HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
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The Indianapolis Police Department has been at the center of two racially charged incidents since July 1995, one leading to a "mini-riot" and both contributing factors in the resignation of two successive police chiefs, exacerbating what appears to be a leadership problem at the department. The new incidents build on a recent history of unresolved cases of serious abuse, a weak civilian review mechanism, and a problematic attitude exhibited by some police in dealing with minority communities in particular. Many observers believe that the police are overreacting to a perceived increase in crime by harassing African-American youths and treating them all as if they were violent gang members as part of a new program of more aggressive policing. While the high-profile incidents have directly involved only a dozen or so officers, they have tarnished the 1,000-member department's reputation and have increased distrust of the police among minority residents.1

On July 25, 1995, Danny Sales was arrested by a police sergeant and allegedly beaten.2 The next day, Sales went to file a complaint at the North District police station, but was dissatisfied with the officers' response so he started a protest in front of the station at 42nd Street and College Avenue.3 He was joined by approximately one hundred protesters, and a similar number of police officers responded and attempted to disperse them, using tear gas, K-9 (police dog) units, and armored riot vehicles. The confrontation soon turned violent, with protesters and others looting stores and throwing bricks, rocks and pieces of concrete. Mayor Stephen Goldsmithtermed the melee a "mini-riot."4 Unrest continued for days, at differing levels, with twenty-seven arrested for disorderly conduct; there were also injuries to those pelted with debris.5

The FBI reportedly began investigating the Sales altercation a few days later, after the chief requested their assistance. Although Sales did not immediately file a formal complaint with city agencies or with police monitoring groups, friends claimed that he was handcuffed and then beaten by "jump-out boys," described by the friends as officers who jump out of cars and chase black youths who are acting "suspiciously."6

Mayor Goldsmith, toward the end of the disturbances, said, "People want officers to be more respectful to those who aren't involved in crime. We want to encourage that....[T]he police aren't completely perfect."7 Police Chief James Toler resigned as chief soon thereafter, reportedly telling a community leader that his "hands were tied" in dealing with problem officers.8 The fact that Sales's allegation led to such turmoil seemed to reveal a reservoir of distrust and anger in the minority community toward police.

Just over a year later, nine apparently intoxicated off-duty officers started fights and yelled racial epithets, beat passers-by, and harassed women in a busy downtown neighborhood on August 27, 1996; at least one officer reportedly pulled his gun on the citizens during the melee.9 The incident received national media attention,leading Police Chief Donald Christ to step down "in the best interest of the department as well as the city."10

More than a dozen officers who were present during the altercations were reassigned to desk duty. Four were subsequently indicted on battery, disorderly conduct and other charges relating to the incident, and three others were found to have violated department rules.11 On October 25, 1997, the four officers' trial ended with a hung jury, and prosecutors indicated they would retry the case.12 Instead, a deal was struck and two of the officers resigned with some back pay (with officials explaining that they had been suspended without pay beyond the six-month limit and were eligible for back pay) while two others remained on the force.13 As part of the deal, the officers acknowledged their disorderly conduct and received counseling but no jail time; one of the officers still faced felony charges relating to this and another incident.14

1 A new scandal was emerging at the time of this writing. In December 1997, a joint federal and local task force was formed to investigate possible corruption in the Indianapolis police department. R. Joseph Gelarden and James A. Gillaspy, "Cottey pulls deputies off joint task force," Indianapolis Star/News, January 10, 1998. The task force was formed after an Indianapolis police officer was charged in December 1997 with murdering a suspected drug dealer, and it was believed a group of officers may have been stealing money from drug dealers. "Probe for `bad officers' widening in Indianapolis," Chicago Tribune, December 19, 1997; R. Joseph Gelarden and James A. Gillaspy, "FOP won't pay officer's bills," Indianapolis Star, December 20, 1997.

2 The sergeant reportedly had received a two-day suspension in 1991 as the result of a sustained complaint filed by a woman motorist who claimed the sergeant had pointed his gun at her.

3 James A. Gillaspy and Sherri Edwards, "Silent protest sparks violence," Indianapolis Star, July 27, 1995.

4 Ibid.

5 "Picking up the pieces of unrest," Indianapolis Star, July 29, 1995.

6 "Police to be out in force," Indianapolis News, July 29, 1995.

7 "Picking up the ...," Indianapolis Star.

8 Judy Pasternak, "Indianapolis wrestles with police melee," Los Angeles Times, October 3, 1996.

9 The officers reportedly were all white members of an elite police unit, and all but one were off duty. Ashley H. Grant, "Police chief quits over fray in Indianapolis," Washington Post, September 13, 1996; Pasternak, "Indianapolis wrestles with...," Los Angeles Times; James A. Gillaspy, "IPD chief punishes brawling officers," Indianapolis News, November 8, 1996; R. Joseph Gelarden, "Prosecutor to probe police brawl," Indianapolis Star, August 31, 1996.

10 Grant, "Police chief quits...," Washington Post. It was later disclosed that then-Chief Christ initially failed to tell internal affairs investigators that he was with the officers drinking earlier in the evening. George McLaren, "Police brawl report details earlier deception," Indianapolis Star/News, December 12, 1996. In February 1997, Michael Zunk was named as chief.

11 "7 police officers fired or punished for offensive actions during brawl," Los Angeles Times, November 8, 1996.

12 George McLaren, "Jury hung in brawl case," Indianapolis Star, October 26, 1997.

13 George McLaren, "Brawl case settled," Indianapolis Star, November 21, 1997.

14 Ibid.

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© June 1998
Human Rights Watch