Committee gets more perspective on police as Bloomington city council weighs 2021 budget proposal to swap out sworn officers

A Wednesday night meeting of the Bloomington city council’s standing committee on public safety put some new information about Bloomington’s police department in front of the four-member group.

Committee member Isabel Piedmont-Smith told Bloomington police chief Mike Diekhoff, who was on hand to answer questions, “I was shocked. I was shocked that BPD sometimes uses no-knock warrants.”

Wednesday’s committee meeting, chaired by council vice president Jim Sims, came in the context of Bloomington mayor John Hamilton’s 2021 budget proposal. The 2021 budget proposes to swap five authorized sworn officer positions for two social workers, two neighborhood resource officers, and a data analyst. The final version of the budget gets presented on Sept. 30.

Piedmont-Smith’s shock was a reaction to the police department’s written answers to questions from committee members. The department’s answers had been given to the committee earlier in the day.

The committee questions included this one: “Does BPD ever serve warrants or for any reason enter homes without knocking?” The written response led off with a simple acknowledgment: “Yes, but they are rare.”

The written response also includes a description of the constraints on no-knock warrants: They’re subject to judicial review, and must get an approval that’s separate from the application for a warrant. They’re supposed to be used only in situations where waiting for someone to answer the knock would be futile or dangerous to the officers serving the warrant.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Piedmont-Smith asked Diekhoff: “Can you guarantee me that a situation like Breonna Taylor cannot happen in Bloomington?”

Breonna Taylor was a 26-year-old Black woman who was killed by Louisville police officers on March 13, 2020. They were serving a no-knock search warrant shortly after midnight. Gunfire was exchanged between Taylor’s boyfriend and the officers—her boyfriend said he thought the officers were intruders.

Diekhoff said, “We take great strides to prevent those types of things. I don’t know all the details of what happened [when Breonna Taylor was killed]. From what I have seen, we certainly would have done things differently in that situation.” He added, “Can I say 100 percent that it would never happen? No, I don’t think anybody can. But we take great strides to lessen the chances that that would happen.”

At the start of the meeting, Diekhoff told councilmembers they need to learn more about how the police department works. He cited his own experience two decades ago as a member of the city council .

I would also want to point out that as city councilmembers, you also should understand what the police department does. And anytime that you would like to ride you can. Anytime that you would like to attend any training, you can. Very few of you have taken me up on that. Now, conversely, I have done your job. I was on the city council as an elected member for nine years. So I understand the pressures, I understand the concerns that you get from the community. What I would say to you though, is you should do yourself a favor and learn more about the police department that the budget you vote on, because we have a very well trained professional department that I think that a lot of people just don’t understand what we do on a day-to-day basis.

Diekhoff served as the District 3 representative to the city council from 1999 to 2007, serving as council president in 2004. Besides Diekhoff, in 1999 the city council included Patricia Cole, Jason Banach, Jeffrey Willsey, David Sabbagh, Chris Gaal, Anthony Pizzo, Andy Ruff, and Timothy Mayer. Diekhoff was preceded as District 3 representative by Matt Pierce. After Diekhoff came Mike Satterfield.

Reacting to Diekhoff’s remarks about few councilmembers taking him up on the offer to do a ride-along,  committee member Sue Sgambelluri said she had “purposefully sought out a chance” to do a ride-along at attendance and roll calls.

Of the 105 currently authorized sworn positions in Bloomington’s department, just 95 are currently filled. So the 2021 budget proposal, to reduce the number of authorized sworn officers from 105 to 100, would mean five additional sworn officers still need to be hired to bring the department up to full staffing.

Retention

Voiced during public commentary at Wednesday’s committee meeting was a lot of general support for Bloomington’s police department. Also getting some air time on Wednesday was the topic of turnover in the department.

The difficulty of hiring and retaining officers, and poor officer morale was a theme in discussions of Bloomington policing last year during contract negotiations between the police union and the administration.

A study of BPD as an organization done by The Novak Consulting Group, and released a couple of weeks ago, identifies retention as a problem in the department.

Fifty-five sworn members have separated from the Department since January 1, 2015, of which 37 have resigned. Retirements have included one Deputy Chief, one Captain, one Lieutenant, one Sergeant, two Detectives, and 12 Police Officers. Retirements are to be expected in the normal course of business. Of greater concern is the number of resignations: two Sergeants, three Detectives, and 32 Police Officers.

Based on a Square Beacon review of sworn officers listed in Indiana’s Department of Local Finance salary database from 2012 through 2019, 42 percent of the sworn officers who were with the Bloomington department in 2012 were no longer there in 2019.

Of the officers who joined BPD in the four years between 2013 through 2016, 46 percent were no longer there by 2019.

Systemic Racism

Earlier this year, the cases of Breonna Taylor in Louisville and George Floyd in Minneapolis—both killings of unarmed Black people by police—have led to local calls for scrutiny and review of Bloomington’s own police department. On Wednesday the committee heard several of those voices as well.

One of the written responses from the department about racial disparity in arrests got a question from Elizabeth Williams during public comment. The written response was to a question about racial disparities in local policing:

Our Data Analyst recently studied the demographics of those arrested by members of BPD and found that the percentage of Black individuals arrested in 2019 (384) equaled 19.28 percent of our total arrests made. However, of the Black individuals arrested in 2019, 156 of the individuals, or 40.6 percent, listed their home address as being outside the City of Bloomington.

Williams wanted to know if the department had analyzed addresses for white arrestees in Bloomington. She’s curious to know if a similar percentage of white arrestees listed their home address as outside Bloomington.

Williams told the committee: “Racism is not just about being in the Klan or expressing negative views about people of color. It’s something that systemic, it shows up in more subtle attitudes and interactions.” Williams was responding in part to Bloomington police chief Mike Diekhoff’s characterization of his department in this opening presentation to the committee.

Diekhoff said, “I think that there have been areas of racism in law enforcement. I can speak to our agency. I do not believe that there is systemic racism in our agency. I believe that we have a very forward thinking department. I believe our officers don’t have racist thoughts, don’t participate in racist activities.”

Reacting to Diekhoff’s statement about racist thoughts was Jada Bee, who’s a member of Black Lives Matter B-town core council, and who led off the night’s public commentary. “I take extreme exception to Chief Diekhoff’s insisting that his police force is a not-racist police force, that none of them even have a racist thought in their brain,” Jada Bee said. She added, “That is a grotesque interpretation of what is racism and what is racist in this country.”

Jada Bee asked, “Were there any Black people or Brown people involved in making that assessment of his police force, given the fact that his police force is mostly white and that he himself is white?”

Towards the end of the committee meeting Diekhoff responded to the criticism by giving his earlier comments some additional nuance: “I don’t think what I said earlier about policing and systemic racism came out the way that I intended it to. Certainly there is there is systemic racism in policing throughout history, and it still exists today. We all have racist thoughts.” Diekhoff added, “But we work really hard to overcome those those racist thoughts. We work really hard to come up overcome those racist legacies.”

Committee member Susan Sandberg asked Diekhoff about recent current events which sparked protests that Sandberg called “absolutely justified.”  Sandberg said, “The incidents that are happening elsewhere across the country that are targeting black individuals are heinous.” She asked Diekhoff: “What kind of reaction are your officers expressing about that?”

Diekhoff said every police officer that he’s talked to talks about about “how horrific these killings are.” Police officers take these oaths to serve and protect people, Diekhoff said. He added, “They don’t want to hurt anyone, let alone kill anyone.” Members of BPD and other agencies are in “total disbelief that it continues to happen,” Diekhoff said.

The training that BPD officers undergo lessens the chance  that something  similar could happen, Diekhoff said. “I’m not saying that a tragic event couldn’t happen here, because it could. But we work really hard and we train our officers really hard,” Diekhoff said.  He added, “We review situations all the time, their actions, so that we can try to  prevent those types of tragic things from happening here.”

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