June 3, 2023

Indiana Black Legislative Caucus discusses new laws with community members at town hall meeting

Rep. Earl Harris Jr. (D-East Chicago) speaks at the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus town hall meeting on June 3 in Indianapolis. - Katrina Pross/WFYI News

Rep. Earl Harris Jr. (D-East Chicago) speaks at the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus town hall meeting on June 3 in Indianapolis.

Katrina Pross/WFYI News

The Indiana Black Legislative Caucus held the first in a series of town hall meetings Saturday to discuss the 2023 legislative session with the community.

Caucus members explained new laws on housing, education, public safety and mental health to a crowd of a few dozen people at the Julia M. Carson Government Center in Indianapolis.

The IBLC holds town hall meetings annually across the state to explain to community members laws that made it out of the legislative session and others that died and how these laws would impact them.

Community members who attended said town halls offer an opportunity for citizens to be civically engaged and speak with their representatives.

“I thought it was informative, I thought it was necessary,” said Lionel Rush, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, a faith-based advocacy group. “I think it highlighted some of the issues that we need to be talking about.”

Gun violence and access to firearms were top of mind for some community members, like Theresa Berghoff. She participates in various community groups including Moms Demand Action and Hoosiers Concerned About Gun Violence.

“We spend more time in the legislature fighting the bad gun bills than we do getting any good things accomplished,” said Berghoff, referring to a 2022 law that allows people to carry guns without a permit.

Herman Whitifeld III’s parents –– Gladys Whitfield and Herman Whitfield II –– were also in attendance at the town hall. Gladys Whitfield called 911 last year when her son was having a mental health crisis, hoping an ambulance would arrive. Instead, six Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officers entered their home, tased him and placed him in the prone position until he became unresponsive. He was pronounced dead at a hospital shortly afterward.

The Whitfields expressed concern over legislation that criminalizes people who get within 25 feet of police after being asked to step back. When police responded to their son’s mental health crisis, they were in their own home.

Herman Whitfield II said, “if you let [IMPD] in your home, and they do stuff to your loved ones that you don’t approve of, what are you going to do?”

Herman Whitifeld II also said more funding needs to be allocated toward mental health. The latest state budget included $100 million to expand mental health care –– an amount that’s far below the $260 million that the Indiana Behavioral Health Commission said is needed to address Indiana’s growing mental health crisis.

Caucus members acknowledged the Whitfields when asked by community members about the case, and said they had signed a letter asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate IMPD’s response.

During the town hall meeting, members of the public also asked questions about public safety, health care and ways to involve young people in government.

Caucus members highlighted some of the bills they supported during the 2023 legislative session and were passed into law like a property tax relief bill to address rising housing costs and a bill that discourages police from lying to children.

Another bill that IBLC supported, authored by Rep. Earl Harris Jr. (D-East Chicago), aims to make postsecondary education more accessible for low-income students. The bill passed into law. It would automatically enroll eligible students into the state’s 21st Century Scholars program, which pays up to 100 percent of the tuition for public state colleges and some tuition at private and independent colleges for low-income students.

Additional IBLC town halls will take place in Evansville, South Bend, Fort Wayne and Gary throughout the summer. A virtual town hall will take place on Zoom on August 9 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. ET.

Contact WFYI criminal justice reporter Katrina Pross at kpross@wfyi.org. Follow on Twitter: @katrina_pross.

Pross is a Corps Member of Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.

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