County council moves to preserve peace at meetings

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By Jessica Karins | Daily Reporter

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GREENFIELD — The Hancock County Council is taking steps to ensure it has the power to eject speakers at its meetings who behave in inappropriate or threatening ways. At its most recent meeting, the council approved a policy giving it the authority to remove citizens who behave disruptively during the public comment portion of meetings.

Council member Bill Bolander said the change was inspired by a recent video made by David Bottorff, director of the Association of Indiana Counties, who suggested the policy as one counties should adopt to help keep meetings orderly.

In the video, John Brooke, who serves as the attorney for several counties, said he’s noticed changes in the way public comment portions at county meetings tend to unfold as meetings have become less formal in recent years.

“Sometimes it gets a little out of hand; it gets to the point where people don’t want to respect each other and don’t want to respect the forum that they’re in,” Brooke said.

The policy is a precaution for Hancock County, council member Jim Shelby said, as the county council hasn’t experienced that in the past.

“We’ve never really had any issues that I’ve felt concerned about,” Shelby said.

Shelby added that speakers have occasionally used inappropriate language while speaking at meetings, but no behavior has risen to the level of being threatening.

Security is not present at every county council meeting, but if it were necessary to remove a speaker, the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department would be called.

While the council’s new policy is not related to recent events, political division and the sometimes violent response it can lead to are on many people’s minds following the storming of the U.S. Capitol by protesters on Jan. 6.

Statehouses around the country are on high alert heading into President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday, Jan. 20. With the U.S. Capitol already locked down and surrounded by barriers and guarded by thousands of National Guard troops in anticipation of trouble, few governors are taking any chances. Gov. Eric Holcomb, for example, announced Friday, Jan. 15, that the Indiana Statehouse would be closed through Inauguration Day.

Communities are thinking about security as well. Law enforcement officials in Hancock County said they have plans in place for what they would do if a protest or political gathering in the county became volatile.

Chief Jeff Rasche of the Greenfield Police Department said the department has considered the issue, in conjunction with the city’s street commissioner and the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department. The considerations gained momentum last year when downtown Greenfield saw rallies both in support of Black Lives Matter activists and in support of law enforcement.

“It’s certainly something to think about, and something that we’ve discussed,” Rasche said.

Rasche said city hall does not have the same level of security as the county courthouse because that security is largely for the sake of judges and lawyers who regularly deal with criminal cases. He added that in his time with the police department, he hasn’t ever dealt with a threat against a government official.

Hancock County Sheriff Brad Burkhart said the increased security at the county courthouse, which was initiated when he was the department’s chief deputy, was a response to the sometimes threatening language directed at judges and prosecutors, especially in divorce and custody cases. The courthouse now only has one entrance, which is monitored with a metal detector.

The Hancock County Annex building, which houses additional government offices and where meetings of the Hancock County Council and County Commissioners are held, doesn’t have metal detectors at its entrances. However, in the past year, it has added additional security cameras and a system of electronic access that limits the use of some entrances to county employees with key cards.

Burkhart said he thinks it is important to keep in mind which buildings in the county could be the target of a violent event, even hypothetically. The sheriff’s department has conducted active-shooter drills in county buildings to help prepare for those scenarios.

“Any time you’re able to secure a facility with X-rays, locking mechanisms, stuff like that, it definitely hardens a target,” Burkhart said.

In the event of any kind of riot or out-of-control protest in downtown Greenfield, Rasche said the department’s first task would be to protect government buildings, including its own headquarters and that of the Greenfield Fire Territory. They would need to secure those buildings’ resources in order to respond to the situation.

Burkhart said a situation like that would be unique, but the sheriff’s department does have crowd control plans in place in the event a large crowd might become agitated.

Rasche and Burkhart also said the response to such an event would largely rely on getting assistance from the Indiana State Police.

“They have the resources, and they have the vehicles and the manpower,” he said.