NPR’s Steve Inskeep speaks with reporters Christian Sheckler of the South Bend Tribune and Ken Armstrong of ProPublica about systemic corruption in the police department of Elkhart, Ind.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Elkhart, Ind., is being forced to confront allegations of brutality on its police force. Elkhart is an industrial city famous for making RVs and musical instruments, and now it’s known for this. The mayor acknowledged this week that he suspended the police chief amid an investigation of police shootings and beatings.
Two journalists obtained video of police punching a handcuffed suspect, and that was just the beginning of the story we hear from Christian Sheckler of the South Bend Tribune and Ken Armstrong of ProPublica, who worked on this story together. Gentlemen, good morning.
KEN ARMSTRONG: Good morning, Steve.
CHRISTIAN SHECKLER: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: So, Christian, what does this video show?
SHECKLER: A man named Mario Guerrero Ledesma, handcuffed with his hands behind his back, sitting in a chair in a detention area of the Elkhart Police Department. There are four police officers standing nearby. At one point, Mario Guerrero Ledesma appears to be preparing to spit. One of the officers standing closest to him, Corporal Cory Newland, warns him…
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CORY NEWLAND: Don’t spit.
SHECKLER: …Don’t spit. Ledesma spits toward Newland, and both Corporal Newland and another officer, Joshua Titus, grab Ledesma, push him backwards onto the floor, while he’s still seated…
(SOUNDBITE OF SCUFFLE)
SHECKLER: …His head strikes the floor, and both officers jump on top of him and punch him in the face repeatedly.
INSKEEP: When did this happen?
SHECKLER: This happened on January 12 of this year.
INSKEEP: And how did this incident come to your attention? And how did the video come to your attention?
SHECKLER: The South Bend Tribune was investigating disciplinary matters in the Elkhart Police Department, in partnership with ProPublica. There are not many disciplinary cases that have been brought forward to the city’s civilian oversight board, but this was one of them. We noticed it from looking at minutes of the meetings of the civilian oversight board, that, in June, the police chief, Ed Windbigler, had brought forward written reprimands for two officers for a violation of the department’s policy for use of necessary force.
INSKEEP: Oh, this is a case where the police department did see an abuse and did discipline the officers, but then the question arises whether reprimands were enough for actually beating a suspect in handcuffs at the time.
SHECKLER: That’s correct. There are also questions about how accurately the police chief described what had happened when he went before the civilian oversight board.
INSKEEP: What do you mean? Didn’t he say that the police punched a suspect?
SHECKLER: No, he didn’t. The police chief described what had happened as these two officers having gone a little overboard.
INSKEEP: So you have this incident where there was a euphemism that essentially became an alleged cover-up of a beating. And let’s bring in Ken Armstrong of ProPublica. How does this fit in with the broader record of the Elkhart, Ind., Police Department when you began looking into that?
ARMSTRONG: Well, what we discovered is that under the current police chief, disciplinary actions have plummeted. In the 10 years before the current police chief took office, the prior police chiefs brought an average of 20 disciplinary actions a year to the civilian oversight board. In the first year under the current police chief, the number of disciplinary actions brought to the board was zero.
INSKEEP: Is it remotely possible that the number of disciplinary cases went down drastically because the police department behaved better?
ARMSTRONG: I think that video would argue otherwise.
INSKEEP: This video shows a man who ultimately had to be carried away on a stretcher. Are there many cases that you found where someone was seriously hurt?
SHECKLER: This is certainly the only case that we’ve seen under the current chief where officers were disciplined over an allegation of excessive force. We don’t know if there are more. The mayor of Elkhart actually reached out to the Indiana State Police to ask them to investigate his police department. The state police declined and said that that would be more appropriate for the U.S. Department of Justice.
ARMSTRONG: And, Steve, as we started looking at the department’s history, we discovered that there were a disproportionate number of fatal shootings by police officers in Elkhart. There were six people shot and killed by police officers in a five-year period. If you compare that to New York City, the numbers are pretty extraordinary. In those same five years, New York City had seven times the shootings with 160 times the people.
INSKEEP: Oh, so if I’m living in Elkhart, Ind., statistically speaking, I’m way more likely to be shot by a police officer than in New York.
ARMSTRONG: The numbers would say so, yes.
INSKEEP: So the person who is willing to look into this at the moment is the mayor of Elkhart. In this video that you published, one of the four officers who’s in the room is identified as the mayor’s son. He’s not one of the people who throws a punch, but he’s there. How would you say the mayor has done under the pressure of your reporting in this story?
SHECKLER: Well, the mayor now said that he has suspended the police chief for 30 days without pay. The two officers who actually threw the punches are currently on administrative leave, with pay, pending the ongoing criminal case that has been filed against them. But the two other officers who were in that same room when the beating took place – including the mayor’s son, who is a sergeant on the police force – to our knowledge, have not been disciplined.
INSKEEP: You have described concerns about police abuse and the futility of finding anyone to investigate them. Theoretically, the police should investigate themselves. It’s alleged that didn’t happen here or didn’t happen seriously. But you say there was also this outside civilian review board, which is really normal. Is that outside review board completely powerless to investigate on its own, and is that normal across the country?
SHECKLER: It seems that the amount of questioning and investigating that these boards do is determined by what they would like to do.
ARMSTRONG: And what also we’ve found is that, nationally, it appears that the trend with civilian oversight is greater independence from the police department. Elkhart, in the last couple of years, has gone the opposite direction.
INSKEEP: We’ve been listening to Christian Sheckler of the South Bend Tribune and Ken Armstrong of ProPublica. Both worked on this story about the Elkhart, Ind., Police Department. Thank you, gentlemen.
ARMSTRONG: Thank you, Steve.
SHECKLER: Thank you, Steve.