Supporters of Black Lives Matter and other groups recently marched on a hot afternoon from the City Hall in Gary, Ind., to the Police Department to demand reforms.
“These officers are thieves. They’re liars. They’re murderers,” said one protester in front of the Department. “It’s time to apply pressure.”
Demonstrations like this have been happening in cities across the country in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death while in the custody of Minneapolis police. But Gary is different from many of the places where protesters say African Americans are victimized by police, and there are demands for reform.
Gary’s population of 75,000 is 80% black, according to the U.S. Census. The city’s government is run by African Americans, and 57% of the Gary Police Department’s 163 officers are black.
But even here, there are persistent tensions between residents and police.
Heather Fox believes her boyfriend, a 25-year-old African American named Rashad Cunningham, was targeted and killed by a black Gary cop as he sat in his car last August.
“We do have racist police here, but with Rashad’s situation, he was profiled by another black officer,” Fox said.
Unlike police-involved shootings of black men that have become national stories, there is no video from witnesses or police of the encounter that led to Cunningham’s death. Gary police don’t wear body cameras.
A federal wrongful death lawsuit has been filed against Gary on behalf of Cunningham’s mother. The case remains under investigation and is being handled by a police agency outside of Gary.
Cunningham’s death is an example of the anger and distrust some residents have toward local police, even when race may not be an obvious factor.
A need to address “outdated” policies
“I believe there are absolutely still problems that need to be addressed on a national level and including in Gary,” said James Dillon Sr., an African American civil rights attorney in Northwest Indiana.
He’s also a former Lake County, Ind., deputy prosecutor and ex-Gary police officer. Dillon joined the police department in 2008 when it was still majority white. That racial makeup has changed, but Dillon believes problems remain.
“When you get into the concept of systematic racism, it’s not that any particular police officer is targeting somebody who is black,” Dillon said. “But you have outdated policies that were held over from the 90’s war on drugs and that leads to over-policing.”
Dillon believes poverty is a factor that complicates policing in Gary.
The city has the lowest median income in Indiana and the highest poverty rate. When cops arrest poor people, even for minor offenses, that can mean losing one’s car or job or both, he said.
Dillon doesn’t support calls to defund Gary’s police force, but believes that resources should be shifted.
“It’s cheaper to invest in communities than to police them,” he said.
Doubts about defunding police
Gary resident Latricia Wilson said she likes living in a city with a majority black police force, and she doesn’t think defunding is the answer.
“Due to social economic reasons, there is more violent crime in my own community,” said Wilson, a teacher at a private school in Chicago. “I just can’t imagine removing police completely.”
She would rather see African American residents work closer with police to solve crimes, especially homicides where the suspects are black.
“If it’s a white person, whether it’s a police or non-police, black people will fight to the end for justice,” Wilson said. “If it’s another black person killing another black person, we tend to accept it more. I don’t want to be a part of that anymore.”
Mayor launches reform commission
Gary Mayor Jerome Prince recently took action to create a police reform commission that he said will propose meaningful changes to the Department. The panel will be made up of civic and business leaders, community activists, faith leaders and community organizations.
Prince said part of the commission’s work will include considering whether any policing responsibilities should be shared or shifted to other city departments.
“I am largely proud of the work that the vast majority of those officers do everyday,” said Prince, who is African American and took office in January. “But no department is perfect and the Gary Police Department needs work.”
Prince said Gary will “not tolerate violence or inappropriate actions on behalf of our officers against the residents of this city.”
The officers who don’t understand that, the mayor said, will be weeded out and their badges will be taken away.
Michael Puente covers Northwest Indiana for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.