“We are dealing with an issue — and issues — that are deeply rooted in systematic racism and oppression. … It’s unrealistic for us to think that a march to MLK Bridge is going to un-root systematic oppression and racism without formalized policies and changes.”
That was the message Sharon Tucker shared June 9 with fellow members of Fort Wayne City Council in stating her intention to co-author legislation in direct response to the Fort Wayne Police Department’s handling of large-scale protests in downtown Fort Wayne the nights of May 29 and 30.
“I want people of color to go home safely at night, whether they have black or brown skin, or whether they are wearing blue or brown uniforms,” Tucker, a Democrat who represents Fort Wayne’s 6th district, said.
Tucker and Michelle Chambers, D-at large, the first two black women to hold Fort Wayne City Council seats concurrently, are calling for council to consider requiring all local law enforcement to wear body cameras. They also plan to co-author an ordinance that would create an 11-member citizen review board with subpoena power to bring disciplinary recommendations after the police department’s use of tear gas and other crowd-control methods on protestors, which resulted in injuries and more than 100 arrests over the last weekend in May.
Although no members of the public attended the June 9 council meeting due to COVID-19 restrictions, nearly 40 Fort Wayne residents submitted letters to be read publicly. Many of those letters were from individuals present during the protests — both active participants and observers. Although the Fort Wayne Police Department has reported that crowd-control tactics were implemented in response to protesters blocking traffic, vandalizing personal property and throwing objects at law enforcement officers, many in attendance during the protests claim they were victims of excessive force despite protesting peacefully.
Many of the letters read June 9 alleged that police shot tear gas at protesters gathered on the front lawn of the Allen County Courthouse, claiming one protester was hospitalized and later lost his eye after being hit in the face with a canister. Many still demand an apology from the police department and Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry. Several of the letters pleaded with local officials to drop charges against demonstrators who were arrested during the protests.
Many residents urged City Council members to implement “8 Can’t Wait” reforms developed by Campaign Zero, which emerged from the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following the death of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man who was fatally shot by a police officer. The plan calls for communities to defund their police departments, dramatically reduce jail and prison populations, and invest more funds in housing, jobs and education. The plan has been cited by protesters across the country in the weeks following the May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed in police custody in Minneapolis.
During the June 9 council meeting, Tucker recalled her experience on the night of May 29, the first in a series of ongoing police protests in downtown Fort Wayne.
“We don’t all have the privilege to sit behind a blind naivety and think that negative things did not happen to people — whether intended or as a circumstance of happenstance,” she said. “There were people who were legitimately hurt — there were people who were jailed and hurt.”
Chambers said while she believes everyone on council supports local police, what transpired in downtown Fort Wayne should serve as an opportunity to learn from mistakes made.
“We need to get ready to roll our sleeves up, work with our administration, work with our police chief, and understand that changes are needed and changes are coming,” Chambers said.
Councilmen Glynn Hines, D-at large, and Tom Didier, R-3rd district, agreed that the council should consider looking into the cost of equipping police officers with body cameras. However, in response to many of the letters received, Didier and councilmen Paul Ensley, R-1st district, and Tom Freistroffer, R-at large, said they would not support efforts to defund the Fort Wayne Police Department.
“There needs to be greater scrutiny in regards to certain actions. We don’t know the whole picture — I don’t know if we’ll ever know the whole picture — but lower funding will only lead to more crime and corruption,” Freistroffer said.
Fort Wayne Police chief Steve Reed, who was present at the meeting, said he believes the May 29 protest escalated through the influence of “outside agitators.” He said the department received reports of protesters standing on vehicles, and that some threw rocks and bottles at law enforcement officers. He estimated protesters blocked traffic for more than an hour, at which point smoke canisters were released as a warning. When protesters refused to leave the area, he said, other methods were deployed, including tear gas and pepper spray.
Chambers said she had an extensive list of concerns from her constituents to share with Reed.
“From my observation on Facebook, the report that you’ve given us thus far, the order of that does seem to be a little different than what I observed,” she said, adding that she looks forward to learning more about the department’s de-escalation training methods.
Councilman Jason Arp, R-4th district, said the police department’s efforts were “most likely an appropriate amount of force to prevent Fort Wayne from burning down.”
In other news
Council members clashed June 9 over an appointment made to the Fort Wayne Economic Development Commission. Ensley said he would not support the appointment of criminal defense attorney Quinton Ellis — who ultimately received the approval by a 6-3 vote — due to his alleged disapproval of President Donald Trump.
“Mr. Ellis, it has been brought to my attention, has been a vocal critic of President Trump — has raised money for his opponents,” Ensley said. “I know generally national politics don’t always make it down to the local level — don’t always directly apply — but it doesn’t make sense to me that if we have someone who is at a national level opposing certainly the driving force of our economy, and then we’re going to appoint him now locally to an economic development board. It sounds like maybe — not in terms of qualifications but in terms of values — Mr. Ellis’s values don’t really align with certainly what we would like to see in terms of economic development here in Fort Wayne.”
Hines and Tucker were especially critical of Ensley’s comments.
“To attack an individual that is, one, not in this room to defend himself and, two, is a good human being who has given his time and attention to this community, I will not sit idly by and allow that attack to go forward,” Tucker said.
Ellis was nominated by Chambers. Freistroffer, Tucker, Chambers, Didier, Hines and Geoff Paddock, D-5th district, voted in favor of his appointment. Ensley, Arp and Russ Jehl, R-2nd, voted for John Dortch, founder of the Fort Wayne Ink Spot newspaper, who was nominated by Jehl.
“I’m just disappointed for all of us and for John, because I think if he had known his nomination would cause this type of discussion, I think he’d just be very disappointed,” Jehl said. “… I have nothing but positive things to say about the quality of the candidates that we both brought.”
Ellis told Business Weekly he was “taken aback” by Ensley’s comments.
“If he knew me, he would know that over the years I have supported Democratic and Republican candidates alike financially and with votes,” Ellis said. “I think his comments were way off base in terms of describing me, as well as way off base in terms of what to utilize to try and suggest that I wasn’t qualified for the position.”
Ellis, a criminal defense attorney who received his economics degree from Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, said he intends to accept the appointment.
“I will serve and I will approach the appointment from the perspective of what’s good for all of Fort Wayne,” he said. “I do have an interest in seeing the economic development that the greater downtown area and other areas of the city have experienced, I would like to see that extend southeast. But, of course, I plan to serve the city.”