ELKHART — Almost a year after the Elkhart Police Department faced national scrutiny over an alleged cover-up of police brutality, a proposed Use of Force Review Board has yet to be formed and no news has come from an independent review of the department.
The City Council on Feb. 21 approved Mayor Tim Neese’s request to fund an independent review of the Elkhart Police Department, costing $146,800. Indianapolis-based law firm Krieg DeVault was chosen for the task and said it would be done in nine months and that they would give an update after three or four months.
Neese said he has had meetings and conference calls with Krieg DeVault and is pleased with the process. But what he learned in those meetings was not passed on to the public.
“Because there’s not anything at this point that’s finalized,” Neese said.
The mayor said Krieg DeVault has focused on policies including pursuits and use of force. Michael Mattox, 31, and Cory Wright, 29, died in June after crashing their vehicles in separate police pursuits.
The review should conclude in October, Neese said. Krieg DeVault partner and former U.S. Attorney Deborah Daniels is leading the review with the help of the nonprofit organization Police Executive Research Forum.
She promised “ongoing feedback to the police and to the mayor” during the project.
The review includes on-site interviews and focus groups, review of complaints against police department personnel and the department’s disciplinary process, a culture assessment of the department and reviews of use of force and the accountability, investigation, documentation and training related to use of force, according to a letter from Daniels.
When the City Council approved the funding for the review, Councilman Brent Curry, D-5, emphasized the importance of being able to monitor the nine-month-long review.
Daniels said at the time that she and her team would be doing the review “on the ground” in Elkhart and would be visible in the community.
“They had meetings with police officers, people from the public, they spoke with police administration, so yeah, they were here,” said Neese on Wednesday.
Use of Force Review Board
In early 2018, shortly after Neese had suspended then Chief of Police Ed Windbigler whom Neese would later ask to resign, the mayor proposed the creation of a Use of Force Review Board, which would help determine whether use of force incidents are excessive.
Windbigler, in the case that led to his resignation, had told the Police Merit Commission that officers had “gone a little overboard,” when in fact they had punched a handcuffed suspect to the ground and hit him in the head multiple times after he spat at them.
However, the creation of a Use of Force Review Board was halted over a discussion of who should be on the board. Neese originally proposed that it would consist of police officers, but members of the Board of Public Safety, as well as members of the public, said it would be better to include civilians.
That was heavily opposed, at first, by then Interim Police Chief Todd Thayer, who led the department after Windbigler was suspended until current Chief of Police Chris Snyder was appointed in January.
“To bring somebody in that isn’t familiar with police tactics, police use of force, how our level of force is used – that would be difficult to bring somebody in and have them evaluate something that they don’t have any experience in,” Thayer said in December.
Thayer, who since moved back to the role as assistant chief, later opened up to having civilians on the board, as did Neese. But in March, during a town hall hosted by the mayor, he said it was proving difficult to find members for the board.
“I have actually attempted to do some recruiting of people, because I am firm that we need a combination of law enforcement and citizens, but after telling the citizens – the potential people (on the board) – that this is time-consuming, we want them to spend time with officers in ride-alongs, that these can be very in-depth, time-consuming meetings, they’re not quite as interested,” Neese said.
The mayor had provided no updates on the review board or the review of the department since March, and a proposal to create a review board has not come back to the Board of Public Safety.
“I have no reason to think that that won’t occur,” Neese said last week.
He suggested that the creation of the board would have to wait until the review of the police department is concluded, though that was never brought up publicly when the creation of the board was in the works earlier this year.
Neese then said he may also want to create a Citizens’ Review Board that would work with the chief of police. That idea has come up during Krieg DeVault’s review process.
“Discussions and meetings that we’ve had with people from within the department, as well as outside of the department, I think will ultimately give us better results,” said Neese.
Officers Cory Newland and Joshua Titus, who punched a handcuffed suspect to the ground, face federal charges for civil rights violations. State battery charges were dismissed by Elkhart County Prosecutor Vicki Becker when a U.S. attorney indicted the officers, who are currently suspended without pay. Their cases are pending.
Follow Rasmus S. Jorgensen on Twitter at @ReadRasmus