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Monument Circle incident raises questions about the IMPD and policing in general

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Monument Circle incident raises questions about the IMPD and policing in general

Among the deepest questions posed by the protests following the murder of George Floyd are these: Who will police the police? And whom do the police protect?

These questions were raised in a vivid and urgent way by an incident that occurred on the evening of Monday, June 8 on Monument Circle. Towards the end of a peaceful rally held by the Indiana Racial Justice Alliance, a woman drove through a crowd of protesters, apparently forcing some onto the hood of her van, and throwing others to the side of her vehicle. 

The incident was recorded on the phone of one of the protesters, and it is disturbing.  It has circulated widely on social media, and you can see it here.

I recently spoke with Jeremy Pearson, one of the protesters, who arrived at the circle shortly after the van drove through the crowd. After hearing about the incident, he found the van parked a short distance away, in front of Dick’s Bodacious BBQ, on Pennsylvania St., with two police cruisers also parked out front. He waited across the street for the driver and the police to come out of the restaurant, filming all the time.

Eventually the driver, Diane Goebel, 68, did emerge. As she was leaving in her van, Pearson confronted the police officer who was accompanying her, Lieutenant Gregory Gehring, asking him, in energetic terms, why the driver was not arrested. When Gehring did not give a clear answer, Pearson suggested that he wanted to make a citizen’s arrest. Gehring dismissed the suggestion, and the woman drove away in her van.

In a subsequent statement made to WISH-TV, Goebel claimed that protesters jumped onto her van. In response, she claims, ““I very slowly just inched my way through the demonstrators.” She blames the protesters for what happened to them.

But the video simply does not support her claim that she “inched” her way through the protesters. The most generous interpretation of the video, in my view, is that she is driving too fast among a group of people, and not leaving them sufficient time to get out of her way. A less generous — but possible —  interpretation is that she showed reckless disregard for the lives of people in the crowd she drove through. 

Goebel’s driving clearly inspired fear and outrage among the protesters. In an extended interview with Real Indy News, Mat Davis, an organizer for the Indiana Racial Alliance, said that, while he was grateful that those hit by the van suffered only cuts and bruises, this could have been a “Charlottesville situation,” resulting in the death of one or more protesters, and creating a very volatile situation.

Like other protesters who were on the Circle that day, Davis expressed indignation that Goebel was not arrested.  In Davis’s version of the story, as he stated to Real Indy News, Goebel did not “inch through the crowd,” but “put her foot on the gas.”  Moreover, according to Davis, the police got the story exactly wrong, trying “to detain someone whose hand was bleeding from her barreling through the crowd.”

The question of why the police did not immediately arrest Goebel is a good one, and deserves further explanation from IMPD. They have not been reluctant to arrest protesters. According to a recent story by Ryan Martin in the Indianapolis Star story, about 135 people have been arrested in relation to the protests since May 31, and about 35 of those have been charged to criminal offences.  

On the face of it, it seems that police responding to the incident have been more concerned about property damage done to Goebel’s van (the police report estimates the damage to her van at $5,000 to $10,000). Shouldn’t they be equally concerned about the safety and well-being of the protestors?

And, in important ways, the police officer’s handling of this matter brings to the fore the very issues that have occasioned the protests: Do the police serve all citizens equally? Or do they act on unspoken biases and unjust principles in their handling of public matters?

In his interview with Real Indy News, Davis focuses particularly on Lieutenant Gregory Gehring, who seems to have been the ranking officer on the scene, and who also seems to have made the decision to release Goebel. Davis notes that he had encountered Gehring at two other protests he had been at, one at 62nd and Michigan Road, the site of the killing of Dreasjon Reed, and the other on 16th Street, when marchers were returning from a demonstration at the Governor’s mansion.  

In both situations, Davis suggests to Real Indy News, Gehring’s comportment was unsettling, and he describes threatening behavior on 16th St.:  After forcing the marchers to separate from the caravan of cars accompanying them, Gehring continued to take an aggressive stance towards the marchers, as the police threatened to “bring us smoke,” or fire teargas at them.  Davis goes on to say, “I want you to see how the department was [complicit] to all these things when it comes to public health and public safety. . . . If this is the kind of cop that’s overseeing these protests, that’s a telltale sign of what’s wrong.”

In fact, there is information available in the public domain that supports Davis’s concern about Gehring’s behavior and what it says about the IMPD.

In 1997, Gregory Gehring was brought before a grand jury on charges of disorderly conduct and battery. At that point, Gehring was 32 years old, and had been an IMPD officer for almost nine years.

The charges related to an off-duty brawl involving 17 white police officers who were celebrating in downtown Indianapolis, after consuming six and a half cases of beer in a suite at Victory Field. According to a report from the Associated Press, the police officers engaged in “racial slurs, lewd remarks to women and attacks on two men who tried to intervene.”  The AP report goes on to say that the police officers “taunted the women and then beat up and arrested a black man who confronted them, as well as a white man.”

Gehring was one of four officers charged in the incident. The trial resulted in a hung jury, so he was not prosecuted on the charges. He was, however, suspended from the police department for 15 days because of his role in the incident. But he was subsequently promoted to lieutenant, and is now, according to his LinkedIn profile, a shift commander for the Southeast District.

For me, Lieutenant Gehring’s history, and his role in policing these protests, raises several troubling concerns. 

First, while I believe in second chances, and I don’t think that someone should be condemned forever for engaging in a drunken brawl at the age of 32, I wonder whether this second chance should be on the police force. I find it especially troubling that this incident involved racial epithets and the beating of a Black citizen by white officers who were drunk. Can we really trust such people to enforce our laws fairly?

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, Lieutenant Gehring’s story represents a history of the police covering up and minimizing their own brutality and unjust treatment of others. The AP report on the incident contains this telling statement: “The Fraternal Order of Police has maintained that the incident was blown out of proportion.”

Isn’t that the role that police unions have consistently played in defending their members, both locally and nationally? And, because of their political power and their claims to promote public safety, police unions have for way too long gotten by with saying that all incidents involving their members have been “blown out of proportion,” even when they have resulted in the deaths of citizens. And, especially, when they have resulted in injury or death to Black citizens.

In contemplating this troubling set of circumstances, let me also note that we know that Lieutenant Gehring was involved in an incident that included racial epithets and the beating of a Black man only because this story became public, and led to a trial before a grand jury. How many other incidents might there be, both in Gehring’s record and in those of other police officers, that we don’t know about?

One defense of police departments rests on the “bad apple” theory, which holds that the vast majority of police officers are good and that there are only a few bad ones that need to be culled. In a recent statement on this, President Trump suggested that between 99 and 99.9 percent of police are “great, great people.” 

I don’t know whether Lieutenant is a bad apple. I do know, though, that he is part of a structure that protects bad apples, and minimizes brutal and unjust behavior. And I am utterly convinced that we must change the culture of police departments. We can no longer accept a world in which powerful police unions pronounce misbehavior by officers “overblown,” and then go on to ensure that their members are able to continue to engage in such behavior.

Like many people, I am ambivalent about the calls to defund or dismantle our police departments. I worry that such slogans will play into the hands of Trump and other demagogues who will play to the fears of voters.  

On the other hand, though, it is clear to me that we need to make profound changes to our police department, and that we need to continue to demand that everyone carrying a badge and a gun is devoted to the safety and well being of all citizens, and are not bent on promoting the interests of some at the expense of others.

Bill Watts professes English and directs the First-Year Seminar program at Butler University.

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