It has been implied by local news outlets that the majority of Elkhart Police Department’s leadership is disqualified to lead due to numerous disciplinary actions levied against them in the past. Stories have painted a dark narrative of a department once filled with brutality and racism somehow transferring it to the present. This same narrative implied EPD’s current chief, Ed Windbigler, brought that mindset with him and therein lies a clue as to why discipline rates have plummeted and officers have become emboldened to become heavy-handed.
The problem is that it’s not true.
Chief Windbigler honorably served his country as a U.S. Marine whose duties included guarding former President Ronald Reagan on Marine One. In addition to 23 years of prior service with EPD, he served honorably as the chief investigator for the Elkhart County Prosecutor’s Office. Ed is one of the most respected law enforcement leaders in Elkhart County. Perfect? No. Sincere with a desire to learn and grow from mistakes? Yes. Working to provide the tools, training, equipment and environment to make his officers fulfilled and successful? Absolutely!
I have the opportunity to train law enforcement officers and chaplains around the country in implementing many of the psychological enrichment programs we’ve pioneered at EPD. I’ve personally asked them to share their greatest frustration with the profession. Survey says the No. 1 answer … Bad Leadership. Officers fully expect the public to be negative.
What eats their lives is that their greatest detractors often lie as leaders internally, using heavy-handed disciplinary measures to maintain control. That often takes place with the changing of the guard each election cycle in city police work. Political grudges, ill feelings and payback can be the norm in party changes. Chief Windbigler faced that challenge as he took the helm of EPD in 2016.
One of the first things Ed did was to clear the playing field. He told officers that his administration would not be involved in tit-for-tat politics. He told them that each member of his department would begin on an equal playing field … Their past was just that, their past… that from that minute forward they could put their best foot forward and shine. He worked to build an organizational structure that afforded the same opportunity to all his administrative leaders. He placed each where he thought their capabilities would best serve the needs of the organization and the community it serves. The department flourished and officers from other agencies, some with up to 17 years’ experience, joined our ranks.
Learning from failure is at the heart of the American experience. Our history is replete with examples of great leaders who made extremely bad decisions in the earlier stages of life only to rise to greatness afterwards. Police work is an extremely challenging profession that provides ample opportunity to make mistakes. All of us, including me as senior chaplain, have made them. All of us have grown and as a result I’m surrounded by many exceptional leaders because of it. I categorically reject the notion that those who make numerous mistakes are unqualified to lead. I also find it ironic that a reporter named Christian penned the article referenced. His very namesake consists of those who sit in gratitude for the second chance afforded them.”
Jim Bontrager is senior chaplain with the Elkhart Police Department.