Police incident opportunity to pursue common good

David B. Miller

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.

(6) comments

cherylab

Dear Dr. Miller, thanks for this thoughtful analysis of the situation.

backtheblueelkhart

Though I agree with some of this article, I still question why an open investigation is even being discussed. As I’m sure there are many details within the police report that the public will never know. I’ve done some research and looked at state statute. What was seen in the video is a felony act being met with a use of force that now, at most, is a misdemeanor. Further I have found that police are allowed within the law to use one level of force greater then then is being used against them to restore order/resolve a situation. These officers are highly trained. And, like state law requires, have additional training each year. From my research I have found it’s typically 40 hours in service training each year. The Indiana police academy is 15 weeks. So, an officer with 10 years on has well over 1,000 hours of training. Yet, police still encounter situations in which they have had little to no training. It sounds good to pen an article Monday morning quarterbacking, but reality is far different. This city is violent. It’s on the FBI most dangerous cities list. It ranks among the top for homicides per capita. Let’s get to the hard truth regarding police work in this city in 2018. It’s violent. Even your article whether intended to or not points blame at the police. Let’s put the blame on the very reason they were called to this domestic violence call. Let’s put blame on the fact that this mayor is playing politics and not the role of a leader. Sure, the city can fire everyone within that agency and “clean house” as some would say. But reality is that those making such comments could never begin to have the character and fitness for the job.

EPD and Chief Windbigler keep your heads high. The silent majority backs you as do a majority of the citizens in this city. This is the age we live in and blame someone else is far too often the answer. You are noble men and women and are being lead by some of the best administrators in the profession. God bless you.

sidearm

Thank you for your voice of reason. The mayor needs to end this attack on law enforcement now and stop pandering to the gutless liberals making the attacks.

fire111

I always get a kick from professionals that sit in a chair and twiddle their fingers and give us their best canned rhetoric. The truth lies in between all those hollow sentences above. If you want the real story, apply to ride along. Not just one nice spring afternoon or morning, but ride often. Get the feel of the real cops life. Experience the violence, the rampant drug use, the sorrow they see. The simple fact is most everyone committing a crime is either high on drugs or under the influence of alcohol. For someone to suggest a police department be overseen by the citizens is ridiculous. Citizens have no more concept of law that concept of world politics. They don't know state law nor care! So get off your DUFF Mr Miller! Contact the EPD about ride alongs. Don't forget to sign that safety waiver because things can go BAD really fast. In the blink of an eye, it can all be over with!

der74

Dear Fire 111 (I am sorry that I can't address you by your real name.

Your call for me to go on ride alongs with the EPD is an excellent recommendation - I will be arranging to do this.

I would like you to know that my comments on this matter are not theoretical. In a previous community in which we lived, following three riots, I led in forming a nonviolent riot prevention group. We communicated with the police - for whom I had great respect - but we were not ancillary police. We engaged in practices that de-escalated potentially violent situations. We were fully accountable for our actions - which included mediating and diffusing several potentially violent situations.

I am not declaring that the exact same strategy would work in Elkhart - but it did work when citizens did not simply turn over community safety to police and then go to bed at night. I think we should all get off our duffs and do those things that make for peace. I have spent numerous nights on the streets engaging with drunken and high young adults.

Before you assume that I have not been directly engaged in such matters, please have the decency to ask what I have done to seek the welfare of this city. I will be the first to admit that I could and should do even more.

I am not opposed to the police. But the very nature of the power that the police possess can easily escalate situations to the next level.

The use of force is one of the most challenging decisions that a police officer makes - and the repercussions for the officer, the assumed offender, and the community at large are grave.

If behaviors such as what we viewed on the video of the Elkhart police are permitted without accountability we will most likely see the further diminishing of trust and the increase of violence.

We must recognize that we are in this together - police and community. I would be glad for the opportunity to speak together on how we can best invest in the welfare and safety of this city. The police have a vital role in this - but not the only role. Sincerely, David B. Miller

backtheblueelkhart

I’ve recently heard of the Elkhart Police Department having a reserve unit. Mr. Miller, though I respect your intellectual ideals to unintentionally blame the police, I encourage. I challenge you to go apply to be a reserve officer. As you say it doesn’t only fall on police, I politely disagree. I’m sure after a single shift you would see how little the community helps/aids/assists officers. They don’t. Elkhart has a big populous that is not from here and it’s only a “getaway” from Chicago. A large number of people in this city are 1. Immigrants (legal and illegal) and 2. Have Chicago ties/roots. Look at the violence a short 100 mile drive to the west. Furthermore, to cement the fact that you are about less than 5% right, see where this city would be if police took a single shift off. Great rhetoric but far from reality.

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