By Christian Sheckler | South Bend Tribune
Dec 30, 2019
Photo caption: A rally across from the South Bend Police Department on Sample Street in 2016 featured protests about use-of-force incidents involving city officers. | Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA
Activists in South Bend have long protested cases in which they felt city police officers got off easy after committing serious misconduct.
There was the highly publicized case in 2012, when three officers received only written reprimands after they entered a family’s home without permission or a warrant, then punched, Tasered and detained a 17-year-old boy they wrongly believed was a suspect in a domestic battery.
There was the officer who resigned in early 2019 over a long list of undisclosed violations, but had previously been allowed to stay on the force after numerous offenses that included shoving a juvenile in a hospital emergency room in 2004 and using a racial slur while arresting a man in 2009.
“There hasn’t been a clear set of guidelines for consequences for particular kinds of misconduct,” said Andre Stoner, a Near Northwest Neighborhood resident and organizer with the group Faith in Indiana. “It’s been worked out based on precedent, and has ended up feeling pretty arbitrary to members of the community.”
Now, South Bend officials hope a new disciplinary system could help give both officers and the public confidence that the punishment will fit the offense in cases of misconduct.
The city in December unveiled a proposed “discipline matrix” — essentially a table that groups types of violations into categories and assigns each category a range of penalties for first, second and third offenses.
The matrix was first introduced at the Dec. 18 meeting of the Board of Public Safety, but has yet to be adopted. The city is seeking public input on the matrix via email through Jan. 10, after which the board could incorporate feedback before deciding whether to approve the proposal Jan. 15. People are asked to submit feedback in writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mark Bode, a spokesman for Mayor Pete Buttigieg, said a key goal for the matrix was to provide clear expectations for the handling of violations.
“Just as this is an added layer of transparency for the public so they have expectations when policies are violated, it’s also transparency for the officers,” Bode said.
The matrix has six categories, dealing with a range from minor policy violations to criminal or other severe misconduct.
The lowest category, dealing with violations such as rude comments, tardiness and failure to use a seatbelt, calls for an oral reprimand on first offense. The highest category, which includes preventable fatal crashes and “abuse/misuse of authority,” calls for automatic firing.
In between, categories deal with dozens of possible offenses, from late submission of reports (written reprimand on first offense) to an arrest without probable cause (minimum 12-day suspension) to sexual, racial or religious harassment (minimum 30 days).
Opinions vary on whether the disciplinary guidelines will help mend the mistrust some community members feel toward the police.
Faith in Indiana, which helped organize a “peacemaker summit” with Buttigieg and police officials in the fall, praised the mayor for acting on calls for disciplinary reforms.
“It’s a positive step,” Stoner said. “It doesn’t feel as arbitrary, haphazard.”
More aggressive activists, on the other hand, say the proposed guidelines are too little, too late, and raise more questions than they answer.
“It’s embarrassing they’re putting this out so late in the game. It’s only because there’s national media attention on South Bend,” said Jorden Giger, an activist affiliated with Black Lives Matter. “We were raising these same issues about police discipline three years ago.”
Giger also questioned whether the punishments assigned to some types of misconduct would reflect how seriously the community takes the behavior. He pointed to an arrest without probable cause, which could draw as little as a 12-day suspension, and racial harassment, which would come with a minimum 30-day suspension.
“What if somebody calls someone the n-word?” Giger asked. “To most black people, that would be a fireable offense.”
Sgt. Harvey Mills, president of the South Bend Fraternal Order of Police, said the union supports the discipline matrix, but he believes the city is moving to implement it too quickly for the FOP to gather enough feedback from its members.
Bode, the city spokesman, said administration officials briefed the FOP and sought input several weeks before the guidelines were presented to the safety board.
Though Mills believes the police chief should have leeway to consider the facts in each case, he said he welcomes clear guidelines that could reduce inconsistency in handling discipline.
“It gives not just this chief, but chiefs down the road, a platform to go from,” Mills said. “There are plenty of officers in the past that have been punished one way, and others another way.”
City officials have noted the matrix leaves discretion for the police chief and Board of Public Safety to consider “aggravating” and “mitigating” factors and to issue lesser or greater discipline based on the facts of each case. Deviations from the guidelines would require a written explanation.
To this point, South Bend police chiefs have based disciplinary decisions not on a specific set of guidelines, but on recommendations from supervisors, discussions with top command staff and a review of the facts of each case and prior disciplinary history, said Stephanie Steele, the top lawyer for the city.
Based on the punishments outlined in the matrix, it appears officers involved in some past cases could have faced more severe discipline under the proposed new guidelines. For example, the officers in the 2012 mistaken-identity case were reprimanded, but the new matrix calls for a minimum 12-day suspension for improper use of force.
City officials would not comment on whether past disciplinary cases would have been handled differently under the proposed matrix.
“We expect commentary from the public will be informed by past experiences,” Bode said. “Right now we’re getting the input from folks’ past experiences, ‘what are your expectations around discipline,’ and bringing that in to form the strategy moving forward.”