Officers say frustration, uncertainty swirl around South Bend police use of force policy

By Jeff Parrott | South Bend Tribune
April 23, 2021

Read the story at its source.

Correction: The city has been working on a new use of force policy since July. An earlier version of this story misstated that length of time. This story has also been updated to include the fact officers sign an acknowledgement they have received the new policy and can ask command staff questions during meetings.

In the wake of Tuesday’s guilty verdicts in the Derek Chauvin trial, and two months after the South Bend Board of Public Safety adopted a new use-of-force policy, South Bend police are still grappling with how to implement the changes.

Uncertainty and frustration among officers surfaced at Wednesday’s BPS meeting, when Officer Carter Thompson, an executive member of the Fraternal Order of Police board, said it seems “backwards” that officers are being required to acknowledge the new policy, thus holding them accountable to it, before they or even their superiors have been formally trained on it.

“It’s like you’re almost kind of changing the rules on us without really explaining it to us,” Thompson said. “I know it’s always going to be an ongoing discussion but it just seems kind of confusing that every couple months I’m having to get on and review a policy that I’ve never got any formal training on.”

After the meeting, Black Lives Matter – South Bend issued a statement saying Mayor James Mueller should be “embarrassed” that officers haven’t yet been trained on the new policy.

But in an interview later, Mueller said it seems BLM-SB “jumped on (Thompson’s) statement perhaps not with the full context. I think some of the statements don’t fully reflect the reality or an understanding of what’s going on.”

Mueller said officers won’t specifically undergo training on the new policy, at least training that’s described as resulting from the new policy, because in recent years they’ve already been operating “ahead” of it. Its changes will be incorporated into the use-of-force training that officers already are required to receive throughout the year.

“Just because in the old policy we didn’t have a whole section on de-escalation doesn’t mean that our officers weren’t trained on de-escalation,” Mueller said. “You can see it in our stats.”

Mueller said last year there were 49 uses of force out of about 100,000 calls for service.

“A lot of these pieces, our department was out in front of, and in some ways ahead of, what was written specifically as a policy,” Mueller said. “We take our officers’ feedback seriously and we’ll see what needs to be done to address those issues. But I don’t think it would be a fair representation to say they’re not aware of the policy and what it means to them.”

Officers already were required annually to undergo eight hours on use-of-force training. They also receive another 24 hours of training throughout the year on items that involve pieces of the use-of-force policy, such as defensive driving, defensive tactics, firearms, domestic violence and taser use.

Board President Luther Taylor told Thompson he made a “very good point” and he asked Police Chief Scott Ruzskowski to respond.

“If an officer or officers are claiming that they have not been trained in use of force, defensive tactics, etc., then obviously we have some grave concerns about that,” Ruszkowski said. “Specifically I need to find out what the root of the problem is, not hear about it later at a Board of Safety meeting, when this has all been disseminated and no questions have come up until this point in time. So I’ll deal with that accordingly.”

FOP Vice-President Joshua Morgan said Thompson seemed to be voicing many officers’ frustration and confusion that outside entities with no law enforcement knowledge or expertise are still reviewing and trying to change the policy, as officers are being required to follow it.

After Mueller’s administration worked on the issue for over a year, the board in February voted 4-1 to adopt a policy that formally bans chokeholds, requires officers to avoid deploying force whenever possible by using de-escalation techniques, and requires officers to use only the force needed to overcome threats. The policy also requires officers to report incidents of excessive force.

Some board members wanted the changes to go further but agreed to vote for them in February with the understanding that Mueller would return before the board by Wednesday’s meeting with revisions addressing their concerns. Mueller submitted the revisions to the board Wednesday, but they took no vote on them.

Jorden Giger, with the local BLM group, said the policy adopted in February has changed enough to require training now, even if the group has asked Mueller to join it in a public meeting sometime before the board’s next meeting May 19 to consider the new revisions. But Mueller indicated he might not participate because he said the revisions yet to be adopted by the board are largely “definitional.”

BLM-SB, along with Faith In Indiana, wanted the board to delay action in February so that it could address more of their concerns, but since the board decided to move forward then, the groups contend, officers should have been trained on the changes by now.

BLM-SB has invited the public to a virtual Zoom rally in honor of Chauvin’s victim, George Floyd, and other Black people who have been killed by police officers, including Eric Logan in South Bend.

“We seek justice for Eric Logan and other stolen Black lives by demanding reparations for the Logan family,” the group said in a statement, “the defunding of police agencies to redirect investment into Black communities in order to build and repair homes, remediate lead contamination, as well as the removal and replacement of police in South Bend schools with mental health professionals and mentors for youth.”

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