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Swords to Ploughshares: People of Faith Reinvent Public Safety (Part 1)

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People sitting in a large hall raising their hands. It's a casually dressed, mixed-race crowd.

With a decade of organizing, Faith in Indiana turned that red state’s largest city towards a more preventive approach to crime.

Indiana is an unlikely place to find some of the country’s most progressive criminal justice reforms. The state that brought us Mike Pence was run by the KKK in the 1920s. And yet Black clergy and churchgoers organizing in Indianapolis, the state’s largest city, anchored a decade-long effort that won the adoption of a violence-prevention program and reforms to police governance. As part of a national faith-based organizing network, they married basic community organizing practices––developing leadership, alliances, and relationships with public officials––to the moral power of religious values. After the murder of George Floyd, what they were able to achieve collectively amounted to a progressive reorientation of Indianapolis’ approach to criminal justice.

Part 1 tells the story of criminal justice reform in Indianapolis, while Part 2 tells the overlapping story of police reform.

Organizing Black churches

With the support of the national community organizing network Faith in Action (formerly PICO), local congregations came together in 2012 to launch Faith in Indiana – a coalition uniting people of different races and religions to advance racial and economic justice and develop the leadership of people whose voices are frequently absent in the public arena. Black clergy invited Shoshanna Spector, a Jewish lesbian PICO organizer raised in the Midwest, to relocate from California to help them build.  Since then, the organization has grown from a single city and a handful of congregations to 26,424 individual supporters, and 125 organizational members representing Indiana’s 17 largest denominations (including Black Baptist networks, white Protestant denominations, a handful of synagogues, a growing group of mosques, and the powerful Catholic church).

Like other national faith-based networks, Faith in Action grew out of the Alinsky organizing tradition and has struggled with the limitations of that model, such as “no permanent friends” and “leave your ideology at the door.” In recent years, however, the network has shaken off some of these constraints, embraced racial justice, and drawn from the well of faith traditions to shape political narratives. For their Indianapolis chapter, this more expansive model combines a rigorous emphasis on leadership development and grassroots democracy with a commitment to long-term change. Working with congregational members allows Faith in Indiana’s organizers to engage wide numbers of people on a regular basis, equipping them to become community leaders who can advocate progressive social change. It also positions the organization to mobilize rapidly in times of crisis, which was particularly valuable in 2020, when the pandemic shut down the city and the murder of George Floyd led to widespread demands for racial justice in policing. Indianapolis, like the state as a whole, lacks a dense progressive infrastructure, making Faith in Indiana’s capacity especially helpful.

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Criminal injustice in Indianapolis

While Indianapolis is known for the Indy 500 race, the city has also made headlines for high levels of violent crime. (It recently surpassed Chicago for the number of homicides per capita.) The city is awash with guns, a result of Indiana’s lax gun laws. Thanks to the state’s punitive approach to crime (as governor, Mike Pence presided over a massive increase in county jail populations), Indianapolis also ranks eighth in the nation for the proportion of residents incarcerated, with Black people imprisoned at a rate more than four times that of white people.

Faith in Indiana’s first organizer, Rev. Juard Barnes, had first-hand experience with the justice system. One conversation at a time, he built a movement of returning citizens in Indianapolis, mostly men of color, like himself. In 2015, they generated enough public pressure to scuttle misguided plans for a $1.75 billion jail expansion, and in 2016, they made the organization’s justice reform agenda the top priority for the city’s new mayor, Joe Hogsett. By hosting large public forums, forging close ties with public officials, and wielding their ability to reach tens of thousands of voters at election season, Faith in Indiana reoriented the city’s approach to crime.  Using faith-based narratives, they recalled the biblical commandment to “love thy neighbor” as they advocated an approach that offered help to those in crisis.

Indianapolis began to experiment with decarceration in a state known for exactly the opposite, adopting a series of reforms to divert people from jail to treatment, address the root causes of crime, and build community resilience. To offer meaningful help to people suffering mental illness or substance use, the city built a $22 million crisis center and piloted mobile crisis assessment teams, which pair social workers and police officers to respond to some emergency calls. Throughout the campaign, Faith in Indiana combined calls for racial and economic justice with the faith-rooted language of healing and redemption. In the face of anger and fear, they offered love, echoing Cornel West’s proposition that “justice is what love looks like in public.”

Faith in Indiana’s Black and Brown leaders understood that existing public safety strategies were failing. The existing system effectively criminalized entire communities without making them any safer. As the grassroots members began to research policy options that could actually promote public safety, they began to converge around a public health approach that emphasized prevention rather than punishment by identifying and treating the unmet medical needs––schizophrenia, major depression, brief psychotic episodes, addiction, etc.––that landed so many people behind bars. A 2016 study found that one in three inmates in Marion County jail had mental health diagnoses, while Indiana sheriffs reported that 80% of the people in jail suffered from substance abuse or mental illness.

A public health approach to crime relies on police as the tool of last resort. Whenever possible, emergencies involving addiction, domestic violence, mental health, and homelessness should be handled by social workers, health professionals, and other experts, leaving armed law enforcement officers to focus on the issues that require their specialized skills. Faith in Indiana’s leaders zeroed in on a model called Gun Violence Reduction Strategy (GVRS), a research-backed strategy that uses big data to identify the small number of individuals most likely to be perpetrators of gun homicides, surrounds them with social support, and offers them an honorable exit from street crime. GVRS has been markedly successful in Oakland, CA and other cities around the country, which have seen gun violence fall by 50% or more.

Building grassroots power

In Indianapolis, Faith in Indiana built a team of grassroots leaders to drive the work. Organizers held 15 to 20 outreach conversations a week to recruit community members, then trained them in skills like telling their own story, leading meetings, talking to public officials, developing an advocacy agenda, and using social media to change the public conversation. Like other faith-based organizers, they typically worked with clergy to identify people who might be natural leaders, although organizer Rev. Barnes said that the pastors often didn’t know who would actually make a good leader, so his exploration would quickly move beyond official suggestions. To get a sense of who might thrive in the role, he held one-on-one conversations, invited people to share their personal stories, and challenged them to leave their comfort zones. While the core of participants came from the Black community, Barnes built a diverse base of community advocates, all of them directly impacted by violence, policing, or incarceration. These community volunteers set campaign goals, developed strategy, and carried out tactics.

Winning (and implementing) change

After the grassroots leaders developed their strategy, they turned their focus outward and began educating decision-makers. They held meetings with experts and public officials to build relationships with people in power, educate them about GVRS, identify areas of convergence, find opportunities to make change, and create relationships of accountability. They also held large public events where the sheer number of participants won the attention of public officials. In October 2015, for example, at a massive forum at New Direction Church, with hundreds of people in attendance, grassroots leaders and senior staff of the Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence shared how their work with GVRS led to a 30% reduction in homicides in that city in just 18 months.

Advocacy around GVRS was “20% staff, 80% leaders,” said Rosie Bryant, who took over as Faith in Indiana’s Indianapolis organizer after Barnes left. The volunteer leaders “are meeting with the mayor and his staff. They are hosting meetings, putting them together, developing agendas. We own the meetings. Our leaders and clergy have relationships” with city councilors, the mayor, and their staff.

In 2018, after four years of public pressure and private conversation, Indianapolis launched a GVRS pilot. The mayor (who hires the police chief in Indianapolis) created a new city department to manage the program. It may have seemed like a minor victory, but it was a significant step in transforming the city’s approach to crime. It was also a sign to grassroots activists that they could make a difference. “We brought so much power to the table that the mayor’s office had to listen to us,” Barnes said. As it turned out, however, the GVRS pilot was not the end of the advocacy campaign. “The biggest challenge,” said Rosie Bryant, “is implementation of the strategy. You win big policy things and then people go away, but the fight is not over.” This fight was definitely not over.

The city’s initial commitment to GVRS proved to be hollow. The new project director launched a flurry of projects like grants to community organizations, gun buy-backs, and safe summertime activities for youth. She employed seven staff as peacemakers or resource coordinators. But this wasn’t GVRS, with that program’s laser-like focus on the individuals who were most likely to commit shootings, and it didn’t make a dent in the city’s crime rate. Compared to that of many smaller cities, the financial investment in Indianapolis’ violence reduction program was minimal. Indianapolis was spending less than a million dollars a year on violence reduction. Oakland, California, by contrast, with a population half the size of Indianapolis’, was spending $10 million annually on similar programs. It was clear the city needed to sharpen and scale up its program.

In October 2019, Faith in Indiana held a public action with more than 300 people in attendance, at which leaders called on the mayor to hire a national expert to guide the program, identify the missing pieces, and follow best-practice recommendations. The mayor agreed to contract with one of the nation’s premier experts on GVRS, David Muhammad, and his National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform (NICJR). They kept up public pressure as the mayor met with Muhammad, signed a contract, and found the funding to pay the NICJR.

With NICJR’s recommendations in hand, the organization’s grassroots leaders began to spend hours each week coaching city staff and elected leaders about how to do their jobs––from hiring practices to navigating the politics of their agency to the proper use of federal funds. Staff changed at the mayor’s office, so the organization had to rebuild relationships and educate a new group of staff. In the words of Bryant, “we mentored city staff members who were new to their jobs and turned them into people who know how to get things done.”

National events provided opportunities to accelerate the changes. In May 2020, the uprising after the murder of George Floyd positioned the organization to make demands on the city and win swift agreement. The changes bore fruit in 2021, when the city launched comprehensive research to understand the sources and dynamics of gun violence, used police department data to identify the people engaged in shootings, and expanded staffing for the program. The city also hired a full-time gun violence reduction strategy manager, with the help of Faith in Indiana’s grassroots leaders, who were involved in writing the job description, identifying candidates for the position, and reviewing applications.

Another opportunity arose in March 2021 when Congress passed the American Rescue Plan, which sent billions of dollars to cities and states whose budgets were strained by the COVID-induced recession. Faith in Indiana made public demands about investing federal resources in the new violence prevention strategy. Given the organization’s relationship with the mayor, this process was smooth and rapid: Indianapolis dedicated $151 million to anti-violence work that closely tracked Faith in Indiana’s agenda.


Indianapolis’ commitment to GVRS signaled a major victory in Faith in Indiana’s decade-long campaign to reshape how a major Midwestern city approached crime and violence. It also heralded a new approach to advocacy among organizers. After many years in which community organizers focused on winning policy changes through mobilization (holding protests outside city hall or organizing hundreds of phone calls to the mayor), Faith in Indiana has come to embrace the strategy of co-governance: taking responsibility to create the conditions required to win, implement, defend, enforce, and sustain progressive policies and programs.

Co-governance shifts how community organizers seek to build political power. Instead of seeing decision-makers as targets of community mobilization, Faith in Indiana builds long-term relationships of trust and accountability with public officials. Organizers and leaders don’t just weaponize public opinion to influence elected officials. They also collaborate with those officials to understand how public sentiment could shape public attitudes to support bold stances and progressive action by elected representatives. Rather than presenting problems to officials and demanding they address them, Faith in Indiana works with policy experts to design and deliver shovel-ready policy solutions. Instead of dusting off their hands and declaring victory when policies pass into law, Faith in Indiana remains involved in the implementation phase, working actively with public agencies and regulatory bodies as new programs are piloted, tested, enacted, and enforced.

Faith in Indiana’s grassroots leadership was a critical resource for moving Indianapolis to a more preventive approach to crime. It was also the essential element for addressing the next challenge of public safety: police accountability. Part 2 will narrate the way George Floyd’s murder allowed Indianapolis’ Black community to win one of the strongest police accountability measures in the country.

Featured image: Participants raise their hands to commit to criminal justice reform at the People’s Hearing on Criminal Justice at New Directions Christian Church in Indianapolis, IN on Sept. 1, 2016. Photo © Faith in Indiana

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