INDIANAPOLIS – Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb defended the state's Department of Natural Resources on Wednesday amid criticism that the agency's conservation officers did not adequately respond to the reported assault of a Black man by a group of white men at a southern Indiana lake last weekend.
Holcomb said during a news conference that DNR law enforcement officers acted according to protocols and made “the right decision,” despite no arrests being made at the scene.
“I’m proud of the DNR and the way they’ve conducted themselves,” Holcomb said, “They’ve done everything right, by the book. It’ll be handled correctly and was from the very outset.”
The governor said he viewed video footage of the assault on Vauhxx Booker, a civil rights activist and member of the Monroe County Human Rights Commission. Booker has said the men pinned him against a tree and shouted racial slurs at him, and that one of them threatened to “get a noose” at Monroe Lake near Bloomington over the Fourth of July weekend.
Booker said the group of five men accused him of trespassing on private property. After he tried to apologize, the situation got physical. Much of the assault that followed was captured on cellphone video by people Booker had met up with that day. The DNR hasn’t said whether it know the names of the men who were involved. It has also withheld the names of the officers who responded and details about what happened when they arrived.
Holcomb said the video clip “was beyond disturbing" and that this is why it's critical that the DNR finishes its investigation “sooner rather than later.” He said the agency's report is nearly done.
But Booker’s lawyer, Katharine Liell, said the governor can and should do more.
“The governor has complete control over DNR," Liell told The Associated Press. "This is a chance for him to use this as an example to rethink the role of police in our society.”
Law enforcement officers with the Indiana DNR were too slow in their response to reports of the attack and the time it's taking to put an incident report together is “ridiculous," Liell said. She also said the officers' failure to make arrests at the scene warrants further investigation from other law enforcement agencies. The FBI confirmed Tuesday that it is investigating the incident.
“We are still flabbergasted as to why there were no arrests made that night — and still no arrests right now,” Liell said. “These are dangerous men still free in our community who we have serious concerns about.”
Liell said she and Booker are calling on Holcomb to consider taking guns away from DNR officers and “significantly” limiting their jurisdiction.
State environmental groups, including the Hoosier Environmental Council, Friends of Lake Monroe and Sierra Club’s Hoosier Chapter, are also calling on the Indiana DNR to review its policies and publicly condemn racism. In a joint statement, the groups declared the altercation a “violent racist incident" and called on the DNR to ensure that people of color can enjoy the state’s natural areas.
State Sen. Mark Stoops, a Bloomington Democrat, said he was “horrified by the racist attack.” He called on Holcomb to suspend and investigate the DNR officers who responded to the scene for failing to make any arrests.
“This is not just an issue of violence,” Stoops said in a statement Monday, “this is clearly a hate crime and must be treated as such.”
Casey Smith is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.