FORTVILLE – A Fortville police lieutenant has given up his leadership position after being investigated by his own department as well as the Indiana State Police for his handling of an arrest.
Matt Fox, a 10-year veteran of the Fortville Police Department, resigned from a supervisory role after the Fortville police chief raised concerns Fox became too physically aggressive with a woman he arrested in July.
Fox continues to serve on the department as a patrolman, with a pay decrease of about $3,600 per year.
Fox’s conduct sparked two investigations: first by Fortville Police Department Chief Bill Knauer, who became concerned after reviewing Fox’s body-camera footage from an arrest made July 15. Knauer placed Fox on unpaid leave to begin an internal probe into his officer’s handling of an uncooperative suspect detained that day on suspicion of drunken-driving.
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Secondly, Knauer contacted the Indiana State Police to request a criminal investigation, asking detectives there to evaluate whether Fox’s treatment of the woman in his custody could be considered battery, he said.
State police investigators concluded their review first and handed their notes to the prosecutor with a recommendation against any criminal charges.
Hancock County Prosecutor Brent Eaton said he, too, determined Fox’s conduct fell short of battery, and the criminal investigation was closed.
Fox still faced department discipline. Knauer said the internal review found Fox committed three department policy violations: conduct unbecoming of an officer, failure to uphold the department mission statement and improper interview/testing procedures.
Those violations relate to allegations Fox shoved a handcuffed woman he was arresting into a chair and later pulled her from his squad car with more force than was necessary, Knauer said.
Fox has no other disciplinary action on his police record.
Knauer asked the Indiana State Police to investigate Fox’s handling of the arrest after reviewing body-camera footage Knauer said showed Fox using force that was “borderline excessive.” The woman Fox arrested has not filed any complaints against the officer.
Fox, who was placed on paid administrative leave July 17, returned to duty Sept. 5 after offering to give up his position as a lieutenant, a promotion he received in January. His offer came four days before he was to appear before the town’s police commission to be disciplined, Knauer said.
The police commission meeting was canceled as a result.
Knauer declined to release details on the disciplinary action he was prepared to recommend to the five-member board of Fortville residents that oversees the hiring, promotion and discipline of the nine-member department.
Knauer said Fox’s remorse and notice of plans to step down as a department leader served as evidence the officer had taken responsibility for his actions. Fox also will attend additional police training to ensure the mistake is not repeated, Knauer said.
“I believe he had a lapse in judgement that I don’t anticipate to ever happen again,” Knauer said.
In a statement to the Daily Reporter, Fox said: “I made an unfortunate mistake in judgement and will not make the same error in the future. I will continue to educate myself to become the best police officer I can be.”
The incident in question centers on the arrest of Melissa Lovett, a 48-year-old Westfield woman charged with operating while intoxicated, resisting law enforcement and disorderly conduct.
Fox was dispatched to Dollar General, 425 W. Broadway St., Fortville, around 3 p.m. July 15 after a 911 caller reported a woman, who appeared to be intoxicated, was threatening customers in the store.
Body-camera footage shows Fox escorting Lovett into the Fortville Police Department after she failed a preliminary breath test, telling her she must take a certified breath test at the department. They were alone together at the department.
Department policies require officers to call for backup when taking a suspect of the opposite sex to the department for testing; Fox never did, Knauer said.
The conversation quickly escalates when Fox suggests he will obtain a warrant to draw Lovett’s blood. Lovett shouts that no one will use a needle on her while Fox orders her to sit down.
When the handcuffed Lovett refuses to sit down, the footage shows Fox placing both hands on her shoulders and shoving her into a chair, causing the copy machine behind it to rock backward. She stands back up, and Fox shoves her again, with both yelling obscenities.
In charging documents against Lovett containing Fox’s account of the event, Fox characterized the exchange by saying: “… I placed her back in the chair. Lovett stood up two more times on me, and I placed her back in the chair again.”
In the video, Fox tells Lovett they’re going to the hospital for a blood test — which later revealed Lovett’s blood-alcohol content at 0.11 percent, over the legal limit of 0.08, Eaton said.
At one point, Fox tells Lovett, “You’re gonna get treated like this when you’re resisting.”
While en route to the hospital, Fox takes off his body camera and places it in a cup holder, filming the ceiling of the car, as well as part of Fox’s and Lovett’s faces.
Lovett becomes angry and repeatedly kicks at Fox’s dashboard and his in-car computer as they pull into the Hancock Regional Hospital parking lot.
Fox puts the squad car in park and gets out, leaving the body camera inside.
The passenger side door opens, and Lovett disappears abruptly from the screen and cries out as she is pulled from the car. She was no longer being disruptive at that moment, so such force wasn’t needed, Knauer said, explaining the policy violation.
Fox wrote in his report, “When I removed Lovett from my vehicle, Lovett went to the ground.”
The Fortville Police Department requires its officers to report to a supervisor any time they’ve been forceful with a member of the community — whether it’s a simple grab of the arm or firing a gun.
Fox alerted the department’s administrators to the incident with Lovett, Knauer said. The chief reviewed the footage of Lovett’s arrest and said he was immediately concerned the officer had acted inappropriately.
Fox was placed on administrative leave, and Knauer asked state police detectives to review the incident to decide if Fox’s forcefulness with Lovett could be considered battery, Knauer said.
Department guidelines call for supervisors to conclude their internal investigation only after the external investigator’s report is released. But Fox’s violations of department protocols and the standards to which Fortville holds its officers were immediately apparent, Knauer said.
First, Fox should have called for a second officer for backup the moment Lovett became unruly, Knauer said. This would have given Fox the chance to handle his search-warrant paperwork while the other officer sat with the suspect and tried to calm her, Knauer said.
Second, Fox should have relied more on what Knauer called “verbal judo” — the training he’s received on how to properly calm a situation — instead of force, Knauer said. Physical force is sometimes necessary to get an arrestee to cooperate, but police officers receive extensive training on communication tactics, he said. They’re told to always use words when possible before going hands-on.
This lessens the chance of anyone — whether it’s the officer, the suspect or a bystander — from being hurt, Knauer said. Fortville’s officers go through a refresher course in this skill annually, in addition to the communications training officers receive at the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy, he said.
“When situations get out of control, they need to be in control,” Knauer said. “Had he chosen other methods, we wouldn’t be here.”
He said Fox’s shoving the woman into the chair and later forcefully pulling her from the car violated the department’s conduct standard, which states officers “shall not mistreat persons who are in their custody” or “… use more force in any situation than is reasonably necessary.”
Fox also was in violation of the portion of the conduct standard that prohibits officers from acting in any manner that could “lower or destroy public respect,” Knauer added.
The language Fox uses when speaking to Lovett is contradictory to the department mission “to maintain order, while affording the dignity and respect to every individual,” Knauer said.
Police officers may at times match a suspect’s tone, demeanor and word choice when trying to get the person to comply; but the exchange between Fox and Lovett “did not warrant” such profanity, Knauer said.
“I don’t ever want any of our officers to talk to somebody like that,” he said.
Lovett told the Daily Reporter she felt disrespected by Fox from the moment their interaction began. She said she tried her best to keep her cool in a stressful situation. She said she feels she only lost her temper after Fox became rude.
“The badge didn’t matter to me after that,” she said. “(Police officers) are supposed to be a pillar in the community. And he wasn’t.”
‘Short of a crime’
Knauer took his list of three policy violations to the police commission, which would have voted on them along with Knauer’s recommended disciplinary action in a public meeting. The commission could have approved Knauer’s recommendation or taken any other action, from letting the officer go with a warning to firing him, its members deemed appropriate.
Knauer said after Fox relinquished his rank, that meeting was no longer necessary. It showed Fox took responsibility for what happened and acknowledged his actions weren’t that of a leader, Knauer said.
Around the same time, state investigators handed their investigation to the Hancock County Prosecutor’s Office. They recommended against criminal charges, and, after reviewing the material himself, Eaton agreed, he said.
State police did not return calls for comment.
Fox’s conduct, though regrettable, “falls short of a crime,” Eaton said.
“It’s certainly not behavior we want to have all the time, … but the relevant question is was there a crime you can prove in court?” Eaton said. “There isn’t.”
A higher standard
The actions Fortville took to investigate Fox are commonplace when an officer’s conduct is called into question, said attorney Alex Intermill, who represents the Town of Fortville and a handful of other municipalities in central Indiana.
At its core, such investigations are a sign to the community a police department is committed to holding its officers to a higher standard, Intermill said. As a result of Fortville’s investigation, Fox will undergo additional training, though specifics haven’t been decided, he said.
The incident and the investigation that followed shouldn’t negate Fox’s long career of public service, Knauer added, because in his 10 years, Fox has demonstrated his commitment to the police force and the community.
The officer organizes the department’s annual Shop with Public Safety, which treats children in need to a shopping spree at Christmas. He’s also credited with saving the lives of two Fortville women who, in separate instances, years apart, each became unconscious while behind the wheel of a car.
In 2008, Fox was honored after he logged a record 102 operating while intoxicated arrests in a year’s time. In 2012, he returned to duty just 40 days after being shot nine times during a traffic stop.
These factors didn’t play into how Knauer handled the investigation into Fox’s behavior, but they shouldn’t be eclipsed by one bad day on the job, he said.
“I’m proud of every one of our officers,” Knauer said. “Sometimes we have missteps, and we have to address those. That’s what we did in this case.”
In his statement to the Daily Reporter, Fox said he regrets what happened that day.
“Absolutely,” he wrote, “I let my fellow officers down.”