South Bend safety board tables new police discipline proposal

By Marek Mazurek | South Bend Tribune 
Jan 16, 2020

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SOUTH BEND — The city’s board of public safety postponed a vote Wednesday on a proposed “discipline matrix” for police officers. The board’s decision comes fewer than two days after Mayor James Mueller’s office released a statement asking for the delay, saying more time should be allowed for public input.

The board voted unanimously to delay the adoption of the matrix at Wednesday’s meeting, as board members agreed with Mueller that more time for community members to voice their opinions was necessary.

“The key word there is postpone. I do think it’s an excellent system and we’re moving in the right direction,” said board member Luther Taylor. “But I certainly concur with the mayor on postponing it for now.”

There is no set timeline for when the matrix will come up before the board again, though Kacey Gergely, Mueller’s chief of staff, said the disciplinary rubric would be the focus of a Feb. 4 community action group meeting.

“We don’t have a set timeline,” Gergely said. “It’s important to get this right, we are hoping to obviously continue this in a timely manner. It is a top priority to get this instated, but we just want to make sure all relevant stakeholders are able to submit feedback.”

Harvey Mills, president of the South Bend Fraternal Order of Police, agreed with the mayor and the board, saying more time to gather input will be beneficial and that the union supports the matrix.

“I’m glad we’re able to table it for now,” Mills said. “We do want to move forward. We’re in favor of the matrix.”

Police Chief Scott Ruszkowski also supports the delay and said the feedback he’s received indicates the community needs more time to evaluate the disciplinary guidelines.

“I talked to [Mayor Mueller], we have the same intent to get this resolved,” Ruszkowski said. “Everybody needs to have input and a stake in this. Neither of us feel that we actually have that.”

The proposed matrix is a system that categorizes potential violations and assigns each category a range of penalties for first, second and third offenses. South Bend city officials introduced the matrix Dec. 18 and originally asked the public to email input to the safety board by Jan. 10 ahead of Wednesday’s meeting.

The matrix has six categories of possible misconduct, labeled A-F, ranging from minor infractions to serious misconduct.

Infractions such as uniform violations call for an oral reprimand on first offense. More severe misconduct, such as the loss of evidence or consuming alcohol on duty, would result in a three-day suspension on first offense, and a 10-day suspension on third offense.

The most severe category of misconduct, which includes preventable fatal crashes and “abuse/misuse of authority,” calls for automatic firing.

In terms of the specific disciplinary measures outlined in the matrix, Mills said he currently doesn’t have any issues with the document. Gergely said she has not received feedback from Mueller regarding specific items in the matrix.

Black Lives Matter in South Bend has advocated for more public discussion around the matrix, according to activist Jorden Giger. The group emailed a list of concerns about the proposal to the Board of Public Safety on Monday. The email contains numerous comments on individual infraction categories, with many calling for harsher penalties for officers acting outside the chain of command.

The group also feels some of the infraction categories are too vague and should be clarified.

Others, however, are disappointed by the delay and urged a timely implementation of the matrix.

“This kind of discipline matrix, in our opinion, is long overdue,” said Nicole MacLaughlin, a member of Faith in Indiana. “We believe this is a very urgent issue and our members are resolute that the city must make good on its commitment to this crucial step in police accountability.”

Faith in Indiana held a news conference expressing support for the discipline matrix on Monday, hours before Mueller announced he would ask to table the topic.

Others pointed out that the matrix can be edited once implemented and that putting an imperfect matrix in place would be better than continuing to operate without one.

“I would urge, that while the delay is fine, that it not go on too long,” said Brad Laird during the public comment portion of Wednesday’s meeting. “It is one necessary element, but not a sufficient element, in restoring and maintaining good trust between the citizens and the police department.”

mmazurek@sbtinfo.com
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Photo courtesy South Bend Tribune (edited)