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In For Questioning: Q&A with Troy Riggs

Incorrigible cops? Funding fights? Exploding neighborhoods? We gave Indy's recently hired public safety director the third degree.

When he reported for duty last November, rookie public safety director Troy Riggs walked directly into the line of fire. His predecessor, Frank Straub, had resigned after a bitter fight with the police union. Former IMPD chief Paul Ciesielski had busted himself down to captain after his department mishandled evidence in the alleged drunk-driving crash of officer David Bisard. The mayor and the City-County Council were duking it out over police and firefighter pay, and there was the matter of figuring out just how many of Indianapolis’s 1,600 police officers were actually patrolling the streets; no one could give Riggs an exact number. Then, on November 10, the city blew up—or at least the neighborhood of Richmond Hill did, killing two residents, damaging 90 homes, and setting off a large-scale investigation.

A former cop and chief of staff for the Louisville Metro Police, and most recently the police chief and assistant city manager in Corpus Christi, Texas, Riggs, 46, wants to implement a long wish list for his new department—if he ever gets a break from putting out fires.

IM: Last year, the Fraternal Order of Police complained that Indianapolis officers worked in a “challenging and hostile environment,” and, at the time you arrived, the city had seen a 6 percent increase in violent crime over the previous year. Why take this job?

RIGGS: I was very happy [in Corpus Christi]—actually turned down the opportunity for two big jobs in Louisville, my hometown. Turned down some other opportunities.

But this is Indianapolis. I think when you live in a city, you don’t realize how good you have it until you’ve lived elsewhere. My wife and I go back to when we were visiting [years ago], even when Union Station was the place to go. We would say, “Wouldn’t it be a great city to live in someday?” Had no idea we would have that opportunity. I did what I always do: I prayed about it. Went and talked to my wife. She’d been involved in all the decisions to say “no” to other opportunities, but for Indianapolis, she said yes.

When I look on the professional side, I believe we have all the tools in place here. We don’t want to just look for best practices around the nation and emulate those. We want to be the place where people come for best practices. I think we have the leadership and talent to do that. We have a very knowledgeable, a very intelligent, and a very dedicated workforce. What we need is a little bit more coordination, a little bit more planning, and we’re going to be fine. That’s one of the things that really drove me here. I think that we can do things here that make the rest of the nation say, “That’s the way you need to do public safety.”

IM: You faced the Richmond Hill explosion within days of grabbing the reins. Rate your department’s response.

RIGGS: I’m very proud of the response. I’m very proud of our employees that just showed up, off duty, because they heard an explosion. I’m very proud of the community for how they responded to it. I’m also proud of our efforts after the initial response. We took an unprecedented step that many cities have not been willing to do, or able to do, when they’ve had a disaster—that is, we made it an important priority to help citizens rebuild their lives. We had a crime scene, but we had officers there to escort people to their homes, to escort them to their insurance companies so they could begin that process sooner rather than later. We shored up homes that were unsafe so that our people could go in and help retrieve some precious items—for instance, a Purple Heart that a gentleman had that I think his father had given him, and some of the pets. Those are irreplaceable items. To some people that may not be a big issue, but it should be.
IM: Did your department’s performance tell you anything about what you have to work with here?

RIGGS: I think that showcased not only to the citizens of Indianapolis but also to the nation how well our first responders are trained. How dedicated they are. How many of them showed up on their off time to help out, and how flawless that operation was. We have a good foundation to build on. Operationally, I think we’re very sound.

IM: And otherwise?

RIGGS: Administratively, we’re not so sound. We need to make sure we know where our personnel are allocated and why. We need to make sure we have a handle on how many people are taking sick time and why. We need to make sure we understand, if we’re spending overtime, why we’re spending that overtime. No one [here] really has had that level of accountability before. In the private sector, every dollar saved is a dollar earned. For us, every dollar saved is a dollar we can use to enhance public safety.

Our weakness is planning. We need to strategically think about the future. One of the things I did when I arrived was to start having our chiefs think about goals, and what are the metrics to determine if they’re successful or not for 2013. One is going to be how we track crime.

IM: What’s wrong with how we’ve been doing it?

RIGGS: Well, first of all, we want to make sure we’re getting crime data in real time. We’re struggling with that right now. I want to be able to report crime in a timely fashion. I want to make sure that citizens know what crime is occurring and where it’s occurring. I want them to be part of this discussion. I want to give citizens an easier way to report crime, whether that’s online or by simply calling the telephone-reporting unit. Those are things we need to do. If you look at national surveys, crime is under-reported—[according to] one survey I saw, by 30 percent nationally. I want to make sure that we’re reporting every crime possible here in Indianapolis so that we can go about the process of fixing those issues with the community. If people are fully engaged with the police department, we may get a spike in crime. That doesn’t mean that we’re an unsafe city. It just means we’re doing a better job of getting individuals to report crime.

IM: How about this headline: “Crime Up on Riggs’s Watch”?

RIGGS: Could be, but here’s the thing: A lot of times, when you engage your community at a better level, and you’re gaining respect in areas of the community that may feel like they’ve been underserved in the past—all of a sudden, you see increases in [certain] types of crimes. You know what? That’s a good thing. It’s an honest approach to public safety.

IM: As you look at our city, which crimes concern you most?

RIGGS: There are some arson-related issues that concern me, not necessarily because of the explosion, but just looking at general numbers. I’m concerned about some of the sexual assaults. I’ve dealt with victims of sexual assault; they lost something very important to them and very important for their feeling of safety in the future. Burglaries to residences are extremely high on my list, because you’re invading someone’s personal space, and the danger that occurs if someone is home during a burglary—which doesn’t occur that often, but when it does—is stark. One crime trend that we’re seeing here in Indianapolis right now is the introduction of heroin. Any type of drug issue is important, because it drives so many other types of crime.
IM: You’ve said that you want to move IMPD back to “beat policing.” What are the advantages of that approach?

RIGGS: Let me clarify where we are on that. We used to have beats in Indianapolis; I’ve seen the old beat structure. With the staffing we have, there was no way you could do true beat policing in that manner. The department went to “zone policing” to try to get into intelligence-led policing more, and it was a step in the right direction, but it’s not the final process. We need to continue to grow past that. [New IMPD] Chief [Rick] Hite and I have talked about this at length, looking at geographical boundaries that make sense. You can’t put a grid over a city and say, “This is the perfect scenario.” We can’t split neighborhoods in half. There have to be some natural boundaries there. We’re going to take a good look at census tracts, where people are moving in the future. What type of crime we’re having and where. Now if people want to call that a “zone” or they want to call that a “beat,” it doesn’t matter to me. Who do you contact if you just want to talk to a police officer? We need to make sure that people understand who’s riding those areas, who’s going to be in there. They need to have a point of contact. I hear that from citizens, and I hear that from officers.

"At the end of the day, I have to make some very tough decisions that will not sit well with people. But they'll understand why I made the decision and what my thinking was."

IM: Do we need more officers on the streets?

RIGGS: Well, here’s the troubling thing. When I arrived, I asked how many officers we actually have on the streets. For a workforce of over 1,600, I’ve been told anywhere from 500 to 750. And then I’d get paperwork that shows that 75 percent of our people are in operations, which is not technically “boots on the street.” I want to put a team together where we look at personnel allocation. We’re going to physically count how many people we have assigned to riding patrol. We’re going to look at every position throughout the police department, and we’re going to have them ask a simple question: Is the position they have now more important than the position of patrol officer?

IM: Do you know the exact number of street cops now?

RIGGS: Well, right now, it looks like it’s right around 700. But out of that 700, how many of them actually are working the streets every day? I mean, they may be listed as a patrol officer, but do the commanders have them doing other special projects that take them away from the street? Not that that’s a bad move or a bad decision. That may be a legitimate decision. We just need to know.

IM: At least a half-dozen officers made the news for criminal behavior last year. What steps are you taking?

RIGGS: We’re looking at the way we discipline. From the initial complaint that comes in, we are doing process-mapping now on how they’ve been handled in the past. We’re finding some shortcomings, quite frankly—finding some things we need to fix, and we’re going to do that. We want to make sure that we’re handling complaints and investigations in the most professional method for two reasons: Citizens deserve it, and those that are being complained against deserve it. Because some of the time, a complaint is nothing more than someone upset because they got a citation.

Citizens expect police officers to tell the truth. Citizens have given police officers the right to suspend constitutional rights with the power of arrest. They are held to a higher standard, and they should be held to a higher standard. A great majority of the officers do the right thing every day. It becomes a big news story when those handfuls don’t, because it’s so infrequent. We need to make sure we deal with those that tarnish the badge quickly and effectively, but we also need to defend those that are doing their job and doing it the right way.

IM: Your predecessor was known for his blunt talk. Describe your style.

RIGGS: I’ve been a chief. I’ve been a police officer. I’ve been in management a long time. I can be very direct. There have been times that I’ve had some very difficult people to deal with. But it’s not my style to have a public fight with someone. I’d really much rather sit at a table and try to find solutions than have a fight. Even at the end of the day, whoever wins, you still lose, because people lose trust in the leadership. So, you’ll see me trying to build partnerships. If I feel like something’s going the wrong way in a relationship, I’ll usually call and ask to go and meet with someone and talk through that. But, at the end of the day, I have to make some very tough decisions that will not sit well with people. But they’ll understand why I made the decision and what my thinking was. They may disagree with me, but they will always know why.

IM: You mentioned the administrative issues. What else are you trying to fix?

RIGGS: There are some arbitrary timeframes that we have set, standards for progress in investigations into complaints that come in, and they’re not being met in many cases. That’s unconscionable. We need to do better at that. We need to make sure that when a citizen files a complaint, that he or she is completely updated on the findings of that case. We need to make sure that if an officer has a complaint, that the officer knows when that complaint has been finished. I’m finding out that we’ve had some officers exonerated that didn’t know it. We need to do a better job at that. Our workforce deserves better than that. Citizens deserve better than that. And that’s the product we’re going to give them.

Photos by Tony Valainis

This article appeared in the March 2013 issue.