new information that people have, we welcome that, and will continue to look at that.”

On the question of ordering the sale of the Bearcat, Hamilton pointed to the budget process for 2021. “I fully expect that in the budget hearings and the public hearings that we have going forward, there’s a lot of debate about public safety…”

This year, the council’s budget hearings are scheduled to unfold on successive nights between Aug. 19 and Aug. 22. At the end of September, the council will hear a first official reading of the budget, which can be different from the version that’s presented during the hearings. Final adoption of the budget is expected on Oct. 14.

Hamilton pointed to policies that the BPD has already implemented.  Among those are departmental policies on use of force, which BPD’s breakdown shows as conforming with the #8CANTWAIT recommendations.

Bloomington’s use of force data from 2016 through the first quarter of 2020 show a single instance of an officer firing their weapon, on June 24, 2017. The data record indicates the suspect, a 23-year-old white man, was not injured. The department’s use of force data is available in the form of quarterly reports on the city’s B Clear Data Portal.

In the department’s data, about 24.5 percent of cases involving the use of force involve Black suspects. Black residents make up about 4.3 percent of the city’s population.

(Left out of The Square Beacon’s calculation are the quarterly reports from 2018, which look like they may have transposed some columns for race demographics. BPD records staff are checking into that.)

For the Smedley case, a Justice for Joseph  Facebook page was created on Feb. 2, 2016 a few months after his death. The page shows recent activity in connection with a change.org petition that has received around 50,000 signatures.

An Indiana University Media School newscast item from last year chronicles some of what has been made public known about the case, including a description of the way Smedley was found “with a backpack filled with rocks strapped to his body.”

An Indiana Daily Student piece from December 2015 reported that detail as coming from the coroner’s report, which Smedley’s sister, Vivianne, had gotten from Smedley’s father: “Vivianne said she later learned through reading the coroner’s report that a backpack was found strapped to his chest with somewhere between 62 to 66 pounds of rocks.”

Only some factual details from a coroner’s report are public records under Indiana state law.  The full report is not required to be produced except to certain family members. The reduced set of information from Medley’s report includes a finding that the cause of death was drowning and that the manner of death was suicide.

The coroner’s limited report also says about the report of the death, “Coroner’s Office was notified by Bloomington Police Department.

A Herald-Times piece on Smedley’s death  quotes a BPD press release from early 2016, three months after the case was ruled a suicide: “Rulings of cause and manner of death are the responsibility of coroners and not that of law enforcement. While those conclusions can be determined through joint investigations between law enforcement and the coroner, the Bloomington Police Department has not been asked to provide any further investigative assistance at this time.”

The next chance for the Bloomington public to hear from and talk to public officials on the topic of policing issues will be on Tues., June 23. That’s when a special meeting of the board of public safety will convene.  The regular June 16 board meeting was ended after only a few minutes, when it was disrupted with a racist and pornographic Zoom-bombing.

The information packet for the June 16 meeting, which will likely form the substance of the June 23 special meeting, includes monthly statistical updates from the police and fire departments, including the activities of the police department’s social worker.

The board of public safety is a five-member citizen oversight board for the police and fire departments. The board exists under Indiana state statute. Its members are appointed by the mayor.

Background on Bearcat

The Lenco Bearcat armored vehicle, was purchased for $225,157 on June 29, 2018.

When the Bearcat  was acquired by Bloomington’s police department in 2018, it generated a lot of controversy ahead of the actual purchase. The Bloomington city council responded to the police department’s purchase with two kinds of legislation. Now a part of local code is a requirement that would prohibit the kind of fund transfer done to make the Bearcat purchase, unless the city council reviews it.

Also a part of local code is a prohibition against using such a vehicle for crowd control or as a platform for mounting water cannons or other weapons.

From a cursory Square Beacon review of city council meeting minutes, it’s not clear if the city council deliberated on the possibility of legislatively banning ownership by the police department of a “critical incident response team armored rescue vehicle.”

Based on data provided by BPD on quarterly basis, the Bearcat has been used five times since it was purchased.

Uses of Bearcat by BPD (additional columns available through B Clear Portal)

Date Case Number Full Call-Out Suspect Race Nature Negotiations How Received
2019-11-25 B19-49004 Yes African American Warrant Service Yes BPD Investigation
2019-08-20 B19-34655 Yes White Barricade Attempted MCSO Patrol
2018-09-07 B18-36628 Yes Asian/Pacific Islander Barricade Yes/Surrender BPD Patrol
2018-08-07 B18-31649 Yes Unknown Barricade Attempted MCSO Patrol
2018-07-23 B18-29422 Yes W Barricade/Suicidal Attempted MCSO Patrol

4 thoughts on “Initial thoughts on policing from public to Bloomington city council committee: Sell Bearcat armored vehicle; re-open Joseph Smedley case

  1. This may be the best article yet from the Beacon. It includes not just the details of the meeting, but important research and data that you would spend hours researching yourself. What a perfect time to support the Beacon financially with a subscription. It is well worth the money, you no longer have to cover meetings yourself, the Beacon will give you the details you need. Nothing of value is free, not even a FREE PRESS. The Beacon needs to become financially viable by the end of the year. It would be a huge loss for our community if we lost the Beacon. Consider subscribing now for your personal benefit and for the good of our community. Thank you!

  2. “Others called for the re-opening of the Joseph Smelly case from 2015.” There is a typo in Joseph’s last name in this sentence. It’s in the fourth or fifth paragraph of the article.

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