Bloomington gets new city commission on public safety with 6–3 city council vote.

At its regular Wednesday meeting, on a  6–3 vote, Bloomington’s city council established a new commission that will be called the Community Advisory on Public Safety (CAPS) commission.

The new commission has 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.”

Dissenting were Jim Sims, Susan Sandberg, and Sue Sgambelluri.

The three are also members of the city council’s standing public safety committee, which reviewed the ordinance at two meetings—one in late October  and another one last week. Their lack of support for the new commission was conveyed by abstentions on the committee’s vote.

As members of the city council’s public safety standing committee, the three who dissented will now share in the committee’s job to make recommendations for appointments to the 11-member CAPS commission. Members are supposed to include Black, Latinx, other people of color, people with disabilities, people who are non-cisgender, and members of other marginalized groups.

Sims, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, told The Square Beacon, “I was in the minority on the vote. The majority wanted this, and it is now my responsibility to participate and make it work.”

The idea for the commission grew out of a national conversation about different approaches to policing that emerged over the summer. The national dialogue was localized 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.

The fourth member of the council’s public safety committee, Isabel Piedmont-Smith, was a co-sponsor of the ordinance that established the CAPS commission.

In her presentation of the ordinance on Wednesday, Piedmont-Smith said, “We have heard that there are some demographic groups that don’t have a seat at the table,” then caught herself. “We have heard—we know that there are some demographic groups that don’t have a seat at the table when making decisions about public safety,” she said.

The question of who builds the table where seats are offered was part of the criticism of the proposal. Paraphrasing commentary from Maqube Reese, who’s a member of the city’s board of public safety, Sgambelluri said, “Don’t just build a table, and then invite us as an afterthought. Let us work on building that table with you.” Sgambelluri also supported the perspective of Sims, who “reminded us of all the tables that already exist.”

In his comments, Sims described the lack of outreach by the ordinance sponsors to established organizations: “At least one of the sponsors of this commission [Piedmont-Smith] is a member of the NAACP organization that I am a member of, and it is just beyond me—with no disrespect to anyone—to say that was an oversight not to contact the oldest and one of the most responsive advocacy groups for African Americans in this town, when we’re both right there in the same meetings sometimes.”

Sandberg’s opposition was based in part on the idea that the scope of the commission’s work was wider than the city council’s jurisdiction. Sandberg said, “Many of the concerns are not related to any function at all, that the city council or the city of Bloomington would have jurisdiction over. We do have fiscal oversight over our police department, that is a city department.”

Sandberg added, “We do not, however, have any control, responsibility, or ability to enact policy that would relate to EMTs, IU Health, or the lack of mental health providers in our community. That certainly is something we could all look to as an issue related to public safety.”

Going into Wednesday’s meeting, the lack of support from the three who dissented on the vote was known from their deliberations at committee meetings. Support from Piedmont-Smith and the other two cosponsors, Matt Flaherty and Kate Rosenbarger, was also known.

That meant to get the needed five-vote majority, the CAPS commission needed the votes from at least two out of the other three councilmembers: Steve Volan, Dave Rollo and Ron Smith.

Smith started out the night opposed to the establishment of the commission, but was persuaded by a direct appeal to him by a constituent during public commentary.

In his initial commentary, Smith asked: “Do I think the purposes or goals of the CAPS commission cannot be achieved without it being a commission?” His answer was, “I don’t think that’s true.” When he wrapped up his turn, he said, “I am not likely to support it.”

During public commentary, Lisa Podulka introduced herself as a recent graduate of Indiana University, who would be speaking on behalf of Amanda Nickey, who is CEO of Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard. But before that, Podulka spoke for herself.

Podulka began, “So these are my words, directed toward Ron Smith, because you are my direct representative, because of where I live in Bloomington. And I would like to strongly urge you to support this commission.” She continued, “I think it’s the bare minimum of what we can do, to lift up underrepresented voices in Bloomington.”

Podulka responded to Smith’s idea that establishing a commission on public safety might mean establishing lots of other commissions, too, on recovery and substance abuse or homelessness. She said, “It definitely made me sad to hear you argue about nomenclature as to whether we make this a commission, that we have to make all these other things commissions—when this is the issue on the table right now.”

Podulka wrapped up by repeating her request that Smith support the commission: “Please support it. It’s the bare minimum of what you can do. … I’ve been going to these meetings for a while. …The public feedback overwhelmingly is in support of it. And I do believe that if you vote no, you will be going against the will of your constituents.”

During time for final deliberations, Smith said his reluctance to support the commission was based on its structure: “I guess I was hung up on the structure of a commission.”

He said that based on deliberations, he thought it would develop into an inclusive commission. Smith wrapped up saying, “So through the force of my colleagues, and the public comment, I’ve decided to support the commission, and vote yes tonight.”

In revealing his support for the commission, councilmember Dave Rollo talked about the potential for the commission to collect useful evidence by citing the value of “lived experience.”

He added, “On the other hand, lived experience can be called anecdotal. And we need to develop policy on the basis of not a single lived experience, but, I guess, a confluence of lived experiences or evidence, that then says that we’re lacking something.” Rollo’s conclusion: “I think that this commission gives some means by which that can happen.”

In his remarks supporting the creation of the commission, Volan said the commission’s success or failure would depend on the commission’s first appointments. “I am happy to support it, because it is nothing more than an empty vessel. And those people who do not apply to the commission or who do not get appointed to the commission, but who find its work important—their attendance, their presence, their participation, along with the commissioners, is just as crucial.”

Volan concluded, “I’m counting on those 11 people to guide me and guide the rest of us, because I don’t know what to do about all the issues that have been brought up tonight.”

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