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Swords to Ploughshares: People of Faith Reinvent Public Safety (Part 2)

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People are lying on their backs on a brick plaza, knees up, feet on the ground. In the center of the photo stands a young Black boy in a white shirt. A Black man in a neat grey suit leans over, wrapping an arm around him as if to comfort him.

Grassroots base-building helped Faith in Indiana win police accountability reforms in Indianapolis after the 2020 murder of George Floyd.

Indianapolis police have a reputation for racism and brutality. Police killings of young Black men received publicity in 2017 and 2020, and each death drove community members into the streets, demanding justice and calling for police reform. But it wasn’t until the national uprising over the murder of George Floyd that there was sufficient momentum to turn proposals into policy.

Taking advantage of opportunity

Congregation-based community organization Faith in Indiana was poised to step into the moment. The group’s grassroots leadership already had years of experience advocating and winning criminal justice reforms in Indiana’s largest city (see Part I), but their efforts to rein in the police had made little headway. When police violence and other crises erupted in Indianapolis, small community-based groups like Indy10 and Don’t Sleep emerged to give voice to community outrage.  On their own, these groups lacked institutional power and tended to disappear when the dust settled again. Faith in Indiana, however, was able to draw on the institutional power of organized religion. The organization, which was founded in 2012 and has grown steadily since then, built a coalition of more than 60 Indianapolis congregations, a network of hundreds of grassroots leaders and thousands of supporters, and the capacity to publicize what happened in Indianapolis to a statewide and national audience. In 2020, the organization took advantage of community outrage to win reforms that could prevent future police killings.

When George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, Indianapolis was already tense after the recent police murders of two young Black men, McHale Rose and Dreasjon Reed, in two separate incidents. Floyd’s death unleashed pent-up anger and grief. Young people filled the streets. An anxious mayor announced a 9 pm curfew, then ordered the police to use teargas against peaceful protesters. White nationalist provocateurs vandalized property and added to the mayhem. Police arrested more than a hundred Black protesters. As the anger was ramping up, organizer Rosie Bryant met with church leaders and planned a Processional for Racial Justice for Sunday afternoon, May 31. Typically, to organize a major public event, activists implement elaborate and time-consuming turnout plans, mobilize trusted leaders to issue invitations, track potential participants, and follow up with reminders. In this case, Faith in Indiana did not need to do turnout. Instead, the participating clergy informed their congregations about the event at church Sunday morning. About 1,500 people turned out for the march, which was led by thirty prominent Black clergy. On the steps of city hall, they called on the mayor to take action, while 1,100 people sent emails. “We created a container for the faith community, so that people who wouldn’t come out in the evening could express themselves,” said Shoshanna Spector, executive director of Faith in Indiana. With his city in flames and tear gas in the air, the mayor was quick to respond.

The first step was creating a use-of-force policy for the police. Faith in Indiana’s leaders revised a policy enacted in Camden NJ and negotiated with the mayor, police chief, city’s legal team, and their own grassroots colleagues. After several rounds of revisions, the police adopted a policy that required de-escalation in moments of crisis.

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Democratizing the police

Faith in Indiana’s Black leadership knew this change wasn’t sufficient. Police in Indianapolis were a law unto themselves, with no civilian oversight. Under Jim Crow-era policies, law enforcement in Indianapolis was excluded from the government guidance required of all other municipal agencies. Policy for Indianapolis law enforcement was set by a three-member panel, the General Orders Board (or GO Board), all of whom were appointed by the police. In the words of Bishop Clyde Posely, one of Faith in Indiana’s clergy leaders, policy-making at the Indianapolis Police Department had been “conducted by three of the police brass, in secret, for over a hundred years. These procedures gave officers the cloak, opportunity, and instruction to conduct business that was deadly for Black people.”

With encouragement from the mayor, Faith in Indiana set out to democratize the GO board.

The organization used an inside-outside strategy. As insiders, they went to the city council and learned that a city ordinance––passed by the council, signed by the mayor––was sufficient to revise the board’s structure. Two sympathetic city councilors seized on the opportunity and proposed legislation adding civilians to the powerful Board, and Faith in Indiana’s grassroots leaders held dozens of meetings to win support from the city’s other officials.

As outsiders, leaders generated more than 5,000 emails to city councilors urging them to add democratic accountability to law enforcement. “As modern-day prophets,” said Rev. Dr. Carlos Perkins, Pastor of Bethel AME Church, “we stand on the shoulders of the Old Testament prophet Amos, who declared –– ‘Let Justice roll down like water and righteousness like an ever- flowing stream.’ We are our ancestors’ dream…fighting for our liberation.”

We stand on the shoulders of the Old Testament prophet Amos, who declared –– ‘Let Justice roll down like water and righteousness like an ever- flowing stream.’ We are our ancestors’ dream…fighting for our liberation.

Rev. Dr. Carlos Perkins, Bethel AME Church

Finally, change came to the Indianapolis Police Department. On October 12, 2020, the city council voted to add four community members to the Board, making it a seven-member panel, with community members in the majority. With this decision, Indianapolis became the city with the nation’s strongest civilian oversight over law enforcement.

The fight goes on

The new seven-member board reflected the city’s racial lines. The three police members were white men. The four community members were people of color. The new majority immediately began enacting policy reforms, with the help of Faith in Indiana. But the limits to community power immediately became apparent. During the period between the city council vote to expand the Board in October 2020 and the installation of the new members in January 2021, the three-member GO Board stripped itself of authority to make disciplinary decisions or oversee officers’ disciplinary files. Like a retreating army setting fire to its own headquarters lest they fall into enemy hands, the Board defanged itself rather than allow the community to guide it.

For people like Bishop Posely, who became Board chair and had hoped to remove rogue officers and set up disciplinary procedures that could weed out renegades, this was deeply frustrating, if not particularly surprising. “They lost the fight over the Board, so they took the teeth out of it.”

But Posely didn’t give up. Neither did the other community members of the GO Board or Faith in Indiana, which began working closely with Board members to supply them with policy ideas and proposals to reform the police. Some of the same national experts who had helped drive the city’s improved approach to gun violence offered best practices in police reform from around the country. In 2021, the new GO Board revised rules to end chases by car or by foot, situations which often end in unnecessary violence. And community members are currently making plans to strengthen the use of force policy, create a progressive discipline system, improve training for police, and demand data transparency so the public can see stops, arrests, and use of force, disaggregated by race.

The long game

As Faith in Indiana’s experience illustrates, power operates in every aspect of governance, including implementation and enforcement of policies. Competition and power politics don’t end when laws pass; they shift to different arenas. Making progress on a long-term agenda, then, isn’t a straight or linear path. The ground of the fight shifts rapidly, and advocates must keep their eyes on the prize.

If the craft of organizing and the cultivation of grassroots leadership are long, slow processes, they also make it possible to act quickly. Organized leaders can turn crises to their own advantage––using the death of George Floyd to win reforms on police conduct that had been gathering dust, and channeling American Rescue Plan funds to support innovative gun violence reduction programs. A well-organized leadership can turn on a dime when new opportunities present themselves.

Faith in Indiana’s experience demonstrates the vital role of people of faith in bringing about lasting, structural changes in policymaking and governance. Faith-based organizations have durable institutional structures and the clout to demand respect from elected leaders. Harnessing the pull of faith, they exert a powerful force that can keep people connected to each other, put deeply held values front and center, and mobilize thousands of organized congregants. Their experiences speak directly to the challenges that progressive and Left forces face today: how to push back the authoritarian Right and build a more authentic, multiracial democracy. Through their deep base-building and leadership development, and participation in shaping and implementing progressive policy, faith-based groups like Faith in Indiana are creating opportunities for racially diverse, poor, and working-class communities to reinvent democratic governance.

Featured image: Indianapolis Processional for Racial Justice, May 31, 2020. Participants staged a die-in in front of the Indianapolis City/County building (the mayor’s office) after marching from the statehouse. They lay down in silence for the 9 minutes and 29 seconds that officer Derek Chauvin pushed his knee into George Floyd’s neck. Photo © Faith in Indiana.

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