Bloomington's Police Department Wants a BearCat

posted on Mar 05, 2018 with comments

On February 6th, the Herald Times posted a short article about purchases being made by the Bloomington Police and Fire Departments.  Contained in that article was this unassuming snippet, which set off a firestorm.

The Bloomington Police Department this spring will receive a Lenco BearCat; the letters stand for “ballistic engineered armored response counter attack truck.” It is not a military surplus vehicle, but is being purchased new for $225,000.
It will be paid for with local income taxes, city spokeswoman Mary Catherine Carmichael said.

Bloomington's Police Department is purchasing a Lenco BearCat.  This is a Lenco BearCat.


When I first read those sentences, I didn't quite believe it. I had thought that our administration understood the problems inherent in the militarization of the police and wouldn't have supported this.

I reached out to various folks I know in the mayor's office to find out what the deal was.  Apparently, it was first brought up in the budget talks in August. The CIRT team (essentially our SWAT team) asked for it. They get called to incidents all over the southern part of the state.

They want the armored truck for protection when they're approaching an incident site.  That's the most dangerous part of incident response. Right now, they approach in unarmored vans and are vulnerable.  They are asking for the BearCat as a replacement for a used Brinks bank truck they used for the roughly ten years spanning from 2002 to 2012.

In response to the viral uproar, the Police Department posted a "Talking points" document to social media, further clarifying their case.

Since 2012 when the last armored vehicle was retired due to poor condition, the Bloomington Police Department has been without the protection and capability afforded by such a vehicle, placing officers, suspects and innocent civilians at risk. 
 
The CIRT vehicle will only be used at the direction of the Chief of Police and only to deal with situations in which a heavily armed threat is imminent or believed imminent. The use of CIRT and any special equipment utilized by CIRT is governed by department General Orders.
The lack of an armored vehicle added to the danger level faced by all involved in several recent local instances:
- a stand-off with an armed suicidal suspect on South High Street
- a confrontation with an armed suspect on Strain Ridge Road
- an incident on West Vernal Pike where a group of home-invasion robbery suspects had barricaded
themselves 
- a hostage-taking on South Rogers, which ended with the law enforcement use of lethal force

Since I started researching and writing this post at the beginning of this bruhaha, Black Lives Matter has disrupted Mayor Hamilton's State of the City speech to protest the BearCat.  The City Council held a Town Hall to elicit feedback on the purchase.  Steve Volan enlightened us as to how, exactly, it got to the point where the purchase was nearly a done deal with out anyone catching wind of it (including, apparently, the council).  The Council responded to questions taken at the town hall and the Police Department elaborated on their talking points in an executive report.  The conversation is on-going, with Mayor Hamilton announcing a decision whether to back out the purchase or go ahead with it coming at the end of March.

I'm willing to explore the argument that there is a real need for some sort of armored vehicle.  But a BearCat should not be that vehicle. A quick google turned up other perfectly viable options, like this armored van used widely in Canada. If, at the end of this piece, you find my reasoning convincing, please reach out to the city ask them to stop the purchase of the BearCat.

Is the BearCat a Military vehicle?  

At the heart of the issue is the question of whether the BearCat is a Military (militaristic, military-style) vehicle.  The council has requested the police not militarize in the past.  They kept a careful watch on the Police Department to prevent them from taking advantage of the Military Surplus program and obtaining anything like an MRAP.  So it's clear at least some in our city government understand the problems inherent in police militarization.

But the Bloomington Police Department are arguing that the BearCat is a civilian vehicle.   It's not military surplus.  It has a civilian frame (that of a Ford F550 truck).  They're saying that it doesn't represent a militarization of the police and so it shouldn't fall under the same restriction. 

I strongly disagree.

Though the Lenco BearCat may not be a military surplus vehicle, it is a military vehicle, and it does represent a militarization of the police. 

From Lenco's own website:

Lenco trucks can be used in a variety of missions. The BearCat, our best selling truck, may be used as a S.W.A.T. or Military Counter Attack and Rescue Vehicle and is often used in hostile Urban Environments or as a Patrol/Reaction Vehicle on a Military Base. The BearCat, with its standard NIJ IV armor and 4WD system, can carry up to 10 people through varying terrain. The BearCat has been embraced by several DoD and DoE Security Forces and, because of its affordability, low maintenance expenses, ease of use and superior armor level, is increasingly the replacement vehicle of choice for up-armored Humvees. It may also be equipped with our optional Mechanical Rotating Turret with Cupola (Tub) and Weapon Ready Mounting System, suitable for the M60, 240B and Mark 19 weapons system.

Let me just emphasize a few parts of that.

The BearCat [...] may be used as a [...] Military Counter Attack and Rescue Vehicle and is often used in hostile Urban Environments or as a Patrol/Reaction Vehicle on a Military Base.

Military Counter Attack.  Often used in hostile Urban Environments. Often used on Military bases.

The BearCat has been embraced by several DoD and DoE Security Forces and [...] is increasingly the replacement vehicle of choice for up-armored Humvees.

The DoD is increasingly replacing its Humvee fleet with BearCats.  This doesn't sound like a civilian vehicle.  The Military seems be quite amenable to it!

It may also be equipped with our optional Mechanical Rotating Turret with Cupola (Tub) and Weapon Ready Mounting System, suitable for the M60, 240B and Mark 19 weapons system.

The M60 and M240B are heavy machine guns.  The Mark 19 is a grenade launcher.  That Weapons Ready Mounting System can also mount high powered water canons, by the way, and was used to do exactly that against protesters at Standing Rock, soaking them with water in sub-zero temperatures leading to hypothermia and frostbite.

This is how Lenco has promoted the BearCat to police departments in the past:

I'm sorry, this is not a civilian vehicle.  This is a military Armored Personnel Carrier.  BPD may have ordered an unarmed one, but the BearCat is thoroughly armable.  Counter Assault Truck is right there in the name.  It's not a defensive platform.  It's not a "Protected Escape Truck".  It's a Counter Assault Truck.

A quick aside is necessary here. In their recent executive report on the whole situation, our BPD made the claim that "BearCat" isn't an acronym for anything, attributing the claim that it is to an erroneous wikipedia page.  However, if you search for the phrase "Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck" you will find it in news articles going back to the BearCat's introduction, including several articles reproduced on Lenco's page.  What seems likely is that Lenco faced a backlash for its use of the acronym, and, in a classic example of corporate gaslighting, dropped it.  

At its most stripped down, a BearCat is still a mobile sniper platform sporting gun ports from which officers can fire rubber or real bullets depending on the situation. And from what I've been told, that's more or less exactly how the BPD CIRT team intends to use it. They intend to bring it to barricade or active shooter situations and snipe the shooter or barricader out of it.

Like I said, I'm open to hearing the argument that our police need some sort of armored transport to bring them safely to, and remove them safely from, active shooter situations or barricade situations.  But that doesn't have to mean letting them purchase a military weapons platform.

Of course, how you feel about our police purchasing a weapon of this sort depends heavily on whether you trust our Police Department.  Or the institution of policing in general.  Many people, especially people of color, have very good reasons not to trust either.

The Context of Policing in America 

In recent years, we've seen a wave of deeply disturbing revelations about police activities across the US. 

For the last several years, Black Lives Matter has highlighted instance after instance of police officers using excessive force against people of color, especially black men. 

Many of these instances involved the police killing unarmed black men who posed no threat to them.  The instances seem endemic to policing in America, occurring in cities big and small and in almost every state in the country. It seems new ones continue to occur on a weekly basis.  Few of the officers involved face any sort of justice, even when there is clear video evidence showing that their use of force was in no way justified.

Because no government entity tracks police involved shootings, The Washington Post and other news organizations have had to comb through local news reports to tally the number of officer involved shootings across the country.  In 2015, the Post counted 965.  Of those, only about half involved suspects armed with a gun. 281 were armed with "another weapon".  90 were unarmed.  Even though Black men only account for about 6% of the US population, they made up 40% of unarmed men shot to death by police that year.

It's important to keep in mind that people like Philando Castile, who was shot while legally carrying a firearm and who did everything by the book during the police stop, technically count as armed.

Other tallies in that year came up with even higher numbers.  The Guardian counted 1146 that year.  Fatal Encounters, a blog and independent research organization founded by the former Editor of the Reno News and Review, and a journalism instructor at the University of Nevada, Reno, counted 1,357.

That same year, there were only 13,286 total gun homicides.  Of which about 475 occurred during mass shootings.

 Britain had 3 police involved killings in 2015.  The number of killings since 2000 fits on a single table in Wikipedia.  Australia, a country with a similar gun culture and history to the US, had 14 police involved killings from 2008 to 2011.  And it was enough to lead to articles like this. Both Australia and Britain have solid gun control measures, but both still allow private citizens to own long guns for hunting.

Very few of the officers involved have been tried, let alone convicted.  Even when the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that their use of force was entirely unreasonable.

Many of the cases don't just involve poor split second decision making, but intentional malice and corruption. The cases of Freddie Grey and Sandra Bland, stand out in that regard.

But that's just the tip of the ice berg.

As BLM has worked to shine a light the issues of race and policing, research has highlighted just how deep the problems racial profiling and excessive force go.  

In lawsuits and investigations, the U.S. Department of Justice has concluded that a number of major police departments have engaged in a pattern or practice of excessive force. The Cleveland Police Department was most recently found to be an offender, but it follows a long line of other wayward law enforcement agencies: SeattleNew OrleansPortlandNewark and Albuquerque among them. Clearly, cases like Eric Garner’s are not isolated — police use of excessive force is a systemic, national problem.

We've seen how that targeting results in the vastly disproportionate mass incarceration of people of color.  These are structural issues, embedded in how we do policing everywhere.

But that's not all.

In 2014, we saw the militarized response to the protests against Michael Brown's killing in Ferguson. That same year, the ACLU completed a year long report on the militarization of the police.  It revealed some disturbing facts about how the police have been using their SWAT teams with their military style equipment:

Among the notable findings:
- 62 percent of the SWAT raids surveyed were to conduct searches for drugs.
- Just under 80 percent were to serve a search warrant, meaning eight in 10 SWAT raids were not initiated to apprehend a school shooter, hostage taker, or escaped felon (the common justification for these tactics), but to investigate someone still only suspected of committing a crime.
- In fact, just 7 percent of SWAT raids were “for hostage, barricade, or active shooter scenarios.”
- In at least 36 percent of the SWAT raids studies, no contraband of any kind was found. The report notes that due to incomplete police reports on these raids this figure could be as high as 65 percent.
- SWAT tactics are disproportionately used on people of color.
- 65 percent of SWAT deployments resulted in some sort of forced entry into a private home, by way of a battering ram, boot, or some sort of explosive device. In over half those raids, the police failed to find any sort of weapon, the presence of which was cited as the reason for the violent tactics.
- Ironically (or perhaps not), searches to serve warrants on people suspected of drug crimes were more likely to result in forced entry than raids conducted for other purposes.
- Though often justified for rare incidents like school shootings or terrorist situations, the armored personnel vehicles police departments are getting from the Pentagon and through grants from the Department of Homeland Security are commonly used on drug raids.

It's notable that much of the reasoning that BPD is using to justify the purchase of a BearCat is very similar to the public reasoning used by departments across the country - talk of hostage situations, and mass shootings loom large.  Strangely, many of those departments use very different reasoning with the each other and with the military when making requests for equipment.

No community, they argued, not even the smallest one, is safe from worst-case scenarios like mass shootings, hostage situations, or terrorist attacks. The use of this military equipment has resulted in “substantial positive impact on public safety and officer safety,” Jim Bueermann, the president of the Police Foundation, a research group, said in a 2014 Senate hearing on police militarization. He cited hostage situations, rescue missions, and heavy-duty shootouts where the vehicles had come in useful. 

But in private, police justify these same programs in radically different ways.

Mother Jones obtained more than 450 local requests, filed over two years, for what may be the most iconic piece of equipment in the debate over militarizing local police: the mine resistant ambush protected vehicle, or MRAP.* And an analysis of these documents reveals that in justifying their requests, very few sheriffs and police chiefs cite active shooters, hostage situations, or terrorism, as police advocates do in public. Instead, the single most common reason agencies requested a mine-resistant vehicle was to combat drugs. Fully a quarter of the 465 requests projected using the vehicles for drug enforcement. Almost half of all departments indicated that they sit within a region designated by the federal government as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. (Nationwide, only 17 percent of counties are HIDTAs.) One out of six departments were prepared to use the vehicles to serve search or arrest warrants on individuals who had yet to be convicted of a crime. And more than half of the departments indicated they were willing to deploy armored vehicles in a broad range of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) raids.

In 2015, we learned about Homan Square, the off the books interrogation site Chicago police had been using for decades to violate citizens rights. Suspects would be disappeared to Homan Square, where their attorneys couldn't find them, held there for hours or days and aggressively interrogated.

We also saw police across the nation react with derision and disgust to the body camera video of an officer in Ohio who didn't shoot a suspect, and successfully de-escalated the situation.

In 2016, we saw an officer in West Virginia get fired for trying to de-escalate a situation.  That officer recently won a civil case against his department, but that does nothing to allay the clear cultural trends.  

Through out all of this there were almost daily reports from across the country of people of color, especially young black men, being killed at the hands of police. Police might say they train in and practice de-escalation.  The evidence strongly contradicts that.

But it gets even worse (as if Homan wasn't bad enough).

In 2017, we saw the Charlottesville police stand by as neo-nazis invaded the town, shot at protesters, assaulted people, threatened a synagogue filled with faith leaders, and killed a young woman by driving a car into a crowd.  After the dust cleared, it took national pressure on the Charlottesville Police Department to get them to pursue the neo-nazis responsible for the violence, even when they were caught on video.
 
In 2018, we've seen police in California revealed to be actively working with neo-nazi groups to track down and harass anti-fascist protesters.

And we've seen widespread corruption revealed in the Baltimore Police Department.  The trial has seen some truly stunning revelations:

- Ward said the officers kept BB guns in their vehicles “in case we accidentally hit somebody or got into a shootout, so we could plant them.” He did not say whether the officers ever planted a BB gun on anyone.
- Ward testified that his squad would prowl the streets for guns and drugs, with his supervisor, Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, driving fast at groups of people and slamming on the brakes. The officers would pop their doors open to see who ran, then give chase and detain and search them. Ward said this occurred 10 to 20 times on slow nights, and more than 50 times, “easy,” on busier nights.  The officers had no reason to target the crowds other than to provoke someone who might have drugs or a gun into running. “A lot of times” guns and drugs were recovered in this way, Ward said.
- In one incident, police took a man’s house keys, ran his name through databases to find his address, went into the home without a warrant and found drugs and a safe. The officers cracked open the safe, which had about $200,000 inside. They took $100,000 out, closed the safe back up, then filmed themselves pretending to open it for the first time. “Nobody touch anything,” Jenkins can be heard saying on the video, which was played for jurors.

All of this isn't even touching on things like the police's widespread abuse of civil asset forfeiture, or the many stories from small town departments that don't grab national attention, like this one from 2006 that reveal officers egregiously abusing their power the moment they feel even slightly challenged. After that story aired, the police harassed and pursued the reporter who recorded it, arresting him on a charge of "violently resisting arrest" and getting him fired. 

This section of this post is already absurdly long and this is just the stuff I remembered hearing about and was able to find in a night or two of Googling.  As I've worked on this post I've continued to find more examples of police racism, abuse of power, overreach, corruption, and authoritarianism. 

Of course, anyone knowledgeable about the history of the police as an institution in America will tell you that none of this stuff is new.  There are whole books written on the abusive and racist history of policing in this country.  On the targeting of minorities and marginalized populations.  The abuse of power. The corruption.

Simply put, the way we do policing in this country, the way we hire police, the way we train them, the procedures we instruct them to follow, the rules that govern them -- all of it.  It is all deeply, fundamentally broken. 

Bloomington and BPD Are Better

Over and over again through out this debate, the Bloomington Police Department, and those supporting the purchase of the BearCat, have made an argument that boils down to "The Bloomington Police Department is better".  Bloomington isn't Ferguson they say.  They point out that BPD meet most of the ACLU's recommendations from their report about militarization of the police.  They're trained in deescalation and the reasonable use of force.  Our BPD won't use the BearCat against protesters.   

"Trust us."

I'm going to jump right past the problems inherent in the purchasing process for this BearCat, I think Steve Volan covered that fantastically.  Suffice it to say, if BPD really did "know what Bloomington wants" as Chief Diekhoff says, they'd have at the very least flagged the BearCat as a potentially controversial purchase and asked Mayor Hamilton to hold some public engagement around it.  Instead, it sure looks as if they tried to sneak it by as a fait accompli.  

To the larger question, would it surprise you to learn that Bloomington has a greater racial disparity in our arrests than Ferguson does?  That's what the Indianapolis Star found when they looked into it after the Ferguson protests.  

In more than 40 percent of the nation's police agencies studied, the disparity in arrests was higher even than in Ferguson, Mo., where the arrest rates of blacks are nearly three times those of whites. That was true in Indiana, too.
Among those departments with a higher racial disparity in arrests than Ferguson were Avon, Bloomington, Carmel, Fishers, Greenwood, Indianapolis, Johnson County, Kokomo, Lafayette, Speedway, Westfield and West Lafayette.

Bloomington's just so segregated that, if you're white, it's easy not to realize it.

I grew up on Bloomington's wealthy, and white, south east side.  I grew up in the Elm Height's neighborhood near Bryan Park.  I don't think I can remember seeing a single person of color living in my neighborhood during my childhood.  I only rarely saw Police cars, and then it was just them driving by.  

I now live on Bloomington's poorer, and more mixed race, west side -- just down Adams from Crestmont, one of Bloomington's public housing developments.  I see people, often people of color or low income people, pulled over by police on a regular basis -- monthly, if not weekly. I've seen more than a few arrests, something I didn't see once while growing up on the south east side.

There's a national (and deeply problematic) trend of poorer and more racially diverse neighborhoods being more heavily policed. Which leads to higher levels of arrests and ticketing. Which leads to those neighborhoods getting labelled "high crime" (though the stats that justify the label are just "high arrest numbers").  Which justifies heavier policing and creates a feedback loop that harms low income people and people of color.

From what I've seen, Bloomington isn't exactly bucking that trend.

I've heard from friends who were there during the final days of the Occupy protests that they overheard BPD officers lamenting the hands off approach dictated by Chief Diekhoff.  Many have tales of beatings and police brutality at the hands of BPD officers when the order to break up the encampment was finally given.  My friends of color have many tales of harassment and unnecessary escalations at the hands of BPD officers.

The stats on our CIRT team's outings aren't on the City of Bloomington's Data Portal, so there's no way to confirm that they're only being called out for barricade or active shooter situations.  There's no way to compare them to the numbers from the ACLU's report on police militarization.  

What's more the complaint process goes through the Police Chief, not through any citizen body.  According to the complaint form, at no point in the complaint process does anyone outside of the Police Department even see the complaint. Marginalized people who've had bad run ins with police are not likely to trust a complaint process that goes through the Police Chief.

The data in City's Data Portal about complaints against the Department is exceedingly vague.  There are only 19 complaints recorded.  I can't help noting that only a single complaint in the last two years has lead to any sort of discipline.

I know some people may look at this and go "Well, this is mostly anecdotal."  But often, when there are structural power imbalances like this, anecdote is all you have.  The #MeToo movement is built almost entirely on anecdote: victim after victim standing up to tell her story.

One of the key pieces of hard data we do have, the racial disparity of arrests, is very telling. It should give anyone who thinks BPD are better than other departments serious pause.  

And then, in the midst of all this, BPD showed us exactly how they treat people of color in Bloomington.

With a Family of Color, BPD Escalate

On February 18th, The Herald Times ran a front page article detailing a recent encounter between the Bloomington Police Department and a local family of color. An encounter the Bloomington Police Department escalated beyond all reason.

Apparently, the previous Saturday, a social media post was brought to the attention of BPD. It featured two young -- 10 and 11 -- boys of color posing with, apparently, real weapons and a caption that angrily referred to some of their classmates saying they would be "lit up".

In the current moment, an action like that was bound to create a powerful reaction.  BPD were entirely justified in investigating.

They tracked the boys down to a residence, that was apparently hosting some sort of party or event, the article isn't terribly clear on the matter.  I'm guessing some details have been obfuscated because the boys are minors.

Once they arrived at the residence Laquita Perry-Leverston revealed to them, and they confirmed, that the "guns" in the social media post were BB-guns.  The BB-guns didn't represent a danger to anyone.  It's a good bet that BPD were told that the boys didn't have access to real firearms.

At this point, were they the experienced, respectful, and well trained police force, worthy of our trust, we've been told they are, they would have deescalated the situation.  They would have stepped back and reassessed whether they really even needed to proceed.  They would have worked to calm those present and, if they felt it absolutely necessary, just confirmed that there were no real firearms present before ending the whole encounter.

They didn't. 

They obtained a search warrant and began removing people from the building.  In the course of removing people from the building, they came across the Perry-Leverston's 17 year old son, on probation for a previous armed robbery conviction.  This young man was reasonably agitated on encountering the police, having experience with the criminal justice and the prison system, and when they went to remove him from the building he requested they respect his personal space: ("Don't touch me.")

They could have respected his request and found a way to calm him.  Instead they escalated, and arrested him on a charge of "resisting arrest".  That classic, all purpose, self referencing charge the police can apply to anyone who's rights they want to disrespect.  Never mind that they had absolutely no reason to bother the young Perry-Leverston in the first place, other than that he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

When his parents, Laquita and Paris Perry-Leverston, expressed their entirely reasonable outrage at this turn of events, the police further escalated.  They arrested both the elder Perry-Leverstons and charged them with Disrupting the Peace and Resisting Arrest.

In the end, they found no firearms. Only one more BB-Gun.  But instead of admitting that they were in error, and perhaps finding some non-criminal way to discipline the two young boys, they brought all 5 of those they arrested, the two boys, the 17 year old Perry-Leverston and his parents, to prison and charged them all.

In the end, 5 people of color, who didn't represent an active threat to anyone were in prison and charged with crimes.

I find it very hard to believe a white, middle class family would have been treated this way in Bloomington.  This whole affair is a classic example of the unjust, and, yes, racist treatment people of color experience at the hands of the police across the country.

If you're still arguing that our police force is different, maybe you should step back and ask yourself what else has transpired in our town that you might have missed?  How else have our officers treated the marginalized and dispossessed, those who don't necessarily have the tools to call attention to their plights? 

Conflict of Interest in Bloomington

While we're on the topic of whether or not Bloomington does policing better than other places, a local BLM activist, investigating the Perry-Leverston's case, recently brought a serious problem in our local judicial system to my attention.

Apparently the search warrant that lead to the Perry-Leverston's arrest was signed by Judge Mary Ellen Diekhoff, the same judge currently slated to hear their cases. Judge Diekhoff is Police Chief Mike Diekhoff's wife.

I called the County Court to try to confirm if, in fact, Judge Diekhoff had signed that warrant.  Or signed any criminal warrants.  The County Court didn't know if they were public records or not.  They passed me off to the Clerk's office, they didn't know either. 

I finally wound up with the Prosecutors office.  After a moment of confusion the secretary passed me off to a gentlemen who didn't identify himself.  I, stupidly, neglected to ask him to identify himself. Whoever I was speaking to told me that search warrants are public records unless they've been sealed.  He was about to send me off on another merry go round the County's departments in search of this particular warrant when I decided to just tip my hand and ask my question.  I told him why I wanted to know and then asked him if Judge Diekhoff ever signed criminal search warrants.

"Well, of course she does!  She deals with criminal and police matters all the time."

"She signs warrants... for her husband?"  

"Of course she does!"

What is Judge Diekhoff doing signing warrants for, or hearing cases brought, by her husband's officers?!

That's a serious ethical violation.  I'm no lawyer, so it's possible the gentleman in the prosecutor's office was right when he told me that it's not a legal violation.[1]  But if it's not a legal violation, then it's a moral one. A very serious failure of moral judgement. It's a massive conflict of interest!

Our criminal courts are supposed to be adversarial, with the judges acting as neutral arbiters and facilitators. There is no way for Judge Diekhoff to be truly neutral when her husband's officers are on one side of that court room.  There is no way she can truly hold warrants to the proper legal scrutiny when it's her husband or his officers asking her to sign them.  

Not only are there emotional issues involved, but there are financial ones as well.  She stands to lose or gain by the twists and turns in her husband's career and those can play out in the warrants he gets and the cases his officers win.

I know many in Bloomington hold both Judge Diekhoff and Chief Diekhoff in the highest regard.  With respect to those people, many I count as friends, it doesn't matter how highly you think of people. The whole problem with conflicts of interest is that human psychology and bias prevent us from being neutral in those situations.  It doesn't matter how much we might try, it doesn't matter how much we might intend to do the right thing, it is simply not possible for us to as unbiased as we should be when we have a conflict of this sort.

Frankly, the fact that neither Judge Diekhoff, nor Police Chief Diekhoff, recognized the problems inherent in a wife signing warrants for, or trying criminal cases involving, her husband's police officers seriously calls into question both of their judgements.  They should know better.  And they should have worked to avoid the situation. 

A conflict of interest of this sort, involving Judge and Police Chief, especially, is not only inappropriate, it's dangerous and it's a violation of the public trust. This same Police Chief wants us to believe he can be trusted to know when it is and isn't appropriate to deploy a BearCat.  

What About Protecting Our Officers?

The fact that I don't trust our officers (or Police Chief) with a BearCat does not mean I don't value their safety, and it doesn't mean there aren't other possibilities for protecting them.  

A quick Google Search turned up this rather fetching looking SWAT van made by a Canadian company.  It's a Ford Transit 350HD built for SWAT teams.  It's armored to the EN1063 BR6 standard.  That's the European armor standard and BR6 is the second highest rating.  Somewhere between NIJ III and NIJ IV, it can take multiple shots from a high powered rifle, and plenty of hits from an assault rifle.  

Best part about it, it's just a van.  It's not a military vehicle.  No weapons mounts, no gun ports, and no battering ram.  It is civilian, armored transport.  

Our officers do have a right to protection, but they do not have a right to military style hardware.  And we can give them that protection with out further militarizing them.  We can buy them an armored van.

But that shouldn't be the end of the conversation.  Bloomington is our city.  We can truly make it better.  We can to listen to what the activists of Black Lives Matter are saying. They put a big pile of reforms on the table, Shaun King's reforms, and we'd do well to listen. These reforms won't solve all the problems inherent in policing -- those problems run very, very deep -- but they take a big step in the right direction.  And it's a good place to start.


Footnotes

1. After posting this, I decided to see if Google could confirm for me that there was no law barring Judge Diekhoff from signing warrants for or presiding over cases for her husband's officers.  Google was very helpful.  From Title 28 of the United States Code:

(a) Any justice, judge, or magistrate judge of the United States shall disqualify himself in any proceeding in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned.
(b) He shall also disqualify himself in the following circumstances:
[...]
(5) He or his spouse, or a person within the third degree of relationship to either of them, or the spouse of such a person:
(i)
Is a party to the proceeding, or an officer, director, or trustee of a party;
(ii)Is acting as a lawyer in the proceeding;
(iii)Is known by the judge to have an interest that could be substantially affected by the outcome of the proceeding;
(iv)Is to the judge’s knowledge likely to be a material witness in the proceeding.

Granted, I'm not a lawyer. This is the United States Code, so it's possible it only applies to federal judges and doesn't apply to local judges.  But if that's what our local Justice officials want to hang their hats on to excuse this, then we need to clean house.

Article has comments.

Can Permaculture Make Society Sustainable?

posted on Apr 11, 2016 with comments

Originally published in The Limestone Post:


Tucked in a valley near Lake Monroe stands an unusual three-acre farm. It contains no orderly rows of corn or soybeans but, instead, blends gently into the forest that surrounds it on three sides. At its center is an area of raised beds used for asparagus, strawberries, raspberries, and annual vegetables. Encircling the beds is a double fence that acts as a run for chickens and ducks.

The surrounding hills are terraced and planted with fruit trees, berry bushes, and hazelnuts. Beneath the bushes grow perennial herbs and greens. Intermingled among them are support plants: shrubs that provide nutrients, ground covers that shelter predatory insects, and flowers that feed pollinators.

In a shady grove on one side of the farm stands a pile of logs, covered in netting, growing shiitake mushrooms. Standing low around the poultry run are several greenhouses, full of starter plants for the coming year. Numerous ponds of all sizes are strategically positioned about the farm, attracting dragonflies, frogs, and salamanders.

The farm, Bread & Roses designed and built by Salem Willard, is an example of permaculture.

Read more…

Article has comments.

The True Meaning of Pragmatism

posted on Apr 04, 2015 with comments

“He’s a pragmatist.”

This is what several supporters of Darryl Neher’s mayoral bid have said to me. They were answering my expressed concern that he was somewhat conservative. Someone naturally skeptical of the power of government. Someone who would balk from using our city government to solve big problems.

“He’s a pragmatist.”

They weren’t denying the fact that Darryl would shy from tackling big problems. They just viewed this as a virtue. But in the next four to eight years we’ve got a very big problem to face, and we need to use all the tools at our disposal to address it.

We’re Out of Time

In 2009, the Copenhagen Accord set a budget for carbon emissions. If we kept ourselves with in the budget, climate change would still have serious economic consequences, but they wouldn’t be civilization threatening. (1)  

In 2012, the International Energy Agency released its annual World Energy Outlook. It contains the following alarming statement:

If action to reduce CO2 emissions is not taken before 2017, all the allowable CO2 emissions would be locked-in by energy infrastructure existing at that time.

If we didn’t start aggressively switching to renewable energy sources, we’d have used up all of our budget by 2017. After that, any new emissions would be pushing us further in to the catastrophic consequences range.

Well, it’s 2015, and emissions have only risen. We’re burning more fossil fuels and we’re burning dirtier fossil fuels. Which means we now have less than two years to drastically change course or we lose our chance. We’ll be unavoidably headed for catastrophic consequences.

If emissions keep growing the way they are, then we’re currently headed for warming that is two to three times what our budget would have kept us to. (2)  This is what the World Bank says we’re currently headed for:

the 4°C scenarios are potentially devastating: the inundation of coastal cities; increasing risks for food production potentially leading to higher under and malnutrition rates; many dry regions becoming dryer, wet regions wetter; unprecedented heat waves in many regions, especially in the tropics; substantially exacerbated water scarcity in many regions; increased intensity of tropical cyclones; and irreversible loss of biodiversity, including coral reef systems.

Keep in mind, this is coming from the World Bank, which means it will have been stripped of language viewed as “alarmist” to prevent upsetting world markets.

Many climate scientists and economists say that what we’re currently heading for is the end of civilization. There’s some give room between the consequences we’re about to lock in and “the end of civilization”. But if we’re going to avoid the latter, we have to move.

The next decade is absolutely key. We have to fundamentally change our society. And we have to do it now. What we do in the next few years determines whether our kids will be living in one of the post apocalyptic landscapes that have so filled our imaginations of late.

Political Pragmatism vs Real Pragmatism

The context in which the question of pragmatism came up was a discussion of implementing municipal broadband here in Bloomington. This is something originally put forward by John Hamilton, Neher’s opponent in the mayoral race. To Darryl’s supporters, municipal broadband is “pie in the sky” and Darryl was pragmatic for dismissing it with “But John, the cost!”

Pragmatism in the context of politics—and as used by Neher’s supporters—all too often means that a politician gives up before even trying. He glances at a problem and says “That’s too hard, there’s a chance I may fail.” That’s not what true pragmatism demands.

True pragmatism is about solving problems. It’s about the intersection of ideals and reality. The true pragmatist doesn’t start from “I can’t.” He starts from “How can I?” He looks at the realities of a problem and tries to find a way through them.

The reality of municipal broadband is that over 450 communities in the US have one form or another of community owned broadband. 89 of those have fiber to the home networks and 40 of those have gigabit or faster speeds. Many are in communities are like Auburn, Indiana. They aren’t large or particularly well funded. They aren’t in particularly friendly states. They are in towns where the administration didn’t say that’s “pie in the sky”. (3)

They said “How do we do this?”

Bloomington is a city currently dealing with a duopoly. Our choices are Comcast and AT&T. Comcast has previously said that they have no interest in investing in infrastructure. They’re currently making a 97% profit charging us for mediocre broadband, and they’re perfectly comfortable with that. AT&T isn’t any better.

John Hamilton looked at this problem and he asked “How can we fix this?” The answer he found was to form a municipally owned broadband corporation. And now he’s aggressively pursuing that idea. He’s trying to figure out how to make it work by bringing together panels of community leaders, reaching out to people who have made it work in other communities and studying how they did it.

This is the pragmatic approach.

If you watch the debates, you’ll frequently hear Darryl say “We can’t.” When he does offer alternatives they are small, easy things that don’t go very far. Inclusionary zoning? “We can’t.” Housing the homeless? “We can’t.”

John, instead, will say “We can and here’s how…” or else he’ll say “We should investigate that.” John doesn’t shy away difficult things.

This is the approach we need if we’re to do what we must to address climate change.

Acting Now, Acting Here

Bloomington isn’t the “lynch pin to addressing climate change” as one person on Facebook recently accused me of arguing. We’re one city of about 80,000 people. But it should be abundantly clear by now that we can’t depend on international agreements or national policy to address this. Not in time. We have to do what we can here and now, knowing that everything we do buys us all a little more time.

We can only hope that other towns step up to do their part.

At least a few other towns have clearly come to the same conclusion, and they’re moving. After they weren’t able to get their local investor owned utility to switch to renewable energy sources, citizens of Boulder voted to have the city form a municipal energy utility. And Burlington, Vermont recently announced that they were now operating on 100% renewable energy. (4)

Bloomington needs to be looking at doing similar things. We need to get on renewable energy, any way we can. We also need to be looking at improving our public transit and redesigning our neighborhoods so that residents no longer need to own cars to have freedom of movement. We need to be providing homeowners with the means to retrofit their houses for energy efficiency. We need to be relocalizing our food supply and growing our food all through out and surrounding the city. We need to be fostering a local economy that can produce more of the basic necessities of life. We need to do all this and more. And we need to do it soon.

If the world doesn’t collectively realize the danger we face and act then the children currently being born could well be facing the collapse of civilization in their lifetimes. So says a study funded by the “alarmist” NASA Goddard Space Center. (5)

We cannot control the rest of the world. We can only control what we do.

We don’t need to have the solutions to these problems. We don’t need to know how to accomplish any of the big things on that huge list above right this minute. We only need a mayor who looks at difficult problems and asks “How?”

John Hamilton is that mayor.

1. The budget would have kept us to a planetary temperature rise below 2 degrees C. It was generally agreed upon that a global average temperature rise of 2C would have economic consequences, but we’d be able to manage them. Here’s the IEA World Energy Outlook.

2. Depending on who you talk to, we’re currently heading for between 4 degrees C and 6 degrees C. The consequences of that much heating are catastrophic and would likely lead to the end of civilization. Here’ s the World Bank, on what 4C warming looks like.

3. From the Institute for Local Self Reliance.

4. And they did it through a cooperative! From the Boston Globe.

5. Seriously! A NASA funded study says we’re headed for the collapse of civilization. At that point, it’s past time to start taking it seriously. From the Guardian.

Article has comments.

Dear Bloomingfoods, Please Don't Hire Union Busters

posted on Sep 15, 2014 with comments

I’ve shopped a lot at Bloomingfoods over the last 4 years. When I first started shopping there, I assumed the prices were higher because the employees were well cared for.

Over time, I realized that wasn’t really the case. My last article, told the story of my general disillusionment with Bloomingfoods. One of the concerns I mentioned was the lack of a union or employee representatives on the Board of Directors.

It seems that Bloomingfoods employees have decided to rectify the lack of a union part.

Everyone except the union...
Except the union...

I’m generally supportive of the right to unionize. Sure, unions have their problems, but what organization of people doesn’t? Unions are a tool with which workers can advocate for themselves. They provide workers protections in dealing with those who have power over them and give them a strong voice in their workplace. A strong voice they can use to improve that workplace.

So I was pleased to hear about the union organizing drive. I was really hopeful that the Bloomingfoods administration and Board of Directors would use this as a wakeup call. Hopeful that they would respect the push and take advantage of the possibility it offers for additional systems of accountability with in the co-op.

Imagine my disappointment when I heard that the administration had secretly hired a union busting lawyer.

That Has To Be Just A Rumor

At first I was skeptical. I tried to convince myself it was just one of the many overly hyped rumors that have been flying around.

I had the name of the firm, so I decided to do some research. I did a search for the name, Barnes and Thornburg, and “union avoidance”—a poor euphemism for “union busting”, but one that seems to have come in to wide use. Low and behold, right there on their website, I found this.

A union flyer was posted on one of your facility’s employee bulletin board last night. What should you do next?
Fortunately, you don’t have to know the answer—because we do. We have the experience, depth and understanding to deal with any situation at a moment’s notice. We will get you through this – our professionals have worked with employers from coast-to-coast, across most industries and with most of the major unions. Our passion is to preserve a client’s freedom to manage and to assist our clients in helping them remain union-free.

Emphasis mine.

My jaw dropped. I hadn’t expected them to be quite so blatant about it.

From further down the page I found this bit.

An effective union avoidance strategy involves a number of other components, including:
[ ... ]
Rapid Response Capabilities. We have been called in by clients to manage rapid responses to organizing activities and have prepared our entire team with campaign management tools that allow us to quickly address union organizing activities in the event of any card-signing or other union activity.

It’s pretty hard to argue that this isn’t a firm you hire when you want to fight a union organizing campaign. They all but say, “Call us and we’ll help you to remain union free!”

My immediate next thought was “Bloomingfoods cannot have hired these folks, and if they did, the board cannot possibly know about it or have approved it.”

So I reached out to Tim Clougher, the board president. I quoted him the same things I’ve quoted here and linked him to that web page. “Folks involved with the union push are now saying that George placed the law firm Barnes and Thornburg on retainer. Can you please confirm or deny this?”

It took him a little while to get back to me, but when he did, I found myself deeply disappointed by his answer.

Thank you for getting in touch and voicing your concerns to us! Like you, we really care about our Co-op, the employees, the members and our community. We recognize the rights of co-op employees to consider whether they want to join a union or refrain from joining a union. We are resolved to respect co-op employees’ decision on this issue, whatever it might be. Federal law imposes numerous requirements designed to ensure that the process of contemplating a union is free of improper influence. We are committed to making sure the law is followed. We are in the process of learning as much as we can about this situation and our role in this process in order to best represent our members.
We appreciate your continued communication and support in this effort.
On behalf of the BCS Board,
Tim Clougher-President

That’s not an answer.

Just to be sure, I casually asked a former labor lawyer that I happen to know and she told me, with the usual disclaimer that this wasn’t legal advice, that there was no law she knew of that would prevent the board from answering my question. Nothing to prevent them from publicly stating the name of the firm or firms they were working with.

There are two possibilities here.

In the first, they are deliberately refusing to answer the question in order to avoid a member-owner backlash. I will only say, that when one finds oneself in a public service position—as serving on the board of a co-op is—wanting to keep something secret for fear of the ire of those you serve, well that’s a darn good hint that you shouldn’t be doing that thing in the first place!

The other possibility is that Tim, the board president, was unable to get a hold of George, the General Manager, to get a yes or no answer to my question in the 26 hours it took him to get back to me. Personally, I think this is unlikely, but should the board plead lack of knowledge, I will only say that it makes me question their ability to provide adequate oversight of the Bloomingfoods administration.

A strong employee union would help in that regard, by the way.

Confirmation

At this point, I have confirmation from one of the union organizers that Bloomingfoods has consulted with one Nathan A. Baker of Barnes and Thornburg.

I’ll quote a relevant section of his publicly posted profile.

His labor relations practice has also included all aspects of traditional labor law. He has represented management in union-free training, arbitration hearings, unfair labor practice charges before the National Labor Relations Board and union organizing drives and counseled clients through strikes and lockouts. Nathan also represents employers in collective bargaining negotiations as well as in resisting union organizing attempts.

He represents employers in “resisting union organizing attempts.” Is there a clearer way to say “he helps employers bust unions”? This is what a modern union buster looks like. They aren’t tough goons with sticks anymore (most of the time). They’re lawyers.

The biggest problem with the co-op hiring one of these guys is that it makes it impossible for us to give the board and the co-op’s admin the benefit of the doubt.

Plausible deniability is these union avoidance lawyers’ bread and butter. The whole reason they can do what they do is that they are experts at staying in the grey area just inside the red line—or at dancing over it in ways that are very hard to trace back to them.

If we, as member owners of the co-op, truly respect the right of Bloomingfoods employees to consider unionizing, then we cannot allow the administration to continue to consult one of these lawyers.

I really want to believe Tim when he says, “We recognize the rights of co-op employees to consider whether they want to join a union or refrain from joining a union. We are resolved to respect co-op employees’ decision on this issue, whatever it might be.” But as long as Bloomingfoods is consulting a lawyer who specializes in “resisting union organizing attempts”, I can’t.

The egregious lack of transparency only worsens this state of affairs.

The Way Out

I want to give the Bloomingfoods board and administration staff the benefit of the doubt. But so long as they are following the classic union busting playbook by secretly hiring a union avoidance lawyer, and so long as they blatantly dodge my requests for transparency in the matter, I cannot.

I have to assume they’re following the union busting playbook intentionally, because the first line of that playbook is “Maintain the appearance of respecting the worker’s right to organize.” Every other line in the playbook is about undermining that very right. It’s the most divisive and deceitful playbook out there and is wholly unbecoming of a cooperative.

So, Tim, Bloomingfoods board and administration staff, if you want to win back my trust and repair some of the damage you’ve done in the last few weeks, here’s what you can do.

Start by being transparent. Publicly state whether you’ve consulted with, retained or hired Nathan. Clarify his role in your deliberations and the nature of those deliberations.

Next, fire him. A union avoidance lawyer has no place in a cooperative environment. There are many lawyers who can advise the co-op as to the legal intricacies involved in this process who refuse to engage in any sort of union avoidance. These are lawyers who we, as member owners, can trust to provide truly neutral, objective advice to the co-op. I know some local labor supporters who are currently assembling a list of such neutral lawyers. If the board doesn’t have it already they should have it shortly.

Finally, maintain transparency through out the rest of this process. Be open and honest with us about your worries with respect to Bloomingfoods unionizing. Tell us what your lawyers are telling you. Give the union organizers a chance to respond. Allow us to have a truly objective, open air and cooperative discussion about the benefits and pitfalls of unionization.

Then stand back and let the employees make their decision.

Please, allow us to deal with this as a cooperative and not adversarially as labor supporters fighting an untransparent corporation.

Article has comments.

Why do I Shop at Bloomingfoods?

posted on Aug 09, 2014 with comments

Why do I shop at Bloomingfoods? This is a question I’ve found myself pondering recently. It started last Thanksgiving when my mother returned to living in town full time. We went shopping for the big meal and I was trying to convince her to go to Bloomingfoods instead of Kroger or (god forbid) Sam’s Club.

Her primary value when purchasing food has always been quality first and low price a close second. She seems pretty representative of a large share of the American populace who have been indoctrinated with the idea that the most patriotic thing they can do is consume. And the best way to consume is to find a deal.

I was trying to talk her out of this conditioning, but found myself unable to craft an argument in favor of Bloomingfoods. I could only argue against the alternative. Through out the discussion her point was, “I can get the same stuff at Kroger for much less.” I couldn’t respond with the statement that Bloomingfoods takes care of its employees, I know that it doesn’t. Meanwhile, Kroger has unionized labor. So why shouldn’t my mom go to Kroger to get the same products for less? And why don’t I?

Cooperative? Or coop only in name?
Cooperative? Or just another grocery store?

Why do I continue to shop at Bloomingfoods?

I’ve been a Bloomingfoods member owner since I moved back into town about four years ago. While away at college I became involved first in the local food movement, and then with the environmental, sustainability and permaculture movements. When I returned to Bloomington I knew I wanted to get involved in all of these movements locally. Joining the coop was one of my first moves in that direction.

I was really excited to be a part of it. I had images of a business I would have a say in. That I could volunteer for—like the coop I’d briefly been a part of in New York. One that would take care of its workers, seek out local and organic food and try to minimize its environmental impact. One that would actively try to do good in the world and one that I could happily support.

Almost immediately part of that image began to dissipate. There were no volunteer opportunities—that I knew of I told myself I would make it back with the end of the year profit sharing check. This coop just used a different mechanism. But when that check showed up, it was a measly $30—after I’d spend thousands. It also quickly became apparent that there was almost no transparency. The newsletter didn’t talk about coop issues. The minutes from board meetings were conspicuously absent. Indeed, until recently I had no idea when board meetings even were. They weren’t advertised.2 The newsletter mostly included fluff articles and local events. I had no idea what was going on internally to the coop, and no clear channel for finding out. It took befriending many of the coop’s employees for the rest of this vision to chip away.

As I became more and more privy to internal gossip, I learned that the employees weren’t actually well cared for. Loyal employees who’d worked there for years were still working part time and making below living wage. There was no union, nor any kind of employee representation on the board. The employees at the bottom felt like they had no channel through which their voices could be heard.

The more I shopped at Bloomingfoods, the more I realized that they carried very little local produce. What they did carry all seemed to either not be labelled with its origin or came from one farm, Stranger’s Hill. As it turns out, George Huntington, the general manager has partial ownership of Stranger’s Hill. Most of what Bloomingfoods carries is big organic. Much of it is even conventional.

As I got to know local farmers, I started to learn about what the coop required of them in order to carry their produce. One local farmer I spoke to told me that he had given up trying to sell to Bloomingfoods. When he’d attempted in the past he’d been told to match the prices of the big organic farms in California. Which is impossible for him to do, and unreasonable for a coop to ask of him.  And yet, even as I learned all of this it never translated into questioning my shopping there. Until I tried to convince my mom to follow suit, and realized I couldn’t.

So, now I am on a quest. A quest to understand what’s going on with Bloomingfoods. Why is it that this coop operates in a manner apparently so far from its advertised values? And what can we, as member owners, do to change this? Are there good reasons for the ways in which it departs from its mission statement and image? Or is it simply a matter of poor management and member owners who haven’t demanded better? I hope to find out, and to start a conversation among member owners. What can we do to make Bloomingfoods do better?

1. A friend and Bloomingfoods employee has informed me that there are, in fact, volunteer opportunities. Any member owner can volunteer 2 hours in a week for a 10% discount that week. This fact just isn’t widely advertised. To quote “We have 11,000 members, obviously we can’t have them all volunteering.” In the course of writing this article, a page describing the opportunities appeared on the Bloomingfoods website.

2. After receiving pressure from both employees and several member owners, the times and locations of the board meetings are now advertised on the website.

Article has comments.