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Fortville town marshal quits; cites issues with council

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FORTVILLE — Town Marshal Don Bender, who took over as chief of Fortville Police Department May 1, has left his position after problems with local officials.

“It was readily apparent a few hours after I took over, and talking to the officers, that the officers were not the problem,” Bender said.

Less than three months after being chosen as police chief after a long search by the town council, Bender left his post Thursday, citing several instances that left him downbeat and unhappy.

In a letter to citizens dated Tuesday, Bender said he was frustrated and could not work with a council whose members lack vision and trust. He also accused members of undermining the police department.

“There are members of the town government who will not miss an opportunity to make comments or spread allegations about officers,” Bender wrote. “The comments are often filled with vitriol and statements such as ‘hypocrite’ and ‘liar.’ This constant ‘stirring of the pot’ damages the morale and effectiveness of the officers on the Fortville Police Department.”

Bender also looked into the demotion of former Town Marshal Ben Kiphart, who was ousted in November in a surprise council vote. Kiphart and the town council had consistently clashed during Kiphart’s four years on the department. At the time of Kiphart’s firing, the town council cited “mismatched goals” and general incompatibility.

Officer Mark Lyons was appointed as interim chief before Bender took over. At its 10-minute Monday night meeting, the town council as a whole said little about the issue and appointed Lyons interim chief again.

When Bender began to look over the facts of Kiphart’s demotion, he was left feeling unconvinced of the council majority’s rationale.

“We’re not going to have change up there until we have change in the leadership of the town,” Bender said. “The tragedy is there’s some very good people who deserve so much better in Fortville.”

Bender has already returned to his former post as a day-shift commander and lieutenant for the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department.

“I’ve already picked up my white car,” Bender said.

He had heard repeated requests to return to IMPD after taking a leave to see whether Fortville would be a good fit.

“What an experience,” Bender said.

Since May, Bender has organized a chaplaincy program to help both officers and residents in times of tragedy; set up a neighborhood crime watch system; and arranged a senior safety referral program that will help keep the town’s elderly residents protected and feeling safe.

“We’re still going for the crime watch program and the chaplaincy program. Those things won’t go by the wayside,” Bender said.

At least one town councilman was shaken by Bender’s sudden resignation.

“I’m extremely disappointed,” town council member Sarah Brown said. “I was so pleased with everything he was doing.”

Bender was offered the job after an extensive search by the council.

“There were a few other candidates who would be excellent (and are) already interviewed,” Brown said.

The council’s next step is uncertain, but Brown hopes the council follows at least one principle.

“Whatever we do, whoever we hire, we really wanted someone who would focus on the community. We want to do what’s best for the police department and the community,” Brown said. “Don really showed us what was possible.”

And despite his abrupt exit, Bender said he believes the town can eventually forge ahead.

“This town has to move forward. Things are done in a malicious tone. Let’s move forward. We’re going to go nowhere if we keep doing that,” Bender said. “I don’t know what else we can do.”

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