ELKHART — On a sunny summer afternoon on West Garfield Avenue, children played in front yards and on sidewalks while adults gathered on front porches to talk.
Then one child glanced down the street and yelled, “Twelve!” Another child followed suit. Then the others.
The word, a slang term to signify police presence, rippled quickly from one voice to the next down the sidewalk. Each child echoed it then froze in place.
Moments later, a black and white police car drove slowly down the street.
The role of law enforcement is to protect and serve, but that is a difficult job when the community like the one on West Garfield Avenue says it cannot trust its protectors.
Residents say they have been targeted by police for a long time. They talk about how police wait in alleyways and pull out, lights flashing, to stop people the moment they leave their driveways. Or how they write $125 jaywalking tickets to kids crossing the street to visit a friend’s house.
For those reasons, West Garfield residents are not shy about voicing their distrust of law enforcement.
Police, meanwhile, must patrol an area where residents are openly distrustful and sometimes unwilling to cooperate.
Understanding these conflicting perspectives helps explain how a fight between an Elkhart officer and a visiting Chicago man escalated so quickly on July 3 following a heated exchange.
A cell phone video recorded by a bystander only shows the final portion of the fight, when police began handcuffing 21-year-old Reese T. Haithcox and escorted him to a cruiser.
Haithcox is still at the Elkhart County Jail on $75,000 bond and faces seven charges, including aggravated battery, battery on a police officer, disarming a law enforcement officer, resisting arrest, fleeing police and obstructing traffic.
The officer, Cpl. Dustin Young, is recovering from his injuries, including a fractured eye socket, said Elkhart Police Assistant Chief Laura Koch. He has not returned to work per doctor’s orders.
Police and Garfield Avenue neighbors tell different stories about two major points during the fight: what happened during the beginning of the interaction between Young and Haithcox, and how Haithcox grabbed at the waistband of his pants.
While police won’t offer additional information right now, Cpl. Cody Skipper presented the police’s version of events in a probable cause affidavit for Haithcox’ arrest. That court record was filed in Elkhart Superior Court 5.
According to the affidavit, Young was driving down West Garfield Ave. and saw Haithcox in the street.
“He announced over his loud speaker for the male to move off the road,” the affidavit states.
All residents interviewed by The Elkhart Truth agreed that Haithcox was on the side of the street talking to a woman in a parked car — that he wasn’t, as police said, in the middle of the street blocking traffic.
Constance Warner was sitting in the back seat of the car and asked Haithcox to get in so she could show him a letter, she said.
Bystanders say Young drove up to Haithcox and yelled at him to “get the (expletive) out of the street.”
Residents and the affidavit state that the pair exchanged angry words. According to the affidavit, Haithcox responded to Young’s order by yelling “(expletive) you!”
Young then got out of his car and asked to see Haithcox’s identification, according to both sides.
That’s when Haithcox reached into his pants waistband several times and did not remove his hand from the waistband when ordered by Young, the affidavit states. At that point, the report states Young, perceiving a threat, radioed for backup and grabbed Haithcox by the arm to remove his hand from the waistband.
Some bystanders said Haithcox had reached into his waistband to grab his I.D., as Young had requested.
“(Haithcox) went to reach for his ID and Young launched at him and he launched at Young,” said Lottie Smart, who watched the fight from the front porch of her home, about 20 yards from where it started.
And another bystander — Warner — said Haithcox was simply trying to hold up his pants, which had been missing a drawstring.
’ATTITUDE BEGETS ATTITUDE’
To the residents of Garfield Avenue, this interaction shows how an officer’s approach and tone can escalate an already tense situation.
Neighbors say they feel one of the biggest problems with law enforcement in the area is the tone and language some officers use with residents.
"Attitude begets attitude,“ said Nicole Williams, 43, a longtime Garfield Avenue resident who has since moved to another home on a nearby street. “If I treat you with respect, saying ’yes sir’ and ’no sir,’ you should treat me with respect.”
"They have to learn to approach it in a better way,” said Kizzy Harper, 37, another resident of the neighborhood.
While some residents are quick to name specific officers they feel have treated them poorly, they can just as quickly rattle off a list of a half dozen officers they say have always treated them fairly and with respect.
Other details about the fight remain scarce.
The Elkhart County Prosecutor’s office rejected a public records request from The Elkhart Truth for audio and video recordings from police cruiser dash cameras because the recordings are part of an investigation against Haithcox. That footage won’t be available until the case is closed.
The Elkhart Truth also submitted public records requests to the Elkhart Police Department and Elkhart 911 Communications Center. These requests are still being reviewed by legal advisers for the City of Elkhart.
Police are reluctant to disclose more details because of the ongoing court case.
Haithcox appeared for an initial hearing on his charges on Monday, July 14, at the Elkhart County Jail, according to Heather Norman of the Elkhart County Prosecutor’s office.
Haithcox entered a preliminary plea of not guilty and was appointed an attorney from the Elkhart County Public Defender. The date of his next hearing was not yet available Wednesday afternoon, July 16.
Meanwhile, many Garfield Avenue residents gathered Tuesday evening, July 15, to share their concerns over police in the community with city officials at an event hosted by the Elkhart Community Roundtable.
Police and city officials, including Mayor Dick Moore, will be at another community meeting at 7 p.m. Friday, July 18 at Agape Missionary Baptist Church, 248 W. Wolf Ave, hosted by the Elkhart County Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance