We – the civilian residents, members of the police force and city government of Elkhart – are at a critical juncture. How we navigate through this time will have a long-term impact on the city’s health, trust and safety.
In response to the South Bend Tribune/ProPublica investigative report and accompanying police department video evidence, it is tempting to seek a quick fix – reducing what occurred to illegitimate use of force by two police officers and a subsequent minimization/hiding of their action by the chief of police. In such a case, the officers might be disciplined – possibly fired and the chief of police similarly dismissed for hiding the behavior of the officers from both the mayor and the Police Merit Commission. Such actions would reduce what we witnessed on the video to a problem of some bad actors. Severe action taken, we could move on – but little will have changed. While there must be individual responsibility and consequences in this situation, we must not stop there.
A police force is an integral part of the safety and health of a community. A community entrusts police officers with an awesome responsibility that includes the potential use of lethal force. It is vital for the health and safety of a community that the relationship between the members of the police force and community at large be one of trust built on transparency and accountability.
The police do not carry sole responsibility for community health and safety. This shared responsibility has both institutional and personal components. In the recent weeks, we have seen this trust violated by both a misuse of force and a subsequent lack of transparency and accountability. Will the current incidents hold our attention long enough for us to seek long-term changes to increase health and safety for both the public and the police – or will we settle for a short-term fix?
The current situation involves a suspect apprehended by the police on a charge of domestic violence. The suspect appears non-cooperative, refusing to exit the police car and we hear a warning about spitting. Once in the interrogation room, we hear an officer again tell the suspect not to spit. We also hear the officers taunting that if the suspect spits again “we’re going to party.” The suspect is taken out of the room to be photographed, returned and seated once more – still handcuffed. When the suspect then spits at one of the police officers that officer along with another knock him over backwards and begin to punch him repeatedly in the face.
We do not see the prior arrest, nor what has transpired between the officers and the suspect. We know that situations of domestic violence are often the most dangerous situations that police officers enter. We can expect that the arresting officers are still adrenaline charged. We cannot see nor measure the levels of stress and trauma that exist prior to this moment for either the officers or the suspect. The situation is ripe for a violent outburst.
We are seeing all of this some 11 months after the incident occurred. We know that at least four officers were present when this occurred. Shortly after the beating, numerous additional officers were present as the suspect, on a stretcher, is loaded on an ambulance. We know that the chief of police gave the officers written reprimands but minimized the incident in a report to the Police Merit Commission. Members of the commission were not shown (did they think to ask?) the video. Neither was the mayor openly apprised of the incident or the video. It was only after the video was requested by reporters that charges were filed against the officers involved in the incident.
The problem has not been an intrusive press nor the fact that we now have seen what took place.
There were clearly serious breakdowns in accountability throughout this past year. Trust has been diminished by what was kept hidden. We can (and should) hold individuals accountable for this. However, we must also change the systems of accountability. These need to be civilian-led and with the authority to access video evidence. But we must also build trust as a community toward the police.
Do we provide what is needed for training in methods of de-escalating violent situations? Do we provide adequate care for police officers and their families for work-related stress? Do we do the community piece of community policing? Do we adequately fund the police department for enough officers and enough training for a city our size? Are we exploring those places where the alienation between city residents and the police are the greatest – and investing in the kind of conversations that build understanding and trust? Do we recognize routine excellent service and heroic action by the police who serve our community? These things must all be paired, unless we want to see the police retreat into greater isolation and conspiracies of silence – while community trust in the police erodes.
We are in this together, and only we together get to decide if we will invest the time and resources in a common search for good and not an ongoing confrontation.
David B. Miller, an Elkhart resident since 2009, has been on the faculty of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and works in the seminary’s Church Leadership Center.