INDIANAPOLIS – The collective disgust many African-Americans feel at the decision of the Civilian Police Merit Board to allow the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD) officers who killed Aaron Bailey to keep their jobs has left many wanting to know more about the board’s members and duties.
The Civilian Police Merit Board, comprised of seven members, has existed for decades. The mayor, Indianapolis City-County Council and Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), appoint board members who serve four-year terms. Board members can be re-appointed after their term expires. The board’s chief functions are hiring, promoting, disciplining and firing police officers.
“It has all the power it needs,” Rev. Stephen J. Clay said. Clay, a member of the City-County Council previously served on the merit board. Clay introduced a proposal in 2016 to make changes to how the merit board operates. The proposal stalled. “What it doesn’t have is the will. The power is there; the will is absent. It can be very well viewed as a rubber stamp.”
Except in this instance.
The board voted 5 to 2 to allow officers Michael Dinnsen and Carlton Howard to keep their jobs against the recommendation of Chief Bryan Roach. Roach recommended firing the officers for violating the department’s firearm policy. During his time on the board, Clay said he never saw the FOP recommend terminating an officer.
The FOP presence loomed large during the three days of hearings for officers Dinnsen and Howard, community activist Satchuel Cole said. Cole is the founder of IMPD Transparency and vice president of DON’T SLEEP. According to Cole, an average of 40 officers attended the hearings and many often made disparaging comments about Roach, their commander.
“The FOP influence is heavy,” Cole said. “It wasn’t that they just appointed a board (member); they showed up every single day. They had a front row seat.”
The Civilian Merit Board meets at 12:30 p.m. on the first Tuesday of the month in IMPD headquarters in the City-County Building. Cole is there for every meeting, live streaming the proceedings on social media. While the FOP connection is a major concern, the board’s lack of transparency is an additional one, Cole said.
“Members of the FOP are former police,” Cole said. “Police sitting on this board to police the police is an issue. Police should not be able to police themselves. If the merit board is going to act as the judge and jury for police officers, it should not have any former police officers sitting on that board and it should not have anything to do with hiring police officers.”
Nikki Moore, Michael Morken, Darryl Pierce, K.P. Singh and David Wantz voted against terminating the officers. Ronald Covington and Joseph Slash voted for termination.
Singh, who was appointed by Mayor Greg Ballard and is in his eighth year on the board, said he based his decision on the evidence presented. “There was no politics involved,” Singh said.
“I am still grieving about the loss of Mr. Bailey,” Singh added. “I believe that each life is precious, each life is God’s gift to us so nobody should die in that manner, in that way, in that kind of instance. We as a community grieve. We as a merit board grieve.”
However, the merit board’s decision and comments from the FOP convey a different message to many African-Americans in Indianapolis.
“This decision is sending the wrong signal to a community that is already overly sensitive to the community-police relationship,” said John Girton Jr., pastor of Christ Missionary Baptist Church. Girton has limited experience with the merit board but is concerned that more oversight of the relationship between the board and police department could be needed. “Police have the right to shoot African-Americans or brown people or people of color and not face any accountability for their action … It signals open season on people of color.”
Mayor Joe Hogsett has yet to appoint any members on the merit board and has called for changes to the merit board system. Hogsett could not be reached for comment.