2 deputy sheriff vacancies to be filled; 3-hour public forum on law enforcement funding gets mixed reviews

Townhall meeting Screen Shot 2020-06-30 at 8.14.21 PM

On Tuesday evening, the seven-member Monroe County council, which is the elected fiscal body of county government, held a video-conferenced public forum on the future of law enforcement funding.

Described on the agenda as a “community concerns and law enforcement resourcing meeting” the three-hour event was led by Latosha Williams from the Community Justice and Mediation Center. Attendance by the public reportedly peaked around 150 people.

Tuesday’s town hall was scheduled after a June 4 video-conferenced special meeting of the county council was attended by around 250 people who objected to Monroe County sheriff Brad Swain’s request for an exception to the council’s hiring freeze.  The council imposed the freeze in late April.

Councilors imposed the hiring freeze because they had concerns about the clarity of the county’s financial picture, given the unknown revenue impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The objections to Swain’s proposed filling of two vacant deputy positions came in the context of nationwide and local demonstrations over the May 25 killing by Minneapolis police of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, along with other recent police killings of Black men and women.

At the June 4 meeting, Swain withdrew his request to fill the two vacancies. But the hiring freeze expires on July 1, which means that Swain can now fill the two vacant positions, without asking the county council for approval.

Swain told The Square Beacon that he’ll now be filling the two positions. One of them needs to be on the payroll to ensure his enrollment in the next academy session, Swain said. The impact of COVID-19 on law enforcement training academy classes could mean up to a two-year delay in the future, Swain said. The second replacement can be put immediately into service, Swain said, because it’s a former deputy who’s returning to the force.

President of the county council, Eric Spoonmore, told The Square Beacon after Tuesday’s forum that the council had not chosen to extend the hiring freeze, because the county’s financial picture is clearer now than it had been before. The anticipated negative impact on income tax revenues is now expected to come later, a couple of years from now, Spoonmore said. That gives the county some time to add to reserves to get through the forecasted impacts, he said.

After hearing calls for defunding the sheriff’s department for most of the night, and a couple of voices saying the sheriff is underfunded, Spoonmore wrapped up the evening by encouraging people to stay engaged in the budget process, when hearings start in early September.

Spoonmore looks forward to putting into action constructive ideas that will improve public safety and quality of life in Monroe County, he said. “Tonight is what democracy looks like,” Spoonmore said.

Williams wrapped up her part of the forum by telling attendees, that it’s not about a moment, but about a movement. She told them that they should continue to show up and “be relentless and persistent about the changes you want to see.” Williams said attendees should not be discouraged that they didn’t hear from councilors that night. Instead they should be encouraged that they had provided councilors with resources to plan the next steps.

At the start of the meeting, and throughout the session, attendees expressed how discouraged and frustrated they felt about the format of the meeting.

Some of that frustration stemmed from a software choice—for the the “webinar” edition of the Zoom videoconferencing platform, instead of the version that’s become familiar to many attendees of public meetings. The “webinar” edition has been touted as offering more robust protections against “Zoom bombing”—when people intrude on the proceedings in a disruptive way.

The downside is that public participants can’t see a list of other meeting attendees the way they can on ordinary Zoom meetings. On the “webinar” edition of Zoom, non-panelists can’t see even a count of participants. Queries about the number participants were made throughout the meeting in the Q&A window. Councilors Geoff McKim and Kate Wiltz obliged by giving the numbers.

It was possible to manually configure the view so that councilors themselves could be seen, but they weren’t visible on the default view of the proceedings. The screen was dominated by the two-minute timer.

One attendee summed up by saying, “This was not a great format.” Another commenter said, “We keep calling this a conversation. But we’re just talking at you. And it feels like we’re talking at a brick wall.”

The majority of comments were in favor of reducing, even eliminating, funding for the sheriff’s department and re-allocating that money to social services.

During the comment period, Ilana Stonebraker, said she supports re-thinking not just the sheriff’s budget, but considering the budgeting for all law enforcement, including community corrections and the way the court system is allocated funds. Stonebraker also wanted to know: How is the emergency management system working to serve people of color? (Before moving to Monroe County in early 2020, Stonebraker was a county councilor in Tippecanoe County.)

A half dozen people during Tuesday’s forum complained that sheriff’s deputies typically escalate situations instead of solving them non-violently.

Dustin Dillard, who’s Monroe Fire Protection District chief, said he has 14 years of experience on law enforcement from the perspective of a first-responder. And in the last 5 years, Dillard said, he’s seen a drastic change for the better in attitude among sheriff’s deputies. Dillard said the department is still understaffed.

Vauhxx Booker, who introduced himself as a member of Monroe County’s human rights commission among other roles, challenged the idea that the county does not play a role in policies on the Bearcat armored vehicle, which is owned by Bloomington police department (BPD).

Booker pointed out that the Bearcat has been used more often by the sheriff’s department than by BPD. Based on the dataset that BPD routinely publishes, three out of five situations when the vehicle has been used since mid-2018 originated with sheriff’s office calls.

BPD routinely releases data—on calls for service, use of force (incident by incident), and other operational matters. The sheriff’s office has been called on to provide that level of data as well, to provide more transparency about the way policing is done in the county.

After Tuesday’s forum, Spoonmore told The Square Beacon that his first phone call on Wednesday morning would be to the sheriff to ask him what resources he needs in order to provide stronger data. The county council wants to be in a position to make data-driven decisions, Spoonmore said.