This article was produced in partnership with the South Bend Tribune, a member of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network.
When Ed 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.
One officer promoted to sergeant by Windbigler has been disciplined more than two dozen times, once for using police communications equipment to refer to “white power.” Another sergeant choked a man in custody. Another failed to report domestic violence by a fellow officer, who had battered a woman and shot her cat. Still another habitually skipped mandatory training and then lied about why, saying he had been attending to police union business.
At least three current supervisors have been convicted of crimes during their careers.
Seven have opened fire in at least one fatal shooting. One officer made sergeant by Windbigler fired his gun in three fatal shootings in a little more than four years, including one that led to a lawsuit and settlement. Another used his Taser on a high school student while working as a resource officer, then, a week later, shot and killed a man who turned out to be unarmed.
“That’s high. That’s high,” said Walter Signorelli, a lecturer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, of the number of fatal shootings by Elkhart police. Signorelli worked over 30 years for the New York City Police Department before retiring as inspector. “I don’t know what kind of place this Elkhart is.”
From 2013 to 2017, Elkhart police shot and killed six people while New York City police killed 43. Elkhart’s population is 53,000 – New York City’s, 8.6 million. The NYPD had about seven times more police shootings – in a city with more than 160 times the people.
Windbigler and Thayer declined comment through the department’s spokesman. Long did not respond to interview requests. The Tribune and ProPublica provided the Police Department with their findings; a spokesman said there would be no response.
On Thursday, Elkhart Mayor Tim Neese called for a “complete investigation” of the city’s Police Department to be done by the Indiana State Police. “Neese is concerned with all individuals’ civil rights and feels this investigation is critical to upholding transparency and maintaining public trust,” a press release from his office said.
Neese made the request a week after a reporter informed him of the findings of the Tribune’s and ProPublica’s investigation. Last week, during an interview about police supervisors’ disciplinary records, Neese said, “Obviously police officers, by virtue of their profession, they’re going to encounter people under very unique circumstances … so there are going to be complaints levied against police officers when, in fact, they’re doing their job.”
When Elkhart makes the national news, it tends to be for its industry, not its police force. Called the “RV Capital of the World,” Elkhart became a political stage for the country’s last two presidents. It was one of the first cities Barack Obama visited in his first term. He passed through again in 2016 to tout the country’s economic rebound. Donald Trump visited in May to say, “America is respected again.”
Well before Windbigler became chief, the Elkhart Police Department allowed officers with disturbing records to stay on the force, climb the ranks or move on to other law enforcement jobs. A 1994 study, commissioned by the city, cited the department’s “reputation for brutality” and its failure to rein in officers who had “abused citizens, violated civil rights, [and] alienated segments of the community.”
The Tribune and ProPublica recently chronicled the Police Department’s flawed investigation of a 1996 shooting in which two men, Keith Cooper and Christopher Parish, were wrongly convicted. The lead detective in that case remained an investigator despite a lengthy record of misconduct – and, upon retirement, received letters of recommendation from high-ranking Elkhart officers, helping him get hired by a nearby sheriff’s department.
Under Windbigler, the Elkhart Police Department appears to have scaled back discipline compared with his immediate predecessors. At the same time, civilian oversight has been diminished rather than strengthened.
This month, the city said two Elkhart police officers would be charged with misdemeanor battery after the Tribune requested video that showed them repeatedly punching a handcuffed man in the face. Windbigler had previously opted to limit the two officers’ discipline to reprimands. He told the oversight board they “just went a little overboard when they took him to the ground,” while making no mention of the punches thrown. The mayor has since said that in hindsight, more serious discipline was probably warranted.
Windbigler was made police chief by Neese when he became mayor in 2016. Neese has a son on the force – one of the 28 supervisors with disciplinary records – and campaigned on doing more to support the police. He promised to shift disciplinary oversight from a Public Safety Board, with all five members appointed by the mayor, to a Police Merit Commission, with two members selected by officers. Neese received the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police, and, after taking office, delivered on his promise.
In the 10 years before Windbigler took over, three prior police chiefs brought an average of 20 disciplinary cases a year to the department’s oversight board.
In Windbigler’s first year, 2016, he did not bring forward a single case.
At the end of 2016, members of the Police Department voted for officer of the year. The honor is traditionally reserved for someone from the rank and file, not an administrator.
But that year was an exception.
Officers voted overwhelmingly for Windbigler.
‘Out of control’
A quarter century ago, Elkhart faced a string of civil rights lawsuits in which former officers said they had witnessed cover-ups and policing gone awry. One said police would rush into a low-income apartment complex to make people scatter, then chase whoever ran.
In 1993, a jury in federal court returned judgments against five Elkhart officers accused of violating the rights of two black men.
One plaintiff, Robert Tiggs, said that in 1989 he was leaving a club through a narrow vestibule when he bumped into Windbigler, a patrolman at the time. As he tried to slide past, Windbigler pushed him, Tiggs said. Another police officer then sprayed Tiggs with mace, after which he was hit, choked and called a racial slur, Tiggs said.
Windbigler said that Tiggs raised his voice after they ran into each other, and that Tiggs pushed him with his finger and was “very belligerent and mouthy.” Tiggs was being disorderly, Windbigler said. Asked what constituted disorderly conduct, Windbigler testified, “Raise your voice to the extent where other people pay attention to you.”
The jury found against Windbigler, ordering him to pay $5,000 in punitive damages. Afterward, he was suspended for three days. The Public Safety Board wrote to him, “You lacked a level of tolerance and self-control so important to those who succeed in your chosen career.”
In the lawsuit, portions of the Police Department’s complaint logs from the late ’80s and early ’90s were disclosed. They showed that in one 16-month period, Windbigler was named in seven complaints in addition to the one filed by Tiggs. Five alleged brutality or battery. In one, a 28-year-old man said he was “arrested for no good reason, that he was beaten and his glasses were broken.” The personnel file for Windbigler, provided by the city, does not show him being disciplined in any of these other cases.
The other plaintiff in the 1993 trial, Demetrius Pegues, alleged that Elkhart’s Police Department was “out of control” and covered up misconduct.
Pegues accused Elkhart police officer Steve Ambrose of punching and choking him during an arrest; then beating him in a small room at the police station; then beating him again in the hospital emergency room while Pegues was handcuffed to a bed. Ambrose denied beating Pegues at any of those times.
At the trial, three former police officers testified to seeing Ambrose or his partner striking people in the city jail or hospital, or both. One said she informed a fellow officer, “and I was told to keep my mouth shut or I’d get fired.” A woman who had been a hospital secretary and nurse’s aide testified that she saw Ambrose and his partner beating prisoners in the emergency room. Pegues’ lawyer asked how many times. “We’re looking at over 20-plus,” the witness answered. (She also testified to seeing Windbigler strike a prisoner in the ER. Windbigler, subsequently called to the stand, testified that he had “never seen anybody touched” at the hospital by a police officer.)
The jury found against Ambrose, ordering him to pay $50,000 in punitive damages. The Police Department suspended him for five days. But Ambrose kept his job.
After the verdicts, Elkhart commissioned a study of its Police Department. Co-authored by a former New York City police commissioner, that study was released in 1994. It found that Elkhart’s recent history was marked by an exceedingly high number of brutality complaints, coupled with a lack of accountability.
Some Elkhart officers were proud of the department’s reputation for being “liberal with the stick,” the study said. In addition, the Fraternal Order of Police – its president in 1994 was Bruce Davidson, an officer who later became a serial bank robber and is now in federal prison – bristled at civilian oversight. The FOP “has repeatedly complained that the Chief does not provide leadership because he is a ‘puppet’ of the Mayor,” the report said.
But the report’s authors said that view of a city’s leadership was fundamentally wrong. The mayor, who is elected, appoints the chief and is responsible for every officer: “Civilian control of the military and police is absolutely necessary in a free society. Without it, the characteristics of a police state inevitably appear.”
In 1995, the year after the report was released, Ambrose shot and killed Derrick Conner, a 22-year-old black man, during a chase on foot. Ambrose said he fired in self-defense. Conner’s family maintained that Conner was unarmed, and filed suit.
Ambrose was deposed in the spring of 1997.
“Have you ever referred to blacks as niggers?” a lawyer asked Ambrose.
“Yes,” Ambrose said.
Asked if he had used the word while working, Ambrose said yes. Asked if other white officers used the word, Ambrose said yes. More than once? “Yes.” By more than one officer? “Yes.”
The city elected not to go to trial. The lawsuit was settled for $400,000.
Attempts to reach Ambrose by phone and in writing were unsuccessful.
Recently, the city’s oversight of police has again become an issue.
Last year, when the city reduced the mayor’s role in police oversight, Windbigler supported the change, saying he had seen “vindictiveness” toward police from past mayors.
But Elkhart’s more recent history challenges the notion that the police have been subjected to unduly harsh oversight.
In a 2011 meeting, the Board of Public Safety’s chairwoman, Jean Barton, questioned whether the Police Department had properly notified the board about an officer accused of groping women and other sexual misconduct.
She subsequently resigned when Mayor Dick Moore criticized her for conducting the meeting in what he called “a less than professional manner,” according to The Elkhart Truth.
Reporters recently listened to a recording of that meeting: Barton asked direct questions of the chief and a city attorney, but nothing more. “In the meeting I just repeated the same question three times,” Barton said in an interview. “The attorney and the chief of police went to the mayor and said I was rude.”
‘A learning experience’
Sergeants are critical first-line supervisors sometimes referred to as a police department’s backbone. Elkhart’s 19 sergeants include Scott Garvey and Jack Oldroyd, two officers who, combined, have been suspended for almost 100 days.
Hired in 2001, Garvey was reprimanded or suspended three times in his first year, his probationary period.
After “being told numerous times not to” use police communications equipment for anything but law-enforcement purposes, Garvey “blatantly violated” the prohibition, according to a letter of reprimand in January 2002. Garvey used a police communications network to “talk about white power” – “something that should have never been stated anywhere [and] could be construed as a racist remark by anyone,” a captain wrote.
One week later, Garvey was suspended for two days. After pulling over women drivers, he didn’t issue tickets or warnings. Instead, he slapped their hands – literally, according to a disciplinary letter from a captain. Confronted by supervisors, Garvey admitted “he had done this 2 or 3 times,” the captain wrote. “Moments later it went to 3 to 4 times, and before he left the office it was up to 5 or 6 times.”
“I suggest that you consider this matter a learning experience,” the police chief at the time wrote to Garvey.
Six months later, Garvey was reprimanded again – this time, according to a letter from the police chief, after being accused of “handcuffing a young lady and putting her into your squad car to illustrate that she would not want to be arrested.”
In 2001, Garvey was reprimanded for causing a crash. “I hope this will be a lesson learned,” an assistant chief wrote. Garvey was subsequently disciplined for causing crashes in 2003, 2006, 2008 and 2011. In 2010 he hit another car on his way to work, sending the other driver to the hospital, according to a story in The Elkhart Truth.
In one year alone, 2003, Garvey received three suspensions and five reprimands.
In 2005, Garvey was reprimanded for failing to appear in court when subpoenaed. “I trust this will not happen again in the future,” a police captain wrote. Exactly one week later, it happened again, and Garvey was suspended.
Garvey has been written up repeatedly for failing to keep his mobile recording system on when answering calls. “This type of behavior will not be tolerated,” the police chief wrote in Garvey’s first suspension for this violation. “I find this inexcusable,” wrote an assistant chief seven years later, when Garvey was suspended a fifth time for the same misconduct.
One police chief wrote to Garvey: “you don’t listen to others.”
Garvey’s longest suspension, for 15 days, was issued in 2011; an investigation by one of Garvey’s superiors turned up 13 cases in which Garvey’s work as an evidence technician was unacceptable or incomplete. “Something needs to happen that will correct your behavior,” the police chief wrote.
Last year, Windbigler promoted Garvey to sergeant. By that time Garvey had 11 suspensions, 15 reprimands and one verbal warning.
A reporter recently reviewed Garvey’s personnel history with Matthew Hickman, chair of Seattle University’s criminal justice department and a former statistician at the U.S. Department of Justice. “He was promoted in the wake of all this?” Hickman said, scanning the suspensions and reprimands. “That’s very strange. … I have no explanation for this. … This is bizarre.”
Hickman is one of the few scholars to have researched police discipline. He said scholarship is scant, because it can be hard to get records, and disciplinary systems are a hodgepodge, making comparisons difficult.
Garvey was reached recently by phone, at work. “It’s part of my career,” he told a reporter, when asked about his disciplinary record. “I’ve not shied away from any of it, the mistakes I’ve made. … I’ve learned from everything in there.”
Garvey said he never once asked to have a write-up removed from his file, no matter how far back. “Because I’m a man of integrity,” he said. “I own those mistakes.”
Garvey said police work is stressful, with lots of opportunity to make mistakes and to make people unhappy: “It’s a noble profession. We don’t like idiots, either. You may look at my file and say I’m one of those idiots. But I’m not.”
A reporter went through Garvey’s file with him. “You know how much time we spend driving as a police officer?” Garvey said of his car crashes. Combine humans with technology, mistakes will happen, he said of his failures to record. Missed court dates sometimes trace to miscommunication with a court clerk, he said.
Slapping hands? He didn’t do that, Garvey said. He told one woman – not six – he was giving her a proverbial slap on the wrist, and the story got twisted on its way up the department. White power? Whatever he typed back then on that data terminal, “it wasn’t racial,” Garvey said. “That’s the furthest thing from who I am.”
“My career has turned around,” Garvey said. For four years, he was president of the local Fraternity of Police, elected by his fellow officers, Garvey said. He is currently a sergeant in the services division, repairing everything from air conditioners to video equipment. “There’s not a damn thing broken that I can’t fix,” he said.
Jack Oldroyd joined the department in 2002, a year after Garvey.
One night in 2006, while on patrol near downtown, Oldroyd noticed a woman in a Chevy parked along the street. As he drove past, the woman appeared to slide down in the driver’s seat, Oldroyd would later testify.
Oldroyd asked the woman to step out, but she refused, gripping the steering wheel, according to court records. Oldroyd hit her arm, then opened the door and tried to pull her out. Another officer arrived and pushed from the passenger side. Oldroyd tasered the woman. She kicked his leg. He unleashed a dog, which bit her arm and shoulder. The officers then got her on the ground and applied handcuffs.
Inside the car, Oldroyd found what he believed to be crack cocaine, according to court records. The woman was charged with two felonies, including battery on a police officer, and three misdemeanors. She spent three months in jail before she could post bail.
A year and a half after the arrest, all charges were dropped. A judge ruled that Oldroyd had no legal basis for detaining the woman in the first place. Even if she had been trying to avoid his eye – something the woman disputed – that did not constitute reasonable suspicion of a crime, the judge said.
When the woman was arrested, she was carrying a sock. It held her driver’s license; her Medicaid, food-stamp and ATM cards; a key; some change; and contact information for family and friends.
The next day, a janitor at the Police Department found the sock and all it held in a garbage can.
Oldroyd told superiors he’d thought about handing the items off to a jail officer for safekeeping, but instead just threw them away.
Oldroyd was charged with conversion, a misdemeanor, and pleaded guilty. In 2007, a judge sentenced him to a year’s probation and ordered him to pay $359 in fines and court costs.
The police chief demoted Oldroyd and suspended him for 60 days. A letter from the chief to the Public Safety Board commended Oldroyd for showing remorse and cooperating with the internal investigation. “He advised his actions were those of being lazy and stupid as opposed to intentionally depriving the suspect of the property,” the chief wrote.
At a Board of Public Safety meeting in April 2007, one member, according to the minutes, warned that the board “would be watching and there would be no second chance.”
Five years later, in 2012, the police chief suspended Oldroyd for five days for his “extreme state of intoxication” and behavior while away at training.
Oldroyd attended the state K9 workshop, in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, with another Elkhart officer. One night, after a trip to a strip bar, they brought a woman back to a hotel room. While the woman lay naked, Oldroyd “was touching the female” as the other officer took video, according to an internal affairs report.
Soon “everybody staying in the hotel, as well as the other officers at the training event, was aware of the behavior and actions of both of our officers,” a department official wrote. The report’s next two and a half pages are blacked out, leaving many details unclear.
In 2016, Oldroyd was promoted to sergeant during Windbigler’s first month as chief. Reached by phone, Oldroyd told a reporter that he would ask higher-ups if he could talk about his disciplinary record, but he never called back.
‘Less talking more shooting’
Last year, one night in June, an Elkhart police sergeant went on Facebook and posted a video of a shootout between police in Maryland and an armed robbery suspect.
The sergeant, who, by then, had opened fire in two fatal shootings by Elkhart police, singled out a woman officer who could be heard updating the suspect’s position.
“I don’t think that lady could have possibly talked on the radio more,” he wrote.
Two other Elkhart officers chimed in. Each of them had also fired their guns in at least one fatal shooting by police.
“Hold all traffic and go to battle,” one wrote.
“Yeah less talking more shooting,” wrote the other.
The sergeant who started this thread was Daniel Mayer, a former Marine who had joined the department in 2011.
In November 2013, Mayer had been one of three officers who shot and killed a 31-year-old man in a stolen pickup. The man was backing toward them, police said. His mother filed a wrongful-death suit, which the city settled for $21,000. The Police Department awarded the three officers medals of valor. (Five other officers involved in fatal shootings received medals at the same ceremony.)
In September 2014, Mayer was one of seven officers who killed a 32-year-old man in an Elkhart apartment complex, shooting him approximately 20 times. Police said the man, who was wanted, had fired at them first.
Mayer was a frequent presence on Facebook. In 2015, he posted a meme of Smokey Bear, holding an assault rifle, instead of a shovel. “Only you can return fire,” the meme said. In 2016, he posted a video of an inmate in Wisconsin who punched a corrections officer and was then swarmed and tackled. Mayer wrote of one male corrections officer who hung back: “Look at Blondie in top left…scared.”
In December 2017, Mayer and another officer shot and killed a bank robbery suspect – Mayer’s third fatal shooting in four years.
The officer who wrote “go to battle” in the June 2017 Facebook exchange was James Ballard, a corporal.
In September 2013, Ballard had been one of three officers involved in the fatal shooting of a 27-year-old man armed with a handgun. That proved the first in a string in which Elkhart police shot and killed six people in less than five years. In nearby South Bend, which has twice the population, officers shot and killed two people during the same span.
The officer who wrote “less talking more shooting” was Drew Neese, who went by “Bobby Drewski” on Facebook and is the mayor’s son.
Like Mayer, Neese was a sergeant. Also like Mayer, Neese was one of the officers who opened fire in the 2014 fatal shooting in which a man was hit approximately 20 times.
On Facebook, Neese changed his profile picture frequently. One time it was an illustration of President Donald Trump, atop a tank, holding what appears to be a .50-caliber sniper rifle. Another time it was Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, pointing that famous .44 Magnum.
In 2010, Neese had shot a dog while executing a search warrant. He fired 13 times, a review board determined. No one knew exactly where all the bullets hit. At least two apparently struck a house, according to a disciplinary letter. Neese began shooting “much too early,” when the dog was about 35 feet away, the letter said. One witness said the dog didn’t even charge Neese until after the shooting started.
The police chief, in a letter, told Neese he “could have easily” killed someone. He reprimanded Neese and ordered him to get remedial training on gun safety.
Neese was in the news this month, when the Tribune obtained the video of two other Elkhart police officers punching a handcuffed man. Neese was the only supervisor in the room when the beating took place. The video shows him walking over as the beating ends and talking into his radio.
Mayer, Ballard and Neese did not respond to interview requests. Days after a reporter asked Mayor Neese about his son’s words on social media, the page for Bobby Drewski was gone from Facebook.
Of the seven current supervisors in Elkhart who have opened fire in a fatal shooting, none was disciplined as a result. But Todd Thayer, the department’s current assistant chief, landed in trouble after one of the shootings, though he did not fire his gun.
After the September 2013 fatal shooting by three officers, Thayer, then a lieutenant, said one of the three, a friend of his, could “now check shooting someone or being involved in a shooting off his bucket list,” according to disciplinary records. Two witnesses also reported that Thayer said he was jealous of his friend.
During an internal investigation, Thayer acknowledged the “bucket list” comment but said he was joking. He stated that he did not remember saying he was jealous. Facing a possible disciplinary hearing, he volunteered to be demoted two full ranks, down to corporal. He also resigned his positions instructing other officers. Thayer had been teaching firearms and use of force.
‘A good olive branch’
Drew Neese’s father, Tim, a Republican, served in the Indiana House of Representatives from 2003 through 2014. In 2015, he ran for mayor of Elkhart. His platform included reducing the mayor’s police oversight role.
The Fraternal Order of Police endorsed Neese and contributed $1,900 to his campaign, one of his larger donations.
Neese won with 64 percent of the vote, defeating incumbent Democrat Dick Moore. Nine people interviewed to be police chief. They included Windbigler, who had run that same year for city council but lost in the Republican primary. After Windbigler lost the council race, his committee, “Citizens to Elect Ed Windbigler,” donated $443 to Neese.
In December 2015, Neese announced that Windbigler was his choice as chief.
“Windbigler said Neese made it clear that he wants all of the city’s officers going home at night without second-guessing themselves and the decisions they make,” WSBT-TV, a local CBS affiliate, reported at the time. The story quoted Windbigler saying, “The more an officer knows they are supported from their own administration – no matter what happens – if that support is there, they’re going to feel better about their job.”
Neese, in a recent interview, said he was impressed with Windbigler’s military background, his work as chief investigator for the county prosecutor’s office and the fact he’d climbed his way through the Police Department’s ranks. The mayor said Windbigler’s 1993 suspension and jury verdict in the civil rights trial never came up in the hiring process.
Windbigler also received five reprimands between 1989 and 2002, according to a disciplinary summary sheet released to the Tribune this week. Three were for crashes. The summaries for the other two say: “As a supervisor, set a poor example in the importance of a good pat down search”; and “inappropriate behavior displayed in front of constituents, set a better example for others to follow.”
While selecting Windbigler as chief, Neese also tapped a retired police officer for another city job. To run the department that gets called upon in case of flooding, tornadoes or other disasters, Neese appointed John Faigh, who, as a police officer, had been disciplined at least 20 times for incompetence, insubordination and other violations of policy. Once, while on duty as a field supervisor, Faigh had been found in a cemetery, in his squad car, “laying across the passenger seat, sleeping.”
Neese said he did not know of Faigh’s disciplinary record when he hired him to run the emergency management department. Faigh did not return messages seeking comment. In 2009, when questioned by the public safety board about his disciplinary record, he said, “In no manner have I ever disgraced the Elkhart Police Department, myself, or my credibility.”
Consistent with his campaign pledge, Neese got approval from the Elkhart Common Council in November 2016 to shift disciplinary authority from the Board of Public Safety to a new police merit commission. Windbigler supported the move.
While the mayor appointed all five members of the Board of Public Safety, the merit commission includes two members selected by the Police Department, along with two mayoral appointees and one member chosen by the Common Council.
Neese said some police officers told him that under the Board of Public Safety, previous mayors had rewarded loyalists with promotions, hurting morale.
At a meeting of the city’s Common Council, Windbigler asserted that he had seen unfair treatment of police by prior mayors.
“We’ve all been around long enough where we have seen some vindictiveness come from different administrations,” Windbigler told the council, without providing any examples. He called the merit commission a “good olive branch to pass out” to the Police Department.
The council voted 6-1 in favor of the change.
One of the six, Republican Adam Bujalski, called it one of the “easiest things I’m gonna say yes to that we’ve done all year,” partly because, for police, the change was “one of the reasons they supported (Neese) coming in … because this is something he promised them.”
Bujalski noted that police would now “have a say in who’s going to be disciplining them.”
The merit commission’s president, Jim Rieckhoff, is one of the two members selected by the Police Department. In an interview, Rieckhoff, a former Elkhart Superior Court judge, praised Windbigler as a “man of high integrity and honor,” and said officer morale has improved on his watch. “People are smiling around the workplace,” Rieckhoff said. “They seem to be supportive of each other.”
Windbigler has not brought the commission any cases in which he is pursuing a suspension exceeding five days, the threshold requiring commission approval, Rieckhoff said. The commission’s meetings are often short. Sometimes they’re just canceled. “And I like it that way,” Rieckhoff said. “It’s a good thing, in the sense that it implies things are going well.”
In 2017, Windbigler brought five disciplinary cases to the commission. This year, through October, he has brought three – all reprimands, including those for the two officers who were videotaped beating the handcuffed man.
Rieckhoff said that when signing off on promotions, the commission doesn’t ask about disciplinary histories. A reporter told Rieckhoff about the personnel files that showed most supervisors had been disciplined and 15 suspended.
“I had no idea there were that many,” Rieckhoff said. “As far as I can tell, they do good work.”
Elkhart Common Council member Dwight Fish, a Democrat who represents a district with a large minority population, cast the lone vote against creating the Police Merit Commission. On Nov. 6, he went on Facebook to comment on a Tribune story about the two police officers who beat a handcuffed man. The story also identified two other officers who had been in the room at the time – Drew Neese, and the president of the local Fraternal Order of Police.
Fish addressed his words to the mayor: “Don’t BULLSHIT … Everyone involved (and watching) in this incident needs to be reprimanded and discipline action taken. Police Chief Windbigler will have to work very hard to repair the damage to the psyche of the citizens. All the work I’ve been doing to repair and heal the fear on the Southside is now gone because of an aggressive and violent police force. Gone in an instant because of short tempers and a non-compassionate EPD. I am ashamed of this city right now.”
In a recent interview, Fish said any police force has examples of misconduct threaded through its history, but he had never seen anything “this dramatic and this violent,” and he was “disgusted” with Neese and Windbigler for not doing more to deal with the January beating.
“My constituents are mad as hell,” he said. “My constituents are scared as hell.”
After the Tribune and ProPublica published video of the beating, Tim Neese said the Police Department would create a new board to review uses of force.
He said the board would be made up of five people – and all five would be police officers, including an assistant chief, a captain and an internal affairs lieutenant.
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