I am trying to move away from having to maintain this blog. But things keep on happening that need someone to say something. The recent situation in Elkhart, Indiana is one of them. The exclamation, “land o’Goshen” means a certain amount of amazement or frustration at something. The Elkhart, Indiana police department is that something (and Goshen is close, only 10 miles away.)
In the heartland of America, the Elkhart, Indiana Police Department appears a case-study in why police need some major improvement. Students of policing need to study cases like this so they won’t repeat these mistakes. Like any misdeed, however, Elkhart is not representative of all of American policing — but it is a strong example of what I talk about when I say that there exists a certain “attitude” among some police that cause much of today’s problems and how to fix it.
Some background: Elkhart is a medium-sized city (51,000 population) with a police department consisting of approximately 118 sworn officers. The city occupies 27 square miles and its 51K population is 15% African-American and 22% Hispanic according to the last census.
The comments the Assistant Police Chief made below at a community meeting is a very good example of what I am talk about — the need for transparency, respect, and community trust and support as being essential characteristics of an effective democratic police agency.
The assistant chief’s defense of his department’s behavior (and, yes, embarrassment) is that the media is to blame; nothing about the egregious (and illegal) assault of his officers on a handcuffed suspect in custody. Comments which a citizen correctly responded, “So while you feel embarrassed, and that’s not a good feeling, we feel intimidated. … We feel scared when we see police, because things like this happen.”
Viewing the tape, you can see first of all when taking the suspect out of the police vehicle and taking him into the police station, emotions were getting high — and yet, a sergeant stands by and says nothing. Not one officer steps in to intervene and protect a fellow officer from making a mistake that could cost him his job or criminal prosecution (all on video tape). Perhaps if they knew about or would have been training in Peer Intervention, this, hopefully, would not have happened.
And the disciplinary histories of the supervisors! What does that tell young officers about what is permitted and what is not? According to some investigative reporting by ProPublica, 1/5 of the officers on the department have been involved in a fatal shooting. Twenty-eight out of 34 supervisors have disciplinary records; 15 of them have had a disciplinary suspension from duty without pay.
Read the following news article and take a good look at the video account from police department cameras. This is what destroys trust and confidence in a police department.
I wish the best to the mayor and elected officials in Elkhart. They have their work cut out for them. I would suggest they read what I have said about police improvement in “Arrested Development” and in “How to Rate Your Local Police.”
“They Should Have Been Fired On the Spot!”
By ChristianSheckler, South Bend Tribune, and Ken Armstrong, ProPublica
One after another, speakers at a town hall meeting Tuesday in Elkhart, Indiana, criticized the city’s Police Department after recent revelations about officers who beat a handcuffed man and the disciplinary records of the agency’s supervisors.
The town hall was the third public forum hosted by the mayor in a week, each one dominated by talk of the police. Last week, the South Bend Tribune and ProPublica reported that 28 of the department’s 34supervisors, including Police Chief Ed Windbigler, had been previously disciplined. Fifteen have been suspended. Seven have been involved in at least one fatal shooting. Early this month, the news organizations published video of two officerspunching a suspect in the face in the police station’s detention area.
Most of the speakers Tuesday wanted to talk about the beating — and what happened afterward. Windbigler issued written reprimands to officers Cory Newland andJoshua Titus five months after the fact, and he described their actions to a civilian oversight board as going “a little overboard,”with no mention of the punches thrown. Only after The Tribune requested the video did the city announce this month that the officers would face criminal charges. The video shows two other officers — including Sgt. Drew Neese, the son of Elkhart Mayor Tim Neese — looking on as the handcuffed suspect is beaten.
“They should have been fired on the spot,” one man told the mayor during Tuesday’s meeting. “And, with respect to you, sir, your own son should be, too.”
While a few speakers defended the police, saying they put their lives on the line for the good of the community, one man asked the mayor, “Why does the trust in the chief remain?” He asked Neese if he contested anything in the recent story by The Tribune and ProPublica about the department’s supervisors, including one who was promoted to sergeant after having been disciplined more than two dozen times.
A t that, Todd Thayer, the Police Department’s assistant chief, spoke up from the back of the room, saying he wanted to respond to the question. He walked to the front and, for the next 10 minutes, defended his officers and attacked the media.
Thayer described the department’s reaction when it started receiving public records requests from a Tribune reporter: “Who is this guy? … What’s all this digging?And it’s just, request after request after request.” Thayer said the police went to the city’s legal department and asked: “Does anybody know what’s going on? Everything’s going good in Elkhart. Why are they coming over here, into our backyard, and trying to disrupt everything we built?”
Thayer also criticized reporters for reaching out to officers to ask about their disciplinary records. He took issue with a ProPublica reporter who phoned a sergeant to ask about his personnel history, which included 11 suspensions and 15 reprimands. “I mean, you’re gonna ambush my officers like that? That’s ridiculous,” Thayer said…
Thayer said at the meeting that this “type of reporting” was devastating the policing profession: “The thin blue line is that line of officers that keeps the predators and the sex offenders and all the other garbage from all these law-abiding citizens. We’re the final stopgap. And that’s falling apart. I fear for this country, I fear for my son, because we’re getting fewer and fewer police officers who want to become police officers.”
Thayer was among the 28 supervisors who have been disciplined, according to the review of personnel files. In 2013, he was demoted two ranks for making flippant comments about a fatal shooting.Witnesses reported he said a fellow officer could now check shooting a person off his “bucket list.” Thayer was promoted to his current position by Windbigler.
After Thayer spoke, one woman responded: “This is not about a newspaper article. There is clear video evidence.” A man added: “So while you feel embarrassed, and that’s not a good feeling, we feel intimidated. … We feel scared when we see police, because things like this happen.”
In addition to Tuesday’s town hall, the issue also came up during Elkhart’s regularly scheduled city council meeting Monday. Councilman David Henke said he was disappointed in the recent revelations about the Police Department.
Henke said the lack of disclosure and the 10-month delay between the beating and the filing of charges “harmed the public trust.” Neese has said he learned about the video only after The Tribune requested a copy of it in October. He then notified prosecutors, after which Newland and Titus were charged with misdemeanor battery.
“It was no less than a purposeful cover-up in my opinion,” Henke said during the city council meeting.
“All eyes are on us and this department at this time,” he added. “It is not fair to the dedicated officers, nor do these actions, or lack of actions, represent our city and where we are heading. … Turning a blind eye in no way promotes a professional police force, and we will not accept anything less than a transparent, professional department. It’s too critical of an issue… not to put full effort in correcting, regardless of resignations that may be in order.”
Henke could not be reached to explain what he meant by “resignations that may be in order.”
Ata town hall meeting last week, Roger Mansfield, a member of the Police Merit Commission, the city’s civilian oversight board, said the commission wasn’t made aware of the video’s existence until it was published by The Tribune and ProPublica.
Neese issued a press release last Thursday saying he had asked the Indiana State Police to conduct a “complete investigation” of the city’s Police Department. But this week the state police said it was declining the mayor’s request. Any such review was more suited to the U.S. Department ofJustice, the state police said.
However, it’s not clear the Department of Justice would conduct such an investigation, even if asked. Under the Trump administration, theJustice Department has retreated from oversight involving local police. OnTuesday evening, Neese was asked by an audience member what he plans to do next. “I have not contacted the Department of Justice,” he said. “I’m not certain I’m going to.”
More on Elkhart police, reform, and the Justice Department at “Who Will Now Police the Police?”
Interesting response regarding past histories — https://www.elkharttruth.com/opinion/implications-about-elkhart-police-leadership-untrue/article_e4504195-37fc-5010-8011-3553019c67ae.html
YES, I see that the department chaplain has another view. However, it sure does not look good just looking at the spillover from this one incident. I guess it has become an all-to-common practice in many police department to blame “outisiders” (including the press), hunker down and then make the argument that the assistant chief made that his officers are what protects them from the criminals instead of saying let us work together to improve things and met the community’s needs. Oh well, been there, seen that, done that and then changed. Other police can, too! Peace!
From a dear friend of mine who has spent a lifetime in police research:
“This kind of case reminds us again that police departments should not be operating in a vacuum. There is an oversight responsibility on the part of city administration that, I suspect, is being exercised in very few cities. Most city managers or mayors want to hire a police chief they think will do a good job so they can then leave the chief to do it while turning their attention to other demanding issues. Police departments should be routinely audited by city administrators and there should be a set of criteria for the audit that has been established nationally by a team of mayors, managers and police chiefs .(It would include questions such as whether sergeants have clean records!)
“There probably are historical reasons that contribute to the “hands off” attitude of city administrators. The professionalism movement worked to take politics out of policing and that certainly needed to happen but it may have left police departments unaccountable to city administrators. Chiefs haven’t complained; they have enjoyed the independence but the arrangement is not healthy.
“In addition to the audit, the city administrator ought to be sitting down monthly with the chief to discuss police policies, operations and needs. A lot of administrators would be nervous about having these conversations for fear of looking ignorant about what police really do but you certainly could write them a handy guide about the questions they should be asking. There should be a lot of questions like, “How is that new neighborhood office working out in Eastside?” “How are principals feeling about their school resource officers?” “What training programs are scheduled for the next six months?” “What kind of response did you get at the PTA meeting your addressed?” These monthly conversations should demonstrate that the city administrator knows what the police are doing in the community and that she or he is interested.
“If you see a bad police department, you see a city administration that is not doing its job.”
Couldn’t agree more with your friend. I also don’t understand why it is so hard to get information like complaints filed, disciplinary actions, use of force reports, etc. These should be public and are exempt from open records laws by most states. It’s time to start holding the politicians more accountable!
As someone that worked in a non-police section of State Government, I would say be VERY careful about open records laws. OR be prepared to have your police departments spend 10 hours in records activities for every man hour of police activity. I worked for a Department that licensed the Financial Industry. As soon as our State passed it’s open records law, we started getting “2 copies of everything done between 1/1/that year and 12/31/this year” We also had a 30 day or else clause in our law. So the lawyer requiring the information didn’t care what the data was. He just wanted to sue us because we failed to provide the data in a timely manner. Plus the cost of providing all that information properly redacted equated to about half the Department’s annual budget. And that was a single request. We got thousands of them a week. Yes it is good to hold politicians accountable, but be careful or you will find that every loophole will cost you far more than a lack of transparency ever did.
There always seems to be “unanticipated consequences” in both seemingly positive and negative actions. Open records is one of those — I would probably say the same about body cameras. Somehow, we must seek the “golden mean.” Thanks for your comments.
With all respect, I believe your take represents a traditional and backwards view of policing and transparency (also applicable to regulation of the financial industry) that leaves departments open to the abuse you mention. Instead of revealing only what is requested under open records laws, police should proactively publish extensive information on their activities and make raw data feeds available to anyone that wishes to study them. If data is entered into a system at the time of the incident and report writing, properly formatted and marked with what should be redacted, and then published/partly published, you will get far fewer FOIA requests, not to mention far better behavior from officers. Making use-of-force reports and complaint investigations public as well is a key part of such an effort. Officers policing the public have no right to privacy here, just as a doctor’s record does not. For historical material, many good computerized solutions (assuming digitized records) are available for the first pass at collecting relevant material and suggesting redactions. Unfortunately, many of the suppliers of police products and services appear to be very expensive. Perhaps more competition would help.
The trick is to get to top notch oversight so that you can than reach critical mass in order to attract more officers that really want to be there to help the public… then perhaps a lot of this will be unnecessary, but available as insurance when someone slips through the cracks. In the current environment, the only way to get this to happen is to have voters step up and make the politicians accountable for a getting a better system in place.