Mayor Hogsett discusses reaction to downtown riots, COVID-19 concerns

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INDIANAPOLIS– During a walk down East Washington Street, past boarded up buildings still bearing the scars of two nights of rioting in downtown Indianapolis at the end of May, Mayor Joe Hogsett said he and his staff would be willing to be interviewed by a three-member independent panel charged with examining the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department’s (IMPD) role in responding to protests and violence this spring.

“I’m glad I put together this third party completely independent review team, to complete an independent third party review as to what happened, why it happened, how it happened, and, most importantly, how we can avoid it happening again. And I look forward to those results and I’ll own those results,” said Hogsett.

“Will the independent review board have access to you and your top staff people to ask what were you guys doing, what decisions were you making, what conversations did you witness, or will this stop with IMPD?” I asked the mayor.

“If they want my participation, I will be happy to participate and to answer any questions they might have, and the same goes for all of my staff,” Hogsett replied.

Hogsett said he returned home from the City-County Building on the evening of Friday, May 29, while the protesters, perhaps three dozen at most, appeared intent on marching peacefully through downtown to call for an end to racial and social injustice.

“I was kept made aware of what was occurring throughout that entire time,” said the mayor. “When it turned bad, it was later in the evening I was made aware and I, too, immediately turned on the television and started watching what was happening, so it was a real time awareness of what was going on.”

By dawn on Saturday, May 30, parts of city’s core had already been sacked, looted and burned and police officers and downtown business owners told us they expected the rioters would return for a second night of mayhem.

“The truth is, I was in the office all day Saturday and I was meeting with a wide variety of different people,” said Hogsett. “We were in touch with those who were organizing the efforts on Saturday night. I left the building and went home hopeful that all the protests that we knew were going to take place would be peaceful, but they didn’t.”

Despite the anticipation of more trouble heading into the second night, Hogsett did not order a curfew or closure of downtown streets to vehicular traffic.

“And I must say, Russ, given what I saw on TV and given the way Saturday night developed, I’m not all together sure even if I had issued a curfew that violence could have been prevented that night,” he said.

My walk with the mayor took us past Giorgio’s just of Monument Circle where restauranteur George Stergiopoulis, a former member of the Police Merit Board, regularly holds court from a sidewalk table.

“It’s been really rough and a lot of us down here, local businesses, we’ve had meetings where we feel like we were thrown to the wolves, especially that Friday and Saturday night we were here in the middle of all this and there was no police presence, there was nothing Saturday. It was a warzone down here,” Stergiopoulis told the mayor. “It’s been really really tough. We expected that the day after all of this to have everybody down here assessing what was going on and being on our side, that’s what we wanted, that’s what we needed, too, it was a it was a tough tough weekend for all of us.”

“I know that George,” said Hogsett. “I know that.”

“Boards are still up on some places and that sends out a negative kind of idea what’s going on downtown,” said Stergiopoulis. “And we’re starting to turn around, but it’s a slow turnaround.”

“Hang in there, brother. Appreciate your perspective,” said Hogsett, offering his longtime acquaintance a COVID-safe elbow bump as he walked away.

Hogsett touted the $1 million marketing campaign designed to bring visitors back to a downtown that will be cleaner thanks to more aggressive power washing of sidewalks and safer because of better security along the canal and friendlier as outreach teams connect with homeless persons like the man who slept in the doorway of the Hilbert Circle Theatre as the mayor walked by.

On a Sunday afternoon in June, two weeks after peaceful protesters for social justice found their message swamped by rioters who cleaned out cell phone and jewelry stores, set fires, broke windows and fired guns that left two people dead, Hogsett stood on the steps of the statehouse and promised demonstrators that if he did not deliver on criminal justice reforms, “you need to hold me accountable.”

“Do you owe any other such of an explanation such as that to the people downtown who have lost money, lost jobs, lost businesses because of what came undone Saturday night which was much worse than Friday night?” I asked the mayor. 

“At the end of the day though, Russ, our biggest economic challenge in the city of Indianapolis….the downtown businesses will be repaired and they will come back. What our economic challenge right now is the fuel that drives the Indianapolis economic engine is people and we just don’t have people downtown.

“We’re engaged in an effort to encourage people and businesses and business owners to bring their employees back downtown.”

The Indianapolis 500 Mile Race is set to run on Aug. 23 at the corner of West 16th Street and Georgetown Road west of downtown in the town of Speedway.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Roger Penske expects to open the gates for perhaps 100,000 fans that weekend, half of the normal size crowd, for his first race since buying the franchise last fall.

With Marion County averaging a nearly 9% daily COVID-19 positive test rate result, easily double the daily positive percentage rate of just a month ago, I asked Hogsett if he has any second thoughts about welcoming tens of thousands of race fans to Marion County to congregate during what could be a second surge of the pandemic to hit Indianapolis.

“I think that is largely going to be driven by the science and the data that we are experiencing at the time,” said the mayor. “If there continues to be an uptick, that may dictate one outcome. If the numbers remain low, and if the public health plans that IMS has put in place are deemed adequate by the epidemiologists and public health experts, that may dictate another outcome.

“I think we need to pay attention to what happens over these next couple weeks maybe up to and including the first of August before that decision is ultimately made.”

An argument could be made that Indianapolis has never seen a year like 2020, with a pandemic that wrecked the local economy, riots that wrecked downtown, protesters who decried traditional Marion County social and criminal justice system injustice, a local health department that still struggles to keep up with an outbreak that has killed more than 700 residents, an independent review now invited to question the mayor as well as IMPD top brass about the decisions that were made and actions taken during a weekend of demonstrations, tear gas, gunfire and violence at the end of a May and a global health emergency that derailed Indianapolis’ greatest sporting tradition earlier that same week.

It made me wonder what it was like to be the mayor of Indianapolis during such a tumultuous time.

“Indianapolis has a reputation as being one of the most resilient cities in the country and we overcome challenges as they are presented to us,” said Mayor Hogsett. “While I am disappointed by some of the challenges we’ve had over the last couple months, I am also optimistic that we will rebound and maybe be better than ever before.”

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