INDIANAPOLIS – A civilian police merit board cleared two Indianapolis officers of wrongdoing Thursday in the fatal shooting of an unarmed black motorist following a pursuit.
The board voted 5-2 on multiple counts in favor of Officers Michal Dinnsen and Carlton Howard in the June 2017 shooting of Aaron Bailey, 45. The officers testified during a three-day hearing that Bailey ignored their commands to show his hands and reached into his car's center console after crashing it into a tree following a brief pursuit.
No gun was found in Bailey's car.
Indianapolis Police Chief Bryan Roach had recommended the board fire Dinnsen and Howard. An internal police review of the shooting found that both officers failed to comply with the department's training and policies.
However, board Chairman David Wantz indicated the panel was swayed by what it heard and saw during a three-day hearing.
"All the evidence and testimony that was provided to us is what we based our decision on," Wantz said.
Bailey's daughter, Erica, sat with her head in her hand as the board voted on the counts. She has said she didn't believe her father endangered the officers' lives at all after the crash, and that he was dazed from the crash impact and the deployment of an air bag.
Both officers have been on administrative leave since the shooting. It was not immediately clear when they might return to duty.
An attorney for the officers, John Kautzman, said he appreciated the merit board ruled on the facts of the case "and not on the politics."
"The Bailey family has certainly suffered a tremendous loss and we can all certainly sympathize with that. ... But it's been a tremendous, stressful journey for the police officers as well," Kautzman said.
Roach called the decision a "lose-lose situation." He said he hoped the Bailey family can understand the process even if they don't accept it.
Mayor Joe Hogsett issued a statement saying the merit board's decision "is a disappointing and frustrating reminder that even as we continue our efforts to reform our criminal justice system, much work remains to be done."
Dinnsen testified Thursday he saw Bailey begin "digging" for something in his car's center console. Both officers have said repeatedly under oath that they believed Bailey was looking for a gun.
"I see Mr. Bailey reach over to the console. I see him lift the console lid up. After he got that lid open, he began to frantically search in the console," Dinnsen said. "I believed he was going to shoot Officer Howard. So I shot the back of the car."
Wednesday's hearing included testimony from Howard, a detective and Roach, who told the board that even if a gun had been found in Bailey's car he still would have recommended the officers be fired because he said they had failed to follow their training.
Before the board began Thursday's hearing at downtown Indianapolis' City-County Building, activists and clergy members gathered across the street to pray for a civilian police merit board to fire the officers.
A special prosecutor appointed to review the case, St. Joseph County Prosecutor Kenneth Cotter, cited the officers' claims of self-defense and Bailey's actions and refusal to respond to police commands in deciding that neither officer would face criminal charges in his death.
Bailey's family is suing the city, contending the officers used excessive force and Bailey posed no threat to them. Their federal lawsuit, filed in September, seeks unspecified damages and contends the officers' actions violated Bailey's constitutional rights.