by Chris Bavender
You probably go past the building on College Avenue at 42nd Street and don’t give it a second thought: a small, light blue, nondescript building surrounded by a black wrought iron fence, a few police cars parked on one side of the lot, a silver boat tucked into one corner. You might think it’s deserted—a silent reminder of when it housed the North District Roll Call for the police department. But the building is actually a hive of activity—home to IMPD’s Community Engagement Office (CEO).
“The Community Engagement Office is a branch under Operations that started operating out of there in March 2016, but it wasn’t a fully functioning branch until June 2016 because personnel needed to be interviewed and selected to build the new units,” said Lt. Brian Churchill, CEO coordinator. “It houses youth services, PAL, Immigrant Outreach, the InPAcT Unit (Indianapolis Parole Accountability Team), which helps recent parolees reintegrate with society, and the Behavioral Health Unit” (BHU).
The office is led by Major Lorenzo Lewis and serves as the liaison between IMPD, partner agencies and organizations, and the community.
North District Commander Joshua Barker said IMPD realized as they “tried to address crime and disorder, we needed help addressing the social issues that may not require traditional policing or crime suppression tactics.
“The BHU in particular has been a huge benefit to our officers on North District. They’re encouraged to utilize the BHU to make referrals for mental health and substance abuse issues,” Barker added. “They’re empowered and engaged to follow up on immediate detentions and are getting feedback from our BHU officer assigned to North District.”
The office is staffed by a team with a wide variety of expertise who go into the community—Midtown and beyond—to connect in a positive way with those who need help.
“We bring all those social services and police professionals with their expertise to help people. We use the Real Time Data Center and go off the Social Disorder Index maps to see what communities will be best assisted by our help,” Churchill said. “So we plan and prepare and go out instead of waiting. We hope by being proactive we can head off social issues that lead to crime. Things like helping to prevent electricity being turned off, installing smoke detectors, getting warm coats for kids, etc.”
One of those helping proactively is Julie Fidler, housing and services specialist with the City’s Office of Public Health and Safety. She coordinates civilian agencies such as the Department of Business and Neighborhood Services, the Marion County Public Health Department, and other professional service providers based on where the community engagement team is going and what the needs will likely be.
“We want to address those quality of life issues and then, once the sweep is executed, we follow up with all who asked for help to direct them to the appropriate agencies within the community based on their particular needs,” Fidler said. “It’s all client-centric with us. So, say they need access to transportation and employment. Then we make a referral to the most appropriate place.”
It’s a partnership that works well, Churchill said. While narcotics and flex teams conduct sweeps targeting those wanted on warrants, probation violations, and drug offenses, he wants to help the family members left behind.
“We saw what Julie was doing and thought, why can’t we partner with her and connect the police department with those who need help in a positive way?” he said. “We have all these people designed to bring help and our ultimate goal is to prevent crime in the future by solving problems now that lead people to commit crimes, while raising quality of life and happiness.”
And it appears to be working. Churchill said there is a changing paradigm shift within IMPD as to how the department thinks about addressing crime. Historically the crime was addressed, but not the social cause that led to the crime. He cited an example from Christmas morning 2016, when East District officers who had participated in Operation New Normal encountered a shoplifter.
“The guy was caught red-handed with food. He said there was no food at home and he was not going to let his family go without on Christmas morning, so he came to the store with the intent to steal food,” Churchill said. “Traditionally, he would get jailed, but these officers knew from participating in our sweep that Shepherd Community Center had food. So they took him there and got a box with a complete Christmas dinner for the family and took him home and told him what do in the future instead of feeling his only option was to steal.”
And, their work is only beginning, Fidler said. “It is our absolute responsibility to use all of our resources that incorporate compassion and promote relations. If we can’t protect them and people can’t access help, then what is the point,” she said. “The mayor said it all the time—we have to raise the level of the ocean so all of the boats float.”