ELKHART — Mayor Tim Neese, Police Chief Chris Snyder and independent reviewers on Thursday proposed policy changes to the Elkhart Police Department as a consequence of a review that began after revelations of police brutality in 2018.
The 84-page review suggests making policy changes in several areas, including use of force, internal investigations and vehicle pursuits.
"There's probably 90 recommendations, give or take, inside of this report," said Tom Wilson, director of applied research and management at Police Executive Research Forum, which completed the review in collaboration with the law firm Krieg DeVault.
"A number of these things talk about that value of life, that sanctity of life, and ensuring that the officers know that that's what this agency is about," he said.
A common thread through the recommendations, therefore, is about de-escalating situations. Specifically, the review recommends adding a definition of de-escalation to the department's use-of-force policy. It is also advised that the department put a larger focus on making sure that force is proportional to the threat, including making considerations of "whether there is another, less injurious option available that will allow the officer to achieve the same objective as effectively and safely."
No officials would discuss the incident that led to the review, when a handcuffed suspect at the police station spat at an officer and two officers, Cory Newland and Joshua Titus, repeatedly punched him in the face. A federal civil rights case against those officers is set for March.
The number of use-of-force incidents has been steady in 2016, 2017 and 2018, growing from 285 to 304 per year in that period, the report said. But the report found that black residents are disproportionally the target of force, as 15% of the Elkhart population is black but 34% to 43% of use-of-force incidents target blacks.
Police Executive Research Forum and Krieg DeVault suggested removing parts of existing policies. That included subsection B of the department's taser policy, which currently states officers can use the device when "the subject has demonstrated, by words or action, an intention to be violent or to physically resist, and reasonably appears to present the potential to harm officers, him/herself or others."
That policy is against best practice, the review states, adding that tasers should only be used when subjects are actively resisting or aggressive.
Just this week, the Elkhart Board of Public Safety approved a new policy to allow the use of less-lethal launchers, which the Police Department described as a tool similar to a taser but deployable from up to 80 yards.
The review also covers police shootings, including shooting at or from a moving vehicle.
A civilian, Norman Gary, died in 2016 as a result of officers Nathan Lanzen and Leonard Dolshenko shooting at his vehicle. The officers claimed he was using the vehicle as a weapon, and a grand jury decided that criminal charges would not be filed against them. However, Gary's sister has filed a civil lawsuit, which is pending.
Should the Board of Public Safety approve the proposed change, officers would not be allowed to shoot if that situation happened again.
"Shooting at or from a moving vehicle is prohibited unless someone inside the vehicle is using or threatening lethal force against an officer or another person by means other than the vehicle itself," the suggested policy says.
The only suggested exception is if the vehicle is being used as a weapon of mass destruction.
Following two fatal vehicle pursuits in which suspects died after crashing their vehicles this summer, Neese asked Krieg DeVault and Police Executive Research Forum to add vehicle pursuits to their review.
They found that 92% of chases began for reasons other than suspected felonies. They also found 62% of reasons for pursuit were traffic-related, not including suspicion of intoxication.
Elkhart police should dramatically change their pursuit policy, the report said, as best practice is to pursue only suspected violent felons.
"This is because oftentimes, the risk of initiating a high-speed chase may outweigh the risk posed by the driver," and because modern technology often allows officers to find offenders at a later time if they escape, according to the review.
The report stated that 28% of the 149 Elkhart Police Department vehicle pursuits between Jan. 1, 2016, and Dec. 31, 2018, resulted in crashes. Of those, 14% resulted in injuries. It also said 52% of chases went through residential neighborhoods and 21% reached speeds of 90 mph or above.
Part of the review process concerned feedback from community members. The review found that the Police Department suffers from a trust deficit, which community members said stems from misconduct by officers, inconsistent discipline and promotions, malfunctioning body cameras and an absence of community policing.
Residents indicated that the Board of Public Safety and the Police Merit Commission, which are charged with overseeing the department but have little power over disciplinary cases that are not severe, are perceived as less effective than they might be and not fully trained in their duties.
To improve oversight, the city should merge existing and proposed review boards to form a Critical Incident Review Board that would investigate all serious uses of force, injuries and complaints. It is unclear whether that board, if created, would include civilians. One of the previously proposed boards that would be merged into the Critical Incident Review Board is the Use of Force Review Board, which Neese has said should include civilians.
Residents also suggested that the department has cultural issues that include racism, according to the report. The number of African Americans arrested is disproportionate to the size of the demographic group in the city, respondents said.
Recommendations to address that issue included recruiting more "young African American potential officers from the south side of the city" and putting officers through more cultural training.
Hispanic residents also shared a concern that they are treated unfairly. Examples included being stopped and asked to show a green card while simply walking down the street.
The review found an unhealthy approach to discipline within the department under former Chief Ed Windbigler, who was asked to resign late last year as a result of revelations of these issues.
"Even officers, including supervisory officers, tend to decry the lack of discipline in recent years. The former chief’s near-abandonment of discipline is said to have been intended to build morale, which he felt was low when he arrived; but it appears to have injured both the public reputation of the Department and the morale of its officers," the report said.
Additionally, the promotion of multiple officers after they had been disciplined in the past has led to a community perception of a lack of appropriate leadership.
"Even the members of the Department themselves told us that the lack of discipline and accountability has led newer officers to exceed acceptable boundaries. In addition, a lack of training on new policies, including the focus on sanctity of life in the use-of-force policy, leaves particularly younger officers in the position of focusing almost exclusively on defensive tactics and methods of using less-lethal weapons rather than on how to successfully defuse situations and reduce the need for force," the report said.
It was recommended that the department create an advisory board of citizens to facilitate the flow of information between the department and the community, especially regarding what actions by the police are harmful to their relationship with the community.
Snyder said these changes and others should prevent a situation such as when Newland and Titus beat a handcuffed suspect from being kept from the public again.
Improving trust is difficult once it has been broken, residents said. But the new chief is perceived positively, "which provides a tremendous opportunity for the chief to assist in improving the EPD's relationship with local residents," the report said.
Snyder became chief in January after Windbigler had resigned. As Mayor-elect Rod Roberson succeeds Neese on Jan. 1, it is uncertain whether Snyder will keep his position.
Snyder said that, though the nine-month review costing $146,800 is over, more work remains.
"Now that we have the report in its entirety, we can dig into it deeper," he said. "At their recommendation, we will continue to update policies, conduct department reviews, implement new training and deploy new technology for equipment."
He promised that the department will do a "much better" job at documenting the actions of officers.
Neese said he took great pride in announcing the completion of the review. He said it was important to him that the review be released to the public in its entirety. It can be found at the Police Department's website.
"From day 1, this process has been about transparency," Neese said.
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