Nearly All the Officers in Charge of an Indiana Police Department Have Been Disciplined — Including the Chief Who Keeps Promoting Them

ProPublica – by Ken Armstrong, ProPublica, and Christian Sheckler, South Bend Tribune

When Ed Windbigler became Elkhart’s police chief in January 2016, one of his first tasks was selecting his top command staff.

For assistant chief, his second in command, Windbigler named Todd Thayer. Less than three years before, Thayer had been demoted two ranks for making flippant comments about a fatal shooting. Witnesses reported he said a fellow officer could now check shooting a person off his “bucket list.”  

For patrol captain, Windbigler named Brent Long. Less than two years before, Long had received a four-day suspension for sending inappropriate emails to fellow officers. One email included gruesome photos of a man in another city who, while running from police, jumped or fell from an overpass and was decapitated on a wrought-iron fence.

Under Windbigler, Thayer and Long are not aberrations, according to a review of personnel files by the South Bend Tribune and ProPublica. Twenty-eight of the Elkhart Police Department’s 34 supervisors, from chief down to sergeant, have disciplinary records. The reasons range from carelessness to incompetence to serious, even criminal, misconduct. Fifteen of them have served suspensions, including Windbigler himself, who was once suspended for three days — and ordered to pay punitive damages in a federal lawsuit alleging excessive force.

One officer promoted to sergeant by Windbigler has been disciplined more than two dozen times, once for using police communications equipment to refer to “white power.” Another sergeant choked a man in custody. Another failed to report domestic violence by a fellow officer, who had battered a woman and shot her cat. Still another habitually skipped mandatory training and then lied about why, saying he had been attending to police union business.

At least three current supervisors have been convicted of crimes during their careers.

Seven have opened fire in at least one fatal shooting. One officer made sergeant by Windbigler fired his gun in three fatal shootings in a little more than four years, including one that led to a lawsuit and settlement. Another used his Taser on a high school student while working as a resource officer, then, a week later, shot and killed a man who turned out to be unarmed.

“That’s high. That’s high,” said Walter Signorelli, a lecturer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, of the number of fatal shootings by Elkhart police. Signorelli worked over 30 years for the New York City Police Department before retiring as inspector. “I don’t know what kind of place this Elkhart is.”

From 2013 to 2017, Elkhart police shot and killed six people while New York City police killed 43. Elkhart’s population is 53,000 — New York City’s, 8.6 million. The NYPD had about seven times more police shootings — in a city with more than 160 times the people.

Windbigler and Thayer declined comment through the department’s spokesman. Long did not respond to interview requests. The Tribune and ProPublica provided the Police Department with their findings; a spokesman said there would be no response.

On Thursday, Elkhart Mayor Tim Neese called for a “complete investigation”of the city’s Police Department to be done by the Indiana State Police. “Neese is concerned with all individuals’ civil rights and feels this investigation is critical to upholding transparency and maintaining public trust,” a press release from his office said.

Neese made the request a week after a reporter informed him of the findings of the Tribune’s and ProPublica’s investigation. Last week, during an interview about police supervisors’ disciplinary records, Neese said, “Obviously police officers, by virtue of their profession, they’re going to encounter people under very unique circumstances … so there are going to be complaints levied against police officers when, in fact, they’re doing their job.”

When Elkhart makes the national news, it tends to be for its industry, not its police force. Called the “RV Capital of the World,” Elkhart became a political stage for the country’s last two presidents. It was one of the first cities Barack Obama visited in his first term. He passed through again in 2016 to tout the country’s economic rebound. Donald Trump visited in May to say, “America is respected again.”

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