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 [Police Chief Ed] Windbigler himself, who was once suspended for three days and ordered to pay punitive damages in a federal lawsuit alleging excessive force.
Change starts at the stop… unless it’s stagnation you’re really looking for. Then all you have to do is put someone as questionable as the officers he oversees in charge of the whole mess.
This report — put together by ProPublica and the South Bend Tribune — compiles information from public records and court documents to paint a disturbing picture of the Elkhart police force. Making bad cops supervisors ensures misconduct by officers will never be fully addressed.
One promoted officer fired his weapon in three fatal shootings in the span of four years. Sergeant Dan Jones has been promoted twice, despite being found at fault in at least four accidents. He’s also Parent of the Year.
Jones was once disciplined for how he picked his child up from elementary school, according to his personnel file. In his squad car, Jones entered a drive marked “wrong way,” cut into line, failed to properly secure his child and then, at a pedestrian crossing, failed to stop for a student holding up her stop sign.
Despite seven reprimands, a suspension, a demotion, and a finding of neglect of duty, Todd Thayer was promoted from corporal to assistant chief in 2016 by Chief Windbigler shortly after he took over the top spot in the department. His suspension involved officers taking suggestive photos of a woman waiting for a ride at the police station.
Another promoted officer shot and killed an unarmed man while serving a search warrant, and tasered a student at a local high school while acting as a school resource officer. Other members of the PD’s supervisory team have used data terminals to “talk about white power,” repeatedly switched recording devices off, threw away property seized from people they’ve stopped, slept on the job, filed incomplete paperwork, and been involved in large number of auto accidents and on-the-job shootings.
With these promotions, Chief Windbigler has made it clear he won’t hold his officers accountable for their misdeeds. He’s been in office for less than two years, but he’s already shown he’s not willing to mete out discipline.
This month, the city said two Elkhart police officers would be charged with misdemeanor battery after the Tribune requested video that showed them repeatedly punching a handcuffed man in the face. Windbigler had previously opted to limit the two officers’ discipline to reprimands. He told the oversight board they “just went a little overboard when they took him to the ground,” while making no mention of the punches thrown.
There’s another level of oversight that may rein some of the worst cops in, but Chief Windbigler is actively avoiding its scrutiny. The Public Safety Board is supposed to be the disciplinary body handling misconduct cases, but Chief Windbigler isn’t giving it anything to work with. As the article notes, previous police chiefs brought 20 cases a year to the PSB. Windbigler brought zero cases to the board during his first full year as chief. Since then, he has only brought eight. For all of this accountability-dodging, his officers voted the chief “Officer of the Year,” despite the fact the honor is supposed to go to actual officers, not top PD brass.
The news only gets worse for Elkhart residents, who will be paying bad cops to oversee possibly worse cops. The mayor, Tim Neese, has decided to reform the Public Safety Board. Neese, whose son is an Elkhart police officer, will be dropping his two appointees and replacing them with more cops.
He said the board would be made up of five people — and all five would be police officers, including an assistant chief, a captain and an internal affairs lieutenant.
The mayor and police chief don’t appear to care how much long-term damage they’re doing to community relations and the police department itself. The Elkhart PD spent much of the early 90s defending itself in a long string of civil rights lawsuits that culminated in a study commissioned by the city that showed the department had a “reputation for brutality” and almost zero internal accountability. With these recent brass installations, it’s the 90s all over again.