The Reuben Center is open, but the homeless still mostly go to jail. There's a plan to fix that.

Mayor to announce Downtown District pilot program

INDIANAPOLIS -- When the Reuben Engagement Center opened a year-and-a-half ago, city leaders said it would be a third option for police to bring homeless people in need. But broad use of the center by IMPD never materialized – with limited referrals coming primarily from the department’s specialized behavioral health units.

Almost immediately after Reuben opened its doors in January 2017, the Office of Public Health and Safety, which oversees it, recognized there was a problem: IMPD’s long-standing general order calls for officers to handcuff people being transported in the back of a squad car – even if they aren’t under arrest.

"We handcuff prisoners. That's part of our policy,” IMPD Chief Bryan Roach said. “If you're going to put them in the car, you handcuff them. So we've got to figure that out."

That was a problem for the Reuben Center’s model, which is centered around voluntary participation. The Center felt having clients show up in handcuffs would send the wrong message, or even dissuade them from accepting help in the first place.

It was a problem for IMPD as well. Roach said when police are called to a behavioral issue, whether it’s violent or not, it’s because people have run out of options and they’re looking for a remedy. Traditionally, Roach said, that’s left police with one of two options.

“Oftentimes our remedy has been looking for some criminal activity and taking them to jail. Or, if they’re a threat to themselves or others, they go to the hospital,” Roach said. “And that’s pretty limiting.”

The Reuben Center is supposed to be the third option. Now, IMPD, public health and safety officials and the Reuben Center say they have developed a pilot program that will make that option more feasible for beat officers.

The Third Option

The Reuben Engagement Center, a 30-bed facility on the second floor of the now-closed Arrestee Processing Center, is a one-stop resource for shelter, case management, mental health evaluations and housing referrals for the chronically homeless. To be eligible, clients must be experiencing substance abuse or mental illness.

The Center had been a goal of city leaders for years. Mayor Joe Hogsett trumpeted its opening last January. In its first year in business, approximately 1,000 people went through the center. It’s on track to serve 1,500 people this year.

READ MORE | Reuben Engagement Center to help Indy’s homeless battle addiction and mental health problems

Despite those numbers, the center isn’t operating at full capacity. Ten of its 30 beds are designated for IMPD referrals. Plans for the center envisioned large numbers of those referrals would come from IMPD’s Downtown District, which covers the largest homeless populations in the city. But Downtown District officers usually work alone, and when they transport someone, that person is in handcuffs because they’re going to jail or the ER.

Upon "graduation" from the Reuben Engagement Center, clients are invited to write messages on the walls to the staff, to incoming clients, or even to themselves.

Concerns for officers’ safety, and the aforementioned department handcuffing policy has meant those downtown referrals never materialized. Instead, most referrals to the Reuben Center come from the department’s Mobile Crisis Assistance Team (MCAT) and Behavioral Health Unit (BHU), both of which are overseen by Sgt. Catherine Cummings.

“MCAT and BHU officers have the luxury of working in a team,” Cummings said. “Even in the BHU team, you have an officer and a mental health clinician on the team in the car together. When you’re looking at the MCAT team you have up to three people involved in that team and three people in the van or SUV they drive around and use for runs. So it has been easier for officers who are related to those two teams to adapt to, ‘How do we transport people in our vehicles who are not under arrest?’ It can present a safety issue for the citizen and the officer. So finding ways to have a complete understanding that this is a voluntary program, but also finding safe ways to transport people from their location to the Reuben Center, has proven to be a challenge.

IMPD’s Behavioral Health Unit launched in June 2016. The MCAT unit was formed last August. Cummings says both teams initially ran into the obstacle of convincing people that the police showing up didn’t mean they were going to be arrested.

“When someone dressed like me shows up in uniform, that presents a message right off the bat,” Cummings said. “We at IMPD are working very hard to change that message and that perception that it always means arrest. Because it does not always mean arrest.”

Cummings says officers want something to offer that isn’t arrest or hospitalization. That’s why she’s hopeful officers outside of the MCAT and BHU teams will soon be able to refer people to the Reuben Center.

“Officers have longed for that option to have a way to connect people to services rather than making an arrest and hoping that that arrest, or that process through the criminal justice system, ended in someone being connected to services,” Cummings said. “So officers are excited to have this option to look for ways other than a criminal arrest to get people the help they need.”

The hope is that the lessons the MCAT and BHU teams have learned over the past two years will allow the department to expand the use of the Reuben Center to Downtown District officers, and then to the rest of the city.

Piloting Diversion

On Thursday, Mayor Joe Hogsett, Chief Roach and members of the Indianapolis City-County Council will announce a pilot program in IMPD’s Downtown District that will, they hope, address the obstacle of the handcuff policy.

Step one, as simple as it sounds, is training officers that they have discretion when it comes to people who are eligible to go to the Reuben Center.

“I think the struggle is, there are times where there are minor infractions of the law and there may be probable cause to arrest someone, but what we’re saying to officers is, ‘You have your discretion on some of these misdemeanor arrests, and this might be the best alternative, because this might be the better position for them to get help,’” Roach said.

The second step will be a partnership between IMPD’s Downtown District, Homeless Unit, MCAT and BHU officers to ensure that people who are eligible for the Reuben Center will be offered the chance – and will be transported to the center without being placed in handcuffs. In some cases, the solution could be as simple as sending a second officer in the car.

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For Paul Babcock, director of the Office of Public Health and Safety, the program is the culmination of the Reuben Center’s promise.

“It was important for two reasons,” Babcock said. “One, as part of the Reuben Center, that was a promise that was made to the citizens of Marion County – that we were going to provide a place for individuals to be diverted from jail. To provide them with a place for a positive life outcome. And the second reason it’s important is that this is the beginning of a pilot for our larger criminal justice reforms, and it will eventually inform the way the assessment and intervention center operates.”

Roach said the program is the manifestation of why he and others became police in the first place: to help people.

“Our intent is not to take you to jail. Our intent is to solve the problem,” Roach said. “And so we want to give officers every tool they have available.”

The pilot program will be limited to Downtown District officers at launch. If it's successful, Roach says he hopes to see it expanded to all of the city's districts in the future.

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