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Police agencies confront perceptions of rogue officers


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GREENFIELD — Seeing police officers in courtrooms is not unusual. They are called upon to keep the peace, maintain the security of the court and testify in cases they helped investigate.

But in recent years, an increasing number of Hancock County officers have found themselves seated at the defendant’s table, a trend that has frustrated supervisors and left some members of the public with doubts about the integrity of those entrusted with upholding the law.

In the past nine months alone, nine criminal cases have been filed against law enforcement officers in Hancock County. Some are accused of simple errors in judgment, while others are being held accountable for what prosecutors allege is a blatant abuse of police power.

Police agencies have put in place programs to counsel officers, and they are tracking conduct more closely through better record keeping. But they admit that even the best workplace practices can’t always identify problems.

And when those problems become more serious and officers get in trouble, the age-old debate is rekindled: Should police officers be held to a higher standard?

 

Problem officers

 

Last October, the sheriff’s department came under fire after an off-duty officer entered the home of a McCordsville woman he’d been dating and flew into a jealous rampage when he found another man there in the middle of the night.

The incident sparked an investigation into previous domestic battery allegations and other complaints against the same officer, and within a matter of weeks, prosecutors had filed five criminal cases against him. The officer spent three months on the county’s payroll before he resigned. He pleaded guilty to battery and criminal mischief in March, and one case is still pending.

In April, a veteran Greenfield police officer was accused of bribing fellow officers to pull over his ex-wife and tow her car. The same officer would be charged a second time in the weeks that followed – this time with promoting prostitution – after a review of his cellphone records during the internal investigation turned up text messages suggesting he offered to pay a woman for sex. The officer remains on unpaid suspension as the cases make their way through the court system.

In late May, an Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officer was pulled over in New Palestine on suspicion of drunken driving. He would go on to ridicule the officer who stopped him, saying the officer didn’t know “the true meaning of the thin blue line” as he demanded to be let go with a warning despite testing at twice the legal limit, according to court documents. He was charged with operating a vehicle while intoxicated.

One week later, a corrections officer was caught providing cigarettes to inmates at the Hancock County Jail. The officer denied having done so until he was shown video surveillance footage that captured the act. He was fired and charged with trafficking.

The cases have placed local prosecutors in the difficult position of handling cases against those with whom they are used to working side by side.

Prosecutor Michael Griffin said whether his office takes the case or hands it off to a special prosecutor, the reaction from the public is generally the same when an officer is charged.

“The common reaction lately has been ‘here we go again,’” Griffin said. “I hope part of what people understand is … these people are indeed being held accountable. Sometimes the shock value does not wear off, but hopefully part of what they see is we’re not standing by and letting things happen without taking some action.”

 

A department’s

dilemma

 

An officer’s arrest is problematic for a department on a variety of levels. As the criminal investigation continues, supervisors must conduct an internal investigation to determine whether disciplinary action is warranted, a process that can pull them from their normal duties for weeks at a time. The officer is usually suspended from duty, leaving their colleagues to shoulder their workload.

Departments adjust the best they can to fill the gap, but in some cases, the shortage can result in longer wait times for those needing emergency assistance.

Meanwhile, one officer’s bad behavior can color the public’s perception of an entire department, leaving other employees in the position of having to defend themselves as they experience the trickle-down effect of a colleague’s misdeeds.

Should an officer’s brush with the law later result in a lawsuit – a common occurrence if the officer is fired – the incident can cost the city or county tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

Because police officers are charged with upholding the law, they are often held to a higher standard of conduct than regular citizens.

And that shouldn’t come as a surprise to those wearing a badge, Sheriff Mike Shepherd said.

Officers’ salaries are paid for by the citizens, and they are responsible to those taxpayers.

“We hold them accountable; we should be held even more so accountable,” Shepherd said. “And if you don’t think that’s fair, then don’t get in this line of work.”

Shepherd has dealt with a number of problem employees in the past few years. Since he took office in 2010, he has fired four – two road officers and two jail workers – and allowed one deputy to resign after each was arrested and faced criminal charges.

It’s a difficult position for an administrator, Shepherd said, not only because it lowers morale among deputies but because it colors public perception when those charged with upholding the law are accused of breaking it.

“People classify us all together – one bad apple, all cops are bad,” he said. “It’s the nature of the beast.”

 

A higher standard

 

Chuck Fewell is well-acquainted with the business of officer discipline. As mayor of Greenfield, he heads the Board of Works and Public Safety, which approves sanctions of city employees. He also served for seven years on the sheriff’s merit board, which handles disciplinary action against deputies.

Fewell brought a unique perspective to both roles; with 20 years’ experience in law enforcement, he has an intimate understanding of the challenges of the job.

Fewell said there is no question officers should know the standard of conduct that comes with the position.

“That higher standards should be ever-present on everybody’s mind that’s in the law enforcement business. But you know what? They’re human beings. They do mess up occasionally, and that’s unfortunate.”

Greenfield Police Department Chief John Jester said it’s a supervisor’s job to take note when an officer’s behavior changes and attempt to intervene before a problem becomes serious.

“I think a lot of it is dependent on the early intervention,” he said. “I think we need to find out what the root cause is. … It’s our job to see what can we do to help him.”

In 2011, the sheriff’s department used commissary funds to provide counseling and other services to officers free of charge to employees through the LifeServices Employee Assistance Program.

“They cover family things; if you have medical problems, financial problems,” Shepherd said. “They can provide help (for) those officers.”

With a string of officers running into legal trouble, the department also recently instituted an employee record system, one already in place at the Greenfield Police Department.

The electronic record system puts personnel files in easy-to-access digital records that follow officers throughout their career.

The hope is that employee behavior – good and bad – is tracked more readily with the online system, and the same information is made available to all supervisors, said Sheriff’s Capt. Jeff Rasche.

As head of the department’s detective unit, Rasche has been called upon to conduct internal investigations of officers in trouble in the past.

What he learned during one such investigation last fall was that an officer had been counseled repeatedly for the same issues, but because he had moved shifts over the years, no one saw the problem escalating.

“Patterns got missed,” he said. “It is very embarrassing.”

The new employee tracking program flags officers based on information that is logged into the system. If an officer reaches an unusual number of Taser-related incidents or is involved in several traffic accidents in a short period of time, for example, a supervisor receives an alert.

“Hopefully, it will head them off at the pass so that we can find the root of the problem and fix it before they do get in serious trouble or get arrested,” Rasche said.

A changing attitude

 

While a number of officers have made the headlines in recent months after brushes with the law, local officials hope that’s due in part to departments being better equipped to handle incidents with employees.

“Is it more officers getting in trouble or is it more departments taking a proactive role in addressing the issues?” Jester said.

Griffin attributes the trend of officers being arrested in part to the growth of the county. Not only are there more law enforcement officers employed here than there were 10 years ago, but they are receiving more advanced training and becoming better able to spot problems on their own police forces.

“We have officers now who are on the whole more dedicated to principle than ever before,” he said. “Sometimes, it means you have to speak up and say, ‘Something very bad or wrong is going on here.’ Frankly, I most admire the officers who are willing to stand up and say those things.”

When an officer does get in trouble, it lowers the morale of the department for a time, but Shepherd said he encourages his officers to move forward as everyone begins to heal.

“Time will finally get behind them a little bit,” he said. “… Just move forward and try to be positive.”

Some citizens’ perception of law enforcement will never change, Jester said, and that’s a battle officers will continue to face.

But when it comes to holding one of their own accountable, Jester said he hopes local police are sending the right message.

“We’ve become transparent to show the public we’re not sweeping it under the rug,” he said. “… We’re handling these issues, and I’m the first to admit, there are always going to be policemen that … stumble.”

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