There has really only been one story in
Indianapolis this past week: the death of one motorcyclist and the serious
injury of two others because of an on-duty Indianapolis Metropolitan Police
Department officer, whom early evidence showed was intoxicated at the time.
And, despite the wishes of the mayor's office,
the police department and the director of public safety, the story isn't going
away anytime soon – a fact that could endanger several careers and is
already eroding the always-fragile state of police-community relations.
The story seems to get worse with every new
revelation. It was bad enough that a police officer killed an innocent victim.
It's worse that none of the officers responding to the accident suspected
alcohol as a cause.
And it's absolutely unthinkable that police
officers would botch the handling of evidence rendering alleged proof of the
officer's intoxication inadmissible in court.
Besides the considerable human tragedy, the
incident also raises the unproven but widely suspected belief that police
officers will do anything to avoid seeing one of their own prosecuted for
Mayor Greg Ballard is trying to get in front of
the story, saying in interviews that he's outraged by the affair. His public
safety director, Frank Straub, has also been on full damage control, demoting
three officers involved in the response to the accident.
Marion County Prosecutor Carl Brizzi, who hasn't
had a very good year himself, dropped the alcohol-related charges on technical
reasons – the test was administered by a lab technician not under the
supervision of a doctor.
Rightly or wrongly, there is a widespread
impression that police officers in this city can do whatever they want and get
away with it. The civilian oversight of law enforcement is toothless.
Unsurprisingly, internal investigations of the police department usually clear
cops accused of wrongdoing.
While Ballard's public statements have been
forceful and reasonable, he also seems to have shrugged his shoulders by
effectively saying "there's always going to be a few bad apples" in every
police department the size of our city's.
That's where I think he's wrong. We need our
police to be absolutely above reproach. There isn't room for bad apples. And
when cops are determined to be bad apples, they should receive 10 times the
punishment of civilians for breaking the sacred trust of the police officer's
There have been just too many bad apples over
the years making headlines. Remember the drunken police riot through downtown
in the 1990s, where officers allegedly screamed the N-word at innocent
What about the cop who had a downtown apartment
where he'd have sex with prostitutes he'd picked up on duty? The list goes on
and on. At this point, it seems like the local law enforcement community is
about as upstanding as the gun-toting Indiana Pacers team of the mid-2000s.
Indianapolis is a forgiving city when it comes
to innocent mistakes. If cops had been accused of accidentally punching a
pedophile's teeth down his throat, well, accidents happen. If officers had been
attacked by a mob and people got hurt, that's not unusual either.
But when a police officer, possibly intoxicated,
mows down several citizens who were doing nothing more than minding their own
business, that's when this city gets good and pissed off. It's going to be hard
as hell to find an impartial jury in Marion County in this case, because every
single person who knows about it is extremely angry.
The problem for IMPD is that probably well over
95 percent of officers do a heroic job each and every day. They care about the
victims of crime and they're determined to make sure criminals get their due
punishment under the law.
But, at least for the time being, people are
going to wonder if the cop they're dealing with is drunk or sadistic or corrupt
in some fashion. That's an unfair assumption to make – but I guarantee
people are making that assumption right now.
Ballard, Straub and the rest of the
administration are good men who are genuinely troubled by this tragedy. They
need to continue insisting on justice without playing favorites, and to run all
the bad cops off the force.
We need the protection of the police department
too much to have this widespread distrust going on. The officers need the
confidence of the people in order to do their jobs. That means the mayor and
the police are going to have to go an extra mile to prove to us that they are
not the bad apples we've heard so much about.