Carmel has a negative reputation when it comes to race relations. Here’s why.
When news broke recently that a Carmel priest called Black Lives Matter organizers “maggots and parasites,” Carmel was uncomfortably thrust into the national spotlight.
That said, it certainly wasn’t the first time this largely white suburban community has had to reckon with accusations of racial ignorance or racism.
Over the last two and a half decades the city has settled two lawsuits alleging the city of racial profiling, while also dealing with outside perceptions that while by many measures Carmel is viewed as among the best places in the nation to live, many Black people do not find it to be an especially welcoming place.
And that would be a polite way of putting it.
Carmel is actually more diverse than some of its Hamilton County neighbors — over 10% of its population is Asian — but only 2.7% of its population is Black, according to the most recent 5-year census estimate average. That is the lowest percentage of any Hamilton County city. In total, the city is 84% white.
Beyond those demographics, this is a city that also has never elected someone who is not white to serve either as mayor or on city council. Likewise, every department head is white.
In the Carmel Clay School District only 10 out of the more than 1,000 teachers, or less than 1%, are Black. All of the 65 administrators are white. That means young Black people in the community rarely see adults who look like them.
Those factors, as well, as some troubling decisions from the past, have fueled the perception — deserved or not — that Black people are less welcome here. Of the handful of Black Carmel residents IndyStar talked to, most were reluctant to generalize a whole city, but also acknowledged the city's lack of diversity is a problem and that many people they encounter in the city have outdated views of minorities.
They recounted tales of inappropriate jokes in church, the use of racial slurs in schools and experiences of being racially profiled.
But mostly, it’s a knowledge gap, they said, not necessarily intentional.
“If racism is only direct insults to you, then sure, I haven’t experienced that. Maybe others have.” said Carmella Sparrow, a Black mother of two who lives in Carmel. “However, if you know that racism is structural, is institutional, it's policies and procedures, then you see the very being of Carmel is racist.”
Most allegations of racism have centered around the Carmel Police Department over the years. Carmel Police Chief James Barlow and Mayor Jim Brainard acknowledge past problems but they also believe there have been huge strides in making their policing more fair.
Before Brainard took office, employees of then Carmel-based One Call, many of whom were minorities living outside of Carmel and working late into the night, complained of being pulled over by Carmel police.
The city’s solution, which Brainard called “terrible,” was to give employees car tags so police knew they belonged there, implying that if you were Black and didn't work there, the assumption might be that you didn't belong there. There was, however, no systemic change within the police department to stop ticketing Black people passing through.
Brainard said he stopped the car tag system when he took office in 1996. Nevertheless, it was policies such as the car tags that cemented Carmel’s reputation decades ago. And then there are the lawsuits.
The first, in 1997, was based off of a 1996 traffic stop in which a Carmel officer stopped David Smith, an Indiana State Police sergeant, when he was driving to his Carmel home. The officer told Smith he pulled him over because he had three antennas on the rear of his car. The lawsuit contended the claim was an excuse to pull over the car because it was clear Smith was Black.
As part of a 1998 settlement, Carmel had to hire an expert consultant to set standards ensuring traffic stops were constitutional as well as video tape all traffic stops, among other measures. Smith also received an undisclosed amount of money for attorney's fees and damages, but Brainard said at the time no tax payer money was used for the settlement.
Carmel faced similar accusations in a 2014 lawsuit. Carl Cooper, an Indianapolis man, was driving through Carmel in 2013 to meet a friend at McDonald’s when he was pulled over.
He was handcuffed by a Carmel police officer, according to a lawsuit filed by Cooper in December 2014. After that, multiple officers drew their weapons and pointed them at him, the lawsuit said. Then, he was released.
Carmel police said his identity was mistaken because of an error within a crime database. The city ended up settling once again, for $8,000.
The city’s police department also had to settle a lawsuit from a 2012 incident in which James Beckett, a Black man, accused Hamilton County sheriff’s deputies and Carmel police officers of coming to his home and ordering him out of the house. According to court documents, he was told “if you move, we’ll blow your head off.” After Beckett and four other people, including three Black people, were handcuffed, police realized they were at the wrong house, according to court documents.
Since the initial 1997 lawsuit, the Carmel Police Department started using in-car cameras and as of spring of last year, officers started wearing body cameras.
The department is also focused on recruiting. Currently, 7% of officers are Black. An additional 3.9% are Hispanic and 1.6% are Asian.
“We're not perfect by any means,” said Police Chief Jim Barlow, "but we've come a long way in the last three decades."
Data shows that the Carmel Police Department may still be ticketing Black people at a higher rate. A WISH-TV report published last year found the largest disparities between traffic tickets issued to Black people and to white people when not including ordinance violations out of 11 central Indiana police departments was in Carmel.
Data the department released painted a similar picture. In 2018, more than 23% of discretionary CPD traffic tickets were issued to Black people, while they only account for a small percentage of the nighttime population. The 2018 one-year population estimate, which isn’t as reliable as the five-year estimate but is more current, shows 3.9% of Carmel’s population is Black alone.
Barlow argued the WISH-TV report was flawed, and that using nighttime population estimates, like those provided by the census, is misleading. The daytime population of Black people, Barlow said, was likely higher than just the number that live in Carmel.
"This news story paints an inaccurate, incomplete, and frankly unfair picture of how the Carmel Police Department treats drivers," Barlow said in a statement last year.
He also took issue with the fact that the station included traffic offenses such as driving under the influence of alcohol — offenses in which officers do not have any discretion — and left out traffic ordinance violations.
Reports like the WISH-TV one, Barlow said, further reinforce the stereotype about Carmel police.
"I know how hard our officers work every day to defeat that stereotype, but what (WISH-TV) did was reinforce a stereotype," Barlow told IndyStar. "If people looked at headlines and said, 'See, they're the same old Carmel Police Department, what we heard 30 years ago, or 25 years ago,' and that's frustrating."
The police department hired an independent company to complete a study to determine the breakdown by race of Carmel’s drivers. If that data shows police are ticketing Black drivers at an unfair rate, Barlow and Brainard said, they’ll make changes. That study was delayed by COVID-19.
Other negative publicity
Lawsuits aren’t the only negative publicity Carmel has received regarding the treatment of minorities.
In 2018, more than 80 Carmel residents pushed back against the city’s first mosque in a public meeting, while more than 1,000 people did so in letters. The Board of Zoning Appeals had to be held in the Palladium for the first time, the only city facility that could accommodate the heightened interest the mosque has drawn.
Most cited things such as traffic and noise increases as a concern, arguing it was the location that was a problem not the mosque itself. But some speakers and letter writers specifically mentioned their objections to the mosque because of religion.
The board approved the mosque and its construction, which hasn't been completed yet, by a 3-2 vote.
Separately, later that year, the Jewish Congregation Shaarey Tefilla was vandalized with anti-Semitic graffiti. It was a Cloverdale man, not someone from Carmel, who was charged with painting the swastikas.
Earlier this month, a “Black Lives Matter” sign in Carmel resident Ashten Spiker’s front yard was vandalized twice.
After the second time, Spiker, who is white, posted a Facebook Live video that caught the attention of former classmates Breanna Hargrove and Kayla Seymour, both of whom are Black. Together, the three women held a sit-in in Carmel and later formed Carmel Against Racial Injustice.
Also in June, Brainard earned the city national attention himself when he announced his intent to sue the city of Minneapolis to recover costs associated with riots and the threat of damage to Carmel after the death of George Floyd sparked protests nationwide. Carmel had minimal damage compared to Indianapolis.
Some people, including Spiker and Hargrave, called the legal action tone-deaf.
Hours later, Brainard changed his mind following negative feedback.
His decision would later remind Ti’Gre McNear, a Black Carmel resident who ran for city council in 2019, of a Bible verse, Matthew 7:3.
"Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”
Living in Carmel
Black Carmel residents have their own stories, too.
Tyler Gainer, a Black 21-year-old who graduated from Carmel High School, said he was stopped as he was leaving Walmart on the edge of Westfield and Carmel and almost got in trouble for allegedlystealing because he had thrown out his receipt. He wondered if he was racially profiled.
He’s also noticed the lack of adults in his community that look like him.
McNear, 50, said she was told by another parent at her child’s school that she was “moving fast,” after he asked her why she moved to Carmel. She took the comment as a reference to her moving somewhere that was mostly white.
Another time someone she barely knew called the Department of Child Services on her, she said.
She said her family is the only Black family that’s lived in her neighborhood during the 12 years she’s lived there and said some neighbors won't look their way to wave.
Mikayla Shaffer, a 17-year-old who still attends Carmel High School, said what always stuck out to her was what she viewed as ignorant comments.
“Being one of the few Black girls, I felt tokenized,” Shaffer said. “It was like, ‘You speak really well. You’re like us.’”
And Carmella Sparrow, 34, mentioned how uncomfortable she was during a discipleship workshop at the Northview Church's Carmel Campus where she heard inappropriate jokes about how there isn’t a Laquisha in the Bible.
Another joke written on a scrap of paper on the table she was sitting at during the discipleship workshop read, “Did you hear about the shampoo shortage in Jamaica? It was dreadful.”
She was the only Black woman in the room during the workshop.
She’s also concerned, likely more so, that there has not been more education about Black history in her sons' schools, and the fact that many parents she knows feel more comfortable sending their Black sons to private school rather than keeping them in public school in Carmel.
Her two sons are only 8, but eventually she will have to make that decision.
She still says, however, that her overall experience in Carmel has been good.
Both McNear and Sparrow said they moved to Carmel for its location and to give their children educational opportunities — the same reason many white people move to the city. They didn’t know what to expect.
Sparrow said she gets looks of surprise when she tells people she lives in Carmel as a Black woman.
“There is definitely a huge stigma here,” Sparrow said. “Because people in this space haven’t done the work for understanding racism for what it is. I just think people don’t want to deal with it. It’s a bubble here.”
Brainard believes his city is welcoming to all and doesn’t think Carmel has an outsized issue with a lack of diversity. Carmel has a nine-person Advisory Council on Human Relations, which contains four non-white members. Of those, one member is Black.
He also said he's tried to create community spaces where people can gather with others of different backgrounds, such as Midtown Plaza.
“I don't think Carmel ought to be singled out. This is a suburban phenomena,” Brainard said regarding Carmel’s census numbers. "Carmel is the most successful of all the suburbs so everybody sort of beats up on us.”
He pointed to Zionsville, which has a Black population of 1.2%. Fishers has made headlines in recent years, too, for accusations of racial profiling. One Black family moved from Fishers after an encounter with Fishers police.
“This is a welcoming place," Brainard said. "We wouldn’t have 125 corporate headquarters if those employers couldn't hire the best and brightest people regardless of race, place of origin and so on.”
Carmel Against Racial Injustice views the city differently and has plans to try to make it a better place for all. They're meeting one-on-one with leaders across the city, from city council members to Brainard to church leaders.
The group wants more Black history education in schools, choke holds explicitly banned by the police department, more statues depicting minorities and a chief equity officer in Carmel Clay Schools.
"There's an issue in Carmel with racism and we don't want to acknowledge it because we live in a bubble," Spiker said. "Not everyone in Carmel is racist, absolutely not. There's a lot of people who just aren't educated on race enough to understand."
Call IndyStar reporter Kaitlin Lange at 317-432-9270. Follow her on Twitter: @kaitlin_lange.