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Indiana Mayor Orders Review of Elkhart Police Department

ELKHART, INDIANA— Mayor Tim Neese has asked the Indiana State Police to investigate his city’s police force, a move that comes two weeks after misdemeanor criminal charges were announced against two officers who beat a handcuffed man.

SouthBend Tribune reporter first asked last month for video of the Jan. 12 incident. The police department released the video — which showed Newland and Titus repeatedly punching the man in the face after he spit at one of them — and announced the officers would face charges. The video shows two other officers, including the mayor’s son, Sgt. Drew Neese, watching the beating. The fourth officer, Cpl. Jason Ray, walks over as the beating ends and tells Newland and Titus to stop.

Five months earlier, in June, Elkhart Police Chief Ed Windbigler issued written reprimands to Newland and Titus. Speaking to the city’s Police Merit Commission, Windbigler said the officers used “a little more force than needed” with a man in custody and “went a little overboard.”

Last week, Neese said “in hindsight” the chief should have handed down more severe discipline. Newland and Titus are now on administrative leave pending the criminal case.

 

Neese asked for the state police probe just as the South Bend Tribune and ProPublica prepared to publish an investigation of disciplinary matters within the Elkhart Police Department, and a week after a Tribune reporter asked the mayor about the news organizations’ findings.

Meanwhile, the Tribune and ProPublica have published online a new report. Of 34 Elkhart police supervisors, the report reveals, 28 have been disciplined, 15 have been suspended, 7 have been involved in fatal shootings. And 3 have been convicted of criminal charges. Also, under Ed Windbigler, the current chief, the department appears to have scaled back discipline compared with his immediate predecessors, the report found.

When Windbigler became Elkhart’s police chief in January 2016, one of his first tasks was selecting his top command staff. For assistant chief, his second in command, Windbigler named Todd Thayer. Less than three years before, Thayer had been 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.”

For patrol captain, Windbigler named Brent Long. Less than two years before, Long had received a four-day suspension for sending inappropriate emails to fellow officers. One email included gruesome photos of a man in another city who, while running from police, jumped or fell from an overpass and was decapitated on a wrought-iron fence.

Under Windbigler, Thayer and Long are not aberrations, according to a review of personnel files by the South Bend Tribune and ProPublica. Twenty-eight of the Elkhart Police Department’s 34 supervisors, from chief down to sergeant, have disciplinary records. The reasons range from carelessness to incompetence to serious, even criminal, misconduct. Fifteen of them have served suspensions, including Windbigler himself, who was once suspended for three days — and ordered to pay punitive damages in a federal lawsuit alleging excessive force.

 

On Thursday, Neese said he had asked Indiana State Police Superintendent Douglas Carter to have the agency conduct what the mayor called a “very thorough and far-reaching” investigation into not only the Jan. 12 beating depicted in the video, but also any patterns of excessive force by Elkhart police.

“The Elkhart Police Department is made up of very good officers, and I want to preserve that integrity,” Neese said after a town hall meeting Thursday evening. “But also, if there is a situation that is not becoming of an Elkhart police officer, then it’s going to get attention.”

 

Neese said state police investigators would work alongside the Elkhart County Prosecutor’s Office. The mayor also said the state police probe would not be limited to that case. While the precise boundaries of the investigation were undetermined Thursday, Neese said he wanted the state investigators to look at “anything that relates to the Elkhart Police Department.”

 

When the state police investigation is complete, Neese said, he would like to release a report to the public. He said he did not know when the probe would start and had no timetable for its completion.