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Defund the police? Not in our state, Indiana Republican lawmakers say

Legislators have crafted targeted measures that would stymie efforts to defund law enforcement.
Tamar Sarai Davis February 12th, 2021
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Last summer, in response to new incidents of anti-Black police violence, people around the country coalesced around a singular demand: defund the police. Whether intended as a step toward abolishing police altogether or as a method for shrinking but not entirely eliminating police power, the call to divest from policing and instead invest in social programs drew widespread support.

While the near constant media coverage has since shifted away from organizers’ demands, the contention around police budgets is far from over. In response, state-level Republican lawmakers around the country have rapidly been proposing legislation that would prohibit local municipalities from reducing their police budgets. In particular, Indiana has emerged as a hotbed of anti-defund legislative activity. There, since the start of 2021, five anti-police divestment bills have been proposed in the state’s legislature. The measures, which are often paired with reactionary laws criminalizing protest, propose a variety of methods to curtail local municipalities’ ability to reduce police budgets, from injunctions to tax-based limitations.

These bills come after an explosion of public attention to lethal police misconduct both nationally and locally in the wake of the deaths of two Black men—Dreasjon “Sean” Reed and McHale Rose—at the hands of Indianapolis Metropolitan police in May of last year. Reed, who was 21 years old, was on Facebook Live in the moments leading up to his death. His shooting was viewed by thousands—as were the callous remarks made by officers in the immediate aftermath of his killing. Just hours after Reed’s death, Indianapolis police fatally shot 19-year-old Rose. In the aftermath, protesters took to the streets in communities around the state, calling for justice and divestment from the police. Now, Indiana lawmakers are rushing to make sure their demands aren’t met.

‘A clear backlash’

 Legislation crafted as a direct pushback to on-the-ground protest and demands from organizers is not new. As reported by Prism, local organizers and elected officials alike such as Kentucky state Rep. Attica Scott, have been targeted by state bills that have criminalized political protest. According to a 2020 report released by PEN America, between 2015 and 2019, state legislatures have proposed 116 bills seeking to limit protest rights. Indiana’s proposed laws go further in that they not only seek to ban protests, but to prohibit the defunding of local police departments as well.

Senate Bill 42, sponsored by state Sen. Mike Bohacek, instructs that a municipality cannot reduce its public safety, police, or fire service budgets by any amount greater than the department's shortfall in tax revenue, and prohibits cities from transferring more than 5% of public safety funds to a “non-public safety purpose.” Similarly, House Bill 1327, sponsored by state Rep. Jeff Ellington, bans city governments from reducing their annual police budget or reducing the number of budgeted police officer positions unless there is a “legitimate fiscal reason.” Even then, the municipality cannot reduce the police department’s budget by a greater percentage than any other department’s.

Senate Bill 34 and House Bill 1205, sponsored by state Sen. James Tomes and state Rep. Wendy McNamara, respectively, threaten to punish protest by introducing new employment restrictions for individuals convicted of rioting or unlawful assembly and barring them from receiving certain state and local benefits. Within both bills, there are also provisions that would make local municipalities subject to injunctions if they attempt to defund their law enforcement.

Meanwhile, House Bill 1070, sponsored by state Rep. Randy Frye, would have prohibited cities from reducing their police budgets unless the department has a shortfall in tax revenue or if the department's violent crime has steadily decreased by at least 20% in the previous five years. Representatives from Frye's office told Prism that his bill will no longer be heard in committee this year. Still, the bill's attempt to measure public safety using crime data is not unique to this legislation and instead reflects a broader misunderstanding that Katie Blair, director of advocacy and public policy for ACLU of Indiana, finds troubling.

“We know that more policing doesn't equate to less crime, so putting those together is false,” said Blair.

According to Blair, this set of proposed legislation is illustrative of a larger trend in Indiana where state legislators have exerted power over the affairs of local municipalities and attempted to take away community control. However, she also noted that these bills in particular are a direct response to the upsurge in political activity against police violence witnessed over the past year.

“This is a clear backlash from the events of the summer in response to the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and also the local police killing of Dreasjon Reed,” said Blair in an interview with Prism. “We really had a wonderful outcry from the community, we had protests and rallies all across the state and we've made some really good strides in communities to address issues with policing. And then, just like clockwork, once the legislature came back in they've chosen to take control away from local communities and to write their own rules instead of the communities that are on the ground.” 

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Invest, divest in Indiana

The murders of people like Dreasjon, McHale, and countless others spurred a great deal of protest activity in towns throughout Indiana like Indianapolis and Fort Bend. The degree of support was so high that even on the ground organizers were surprised by community response given the state’s conservative politics. In an October interview with PBS member station WFYI Indianapolis, 20-year-old Indianapolis organizer Taylor Hall described the level of support in her town as “weird and kind of surreal” given the state’s conservative politics.

Though communities took to the streets to express their demands, online forums were also used to dig deeper into the reasons behind those demands and served as spaces for political education. In August, Indy10 Black Lives Matter hosted an online panel discussion where members articulated not just the necessity of defunding the police, but also discussed where that funding could be diverted.

In lieu of police, some members proposed funding grassroots coalitions who are already doing violence prevention work or offering food and housing to their communities. Others pointed to schools as prime institutions that could be better served if less money was spent on school resource officers and more on social services. “Social work—the field in and of itself—will also need some of those allocated funds,” said member Michelle Anastasia. “So [that means] taking funds from police and giving them to social workers so that coalitions can be built, so that they have the infrastructure that they need to be able to handle someone who is in a mental crisis, someone who needs immediate and emergency help, or someone who maybe is physically violent or threatening. But right now because they are underfunded they don't have the structure, the staff, the time, the people, or the training to handle that across the board. So that would be another great place for money to get slid into.”

However, despite interest and conversation around the value of defunding, both Blair and the Republican lawmakers proposing these bills say that there have yet to be sustained attempts throughout the state to reduce local police budgets. As such, these targeted legislative measures—similar to the anti-police divestments bill that died in committee in Louisiana last October and in Mississippi earlier this year—are preemptive as opposed to attacks against specific municipalities with active defund campaigns.

“Let’s be honest, most of the time public safety budgets don’t get cut anyway,” said Bohacek, the primary sponsor of Senate Bill 42, in an interview with Prism.

Putting rhetoric into practice

The emergence of anti-defund bills in Indiana also underscores how some state legislators have wielded fears around police divestment to gain political ground with their largely conservative base. Some recently elected lawmakers even folded into their campaign platforms promises to quell demands to defund the police. “People ran on that rhetoric here and now they’re back at the statehouse and they’re living out those promises,” said Blair.

Indeed, during his bid for reelection in 2020, Ellington, the primary sponsor for House Bill 1327, made explicit that he would not support the cutting of police budgets should he maintain his office. In a candidate questionnaire compiled by the Hoosier Times, Ellington actually promoted more funding to local police departments.

“I believe local governments should follow the example of the Indiana state government, which gave raises to state police,” wrote Ellington. “Police are being blamed for the actions of a few bad actors, and now retirements have become a serious issue. Government’s No. 1 role is law enforcement and safety. I will not defund or cut the police.”

Not all legislators are quick to tie their bills to the recent demands made by organizers, however. In a conversation with Prism, Bohacek said his legislation, Senate Bill 42, was crafted in response to an attempt to defund the La Porte County Police Department years ago while he was serving as county commissioner. Bohacek says his bill is “trying to inoculate communities from this knee-jerk reaction” to shrink police budgets, and argued that police are necessary as a constant force in community life. Nevertheless, he said he is currently considering amending language in the bill to give local communities more flexibility in their budgeting process. On Monday, Feb. 8, the bill was heard by the Senate’s Local Government Committee and passed favorably out of the committee in a 7-2 vote split down party lines.

Groups like ACLU Indiana will be continuing to track this set of legislation. Many others will be up for a committee hearing on Tuesday, Feb. 16.


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