Vote to create new commission on public safety set for Wednesday meeting of Bloomington’s city council

On Wednesday (Nov. 18), Bloomington’s city council will be voting on the question of establishing a new 11-member commission with the name: Community Advisory on Public Safety (CAPS) Commission.

The new commission would have the goal to “increase the safety of all Bloomington community members, especially those often marginalized due to race, disability, gender, sexual identity, or sexual orientation.”

The idea for the commission grew out of a national conversation about different approaches to policing that emerged this last summer.

In May, George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man was killed by a Minneapolis police officer who pinned him down with a knee-on-neck hold, which was documented on video. That came after Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman was killed by Louisville police officers in March. They were serving a no-knock search warrant shortly after midnight.

Response to national events was localized over the summer in the form of demonstrations, public meetings, and scrutiny of local area law enforcement. Bloomington police department statistics on use of force and arrests show a disparate impact on the Black community.

Councilmember Isabel Piedmont-Smith, a co-sponsor of the ordinance that would establish the CAPS commission, said at a meeting of the council’s four-member public safety committee in late October: “We have heard from many constituents that members of our community do not feel safe. They’ve told us this in emails, conversations, petitions, and public meetings.”

Based on the timeline sketched out in the city council’s meeting information packet, starting early in 2021, the commission will conduct a needs assessment and collect data, with an eye towards delivering a report with recommendations and proposals by the end of May.

Piedmont-Smith herself serves on the council’s public safety committee. The other two sponsors, Matt Flaherty and Kate Rosenbarger, are not committee members.

The initial deliberations by the council’s public safety committee, in late October, led to a second committee meeting last Thursday. Of the four members, only Piedmont-Smith gave the proposal a vote of support. Jim Sims, Susan Sgambelluri, and Susan Sandberg all abstained from the committee’s vote.

Committee votes have no legal impact on the future of the legislation—the full council considers the legislation, no matter the outcome of the committee vote. Committee members aren’t required to vote the same way at the council meeting as they did when they met in committee.

It’s unlikely that the three sponsors wouldn’t support their own proposed legislation.

That means on Wednesday, if Sims, Sgambelluri and Sandberg don’t support establishing the CAPS commission, it would need to pick up two additional votes from the three remaining councilmembers, to get the needed five-vote majority. The three who round out the nine-member council are Dave Rollo, Steve Volan and Ron Smith.

Even committee members who withheld their support last week agreed the council needs to listen to voices of traditionally underrepresented community members. They don’t necessarily support establishing a new commission in order to do that.

Sgambelluri put it this way: “I think there are some things we agree on: … the critical need to be more intentional and more consistent in engaging those traditionally underrepresented voices that we’ve heard about tonight.” She added, “I’m still a little bit troubled by the assumption that the council might not listen, unless we make this a commission.”

The counterpoint, from Piedmont-Smith, was to describe the way a commission would empower the members who are appointed by the council to serve: “I think the power is that it would be in city code, which means…it has that legitimacy. And really then it’s on [the city council] to listen to what they say.”

Piedmont-Smith added, “The public can also point to it and say, ‘Hey, you appointed these people, and you should listen to what they say.’”

Label versus legal status

At last Thursday’s committee meeting, in her concluding remarks, councilmember Sue Sgambelluri said, “I promise you, I will listen to these voices, regardless of what label we stick on this group.”

Isabel Piedmont-Smith’s concluding remarks were in part a response to the idea that labeling a group in a particular way might not be necessary in order for the council to pay attention to underrepresented voices. She said, “I don’t know what you’re afraid of. And as far as the commission—why a commission and not call it something else? Why not call it a commission? Why do I have to defend that it’s a commission? You know, what is wrong with that?”

Piedmont-Smith wrapped up her turn saying, “I just—I’m done. I’m very disappointed. Thank you.”

What came earlier in the nearly two-hour meeting included discussion of the idea that the status of the group—as a commission, a focus group, or a task force—could be an important factor in how impactful the commission would be.

Sims, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, said, “In previous conversations, when comparing a commission to a focus group or task force, the comment was made that with a focus group or task force, that the city council and administration can choose to listen or not, take it or leave it.”

Sims asked, “If that’s the viewpoint of a focus group or task force, how does that change, being a commission?”

“I don’t think it does,” was the answer from co-sponsor Matt Flaherty. He continued, “I don’t see resident feedback or input from our constituents as any more or less legitimate, whether it’s coming from a task force, focus group, or commission. I think all feedback we hear from our constituents is very legitimate, obviously.”

Flaherty said it’s not the status of the group as a commission that’s important, in order for the council to take the group’s work into consideration. Rather, it’s a commission that’s better suited to the task that the council is assigning to it. For the city council to review outcomes and results of programs and policy changes over time, a commission would make the most sense from a structural perspective, Flaherty said.

As for the idea that making the group a commission would make it more “legitimate,” Flaherty said, “I guess it was maybe not the word I would use.”

Not discussed by the committee at either of its meetings was the status of the group established by the city council under Indiana’s Open Door Law or Access to Public Records Act. [IC-5-14]

Whatever name is attached to the entity created by the city council through an ordinance, it would be subject to public scrutiny like any other “advisory commission, committee, or body created by statute, ordinance, or executive order to advise the governing body…”

In a followup interview with Piedmont-Smith after last week’s committee meeting, she told The Square Beacon that she doesn’t think the status of the group as subject to the Open Door Law would have a bearing on the ability of the group to do its work. She allowed that someone who felt vulnerable might be reticent in that kind of public setting. It would require a certain amount of courage to speak about lived experiences in that context, she said.

On the plus side, Piedmont-Smith said, the public nature of the meetings would mean the community will hear publicly those people whose ideas are informed by their own lived experiences.

Their own lived experiences would be important for commission members, Piedmont-Smith said, because it would make them better positioned to design surveys and collect feedback from their peers. The expectation is not that a commission member would be representative of a constituency, she said.

Hard power, soft power, any power

The notion of “hard power” to make decisions and “soft power” to make recommendations was floated by Flaherty as a way to talk about the way the CAPS commission could be considered “empowering” even if it’s an advisory body.

As examples of existing commissions with soft power, Flaherty gave the city’s parking commission and the commission on sustainability: “These two are bodies that have soft power. But I still think of that as a form of empowerment, because it is giving an official, sanctioned city venue, and a charge to study and research and develop policy proposals and bring those to the council.”

Flaherty added, “I think we do take seriously the recommendations put forth by those groups and very much appreciate the effort and hours that those residents commit, to help…improve the city.”

Flaherty wrapped up that turn by saying, “I certainly grant the point that there’s not a particularly hard power to this commission. …But I think soft power to me is still a meaningful form of empowerment.”

Picking up on the nation of hard and soft power during public commentary time was Nicole Johnson, who introduced herself as a resident of the Crestmont Community, which is one of the units administered by the Bloomington Housing Authority. She told the committee that she serves on the residents council at Crestmont.

Johnson told the committee, “And the idea between hard and soft power—well, how about giving some marginalized voices any power? We don’t really care what kind of power it is.”

Scope of commission?

Johnson also responded to a concern that councilmember Susan Sandberg had expressed about the scope of work that the new commission would pursue.

Sandberg said, “It’s been stated…that public safety means different things to different people. But as this would be a city-sponsored commission, is the focus for this body going to be strictly on the Bloomington police department…?”

Sandberg added, “I would imagine that public safety is going to entail much, much more than just law enforcement, which of course, is a completely independent function that does deal with laws and the breaking of laws and the responding to people committing crimes in our community.”

First responding to Sandberg was co-sponsor of the legislation, Isabel Piedmont-Smith. She said the commission’s scope would be broader than just the police department. Piedmont-Smith said, “Some of the things that they might research are the establishment of an alternate crisis response phone number, investments in mental health care, addiction treatment, community centers, job training, things like that.”

Piedmont-Smith added: “I don’t want to prejudge where the commission is going to go.”

A bit later, during her turn at public commentary, Johnson also responded to Sandberg’s question. “It’s my understanding that public security is basically a function of our government, right? OK. So the cumulative actions that they take ensure the safety of their community against threats to well-being and the prosperity of the community as a whole. Whereas public safety is actually the planning aspect, the comprehensive public security plan.”

Johnson continued, “Economically insecure communities—or shall we say, communities with high unemployment rates—have some public security issues that are distinct from those more mainstream middle-income neighborhoods.”

All hands on deck

Among the public commenters at last Thursday’s meeting was Vauhxx Booker, a local activist who was in the news over the summer, when he was held down against a tree by a man near Lake Monroe in an incident that Booker described as an “attempted lynching.”

“We all need to make sure that we’re putting all hands on deck to adequately tackle this social issue. … I understand that some Black folks will have issues with this. Black people aren’t monoliths—I may feel one way, someone else may feel another way, that’s fine. But we need to make sure that we are doing everything we can as a community in every avenue available to us to move on this issue.”

Even though she was lukewarm to the idea of establishing the commission, Sandberg said, “I cannot agree more, that we need all hands on deck. I could not agree more with Mr. Booker in that regard.”

Booker added, “It’s not just the issue of policing. It’s not just the issue of mental health. It’s a whole intersectional problem that is going to take a myriad of people to solve.”

Alluding to the fact that mayor Hamilton’s administration is creating a Future of Policing group to work on the issue, Booker said, “And that can’t just be people who are appointed by the mayor. The mayor is just one individual. I believe he has the best interest at heart. But he can only see things from his perspective.”

Booker is looking to the nine-member city council’s appointments to the proposed new commission to give a more balanced approach: “That’s why we have a city council—you all have a diverse perspective. And we need all you folks there to tap people in our community that you think would be good, strong leaders on this issue.”

About the impact of a potential CAPS commission, Booker wrapped up by saying, “We’re not going to create too much equity and too much justice in our community. It’s something that needs to be done.”

 Bloomington City Council meeting: Nov. 18, 2020

The agenda for Wednesday’s city council meeting, which starts at 6:30 p.m., includes a few items that are scheduled before the ordinance that would establish the CAPS commission.

One is a presentation to the council of the final draft plan for redevelopment of the IU Health hospital site on 2nd Street.

Two other pieces of legislation are slotted in ahead of the CAPS commission ordinance. The first is an ordinance that will establish a new engineering department.  The second is a resolution to approve a second round of Jack Hopkins social services funding.

Neither piece of legislation is expected to be controversial or require much time for deliberations.

One thought on “Vote to create new commission on public safety set for Wednesday meeting of Bloomington’s city council

  1. Don’t mean to be picky, but calling this CAPs could be easily confused with CAPS at IU which is their Counseling and Psychological Sevices. Also the city council public safety committee could be easily confused with the Board of Public Safety.

    Engaging people and seeking input requires clear communication and helping the public to understand. It is difficult, but those with the information must ensure that others gain the same understanding.

    It takes deliberate and intentional efforts. I hope we can all contribute to that.

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