Who’s To Blame For South Bend Police Officer Shortage?

SOUTH BEND, IN — SOUTH BEND — When it comes to the struggle to fill openings at the South Bend Police Department, the president of the police union believes Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and what the union considers the administration’s lack of public support for cops, are partly to blame.

City police Sgt. Dan Demler, president of the Fraternal Order of Police in South Bend, says the mayor’s administration hasn’t done enough to stick up for the department when officers have faced public criticism over controversial uses of force.

The department’s reputation has been scarred as a result, Demler said, and it has contributed to the struggle to hire officers that has lingered for years.

The department has 229 sworn-in officers, but it’s authorized to have 245. Eight recruits, meanwhile, have recently been hired and are completing training at the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy to become sworn-in officers.

“There are small groups of people who are saying we’re a rogue department. But yet the mayor and his administration is saying nothing to the contrary,” Demler said. “Stick up for us and almost demand that the community help us. Work with us.”

In an email, Buttigieg said he is “proud of the dedication our officers show every day, and we stand by our officers when they do the right thing.”

The mayor added that he and city police Chief Scott Ruszkowski “have worked hard to make our department one of the best in the state for compensation, advancement, and support. We have set high and consistent standards for discipline and do not comment inappropriately on ongoing investigations.”

The city backed the department financially with a four-year contract approved last year with the Fraternal Order of Police that included raises and a stronger pension plan. The goal was to do a better job recruiting new officers and retaining those on the force.

But though the department had about 240 officers last summer, Demler said, retirements and officers leaving for other police departments have cut the number.

South Bend’s dilemma comes at the same time St. Joseph County Police Department is facing a different problem.

County Sheriff Mike Grzegorek — surrounded by dozens of county officers in brown uniforms — warned elected officials on Tuesday night that unless officers get a raise next year, he fears some will join the South Bend Police Department and other agencies.

Unless a raise is approved, the starting pay for a newly hired county police officer working the day shift will be $46,720 in 2018, which includes the county’s pension contribution. A newly hired day-shift officer for South Bend, by contrast, will make $52,020.

But for the South Bend department, better pay and benefits haven’t provided a quick fix to the staffing problem. Demler thinks the mayor should take steps to help regain the public’s trust in officers.

While the mayor’s administration “backed us financially with a good contract,” Demler said, “the narrative has been put out there that we can’t be trusted.”

As an example, Demler referred to controversial incidents involving Officer Aaron Knepper that were centered around whether he used excessive force. Knepper was involved in a confrontation with Tom Stevens in 2014, for example, that left Stevens hospitalized with a head injury. An internal investigation by South Bend police cleared Knepper of wrongdoing, but Stevens sued the city and Knepper for unlawful arrest and use of force. The case is ongoing in federal court.

“If Aaron Knepper’s name comes up, he’s automatically guilty according to the court of public opinion,” Demler said. “And it dates back to the Stevens incident and our city administration not coming out and saying, ‘Let us get the facts. Once it’s done, we’ll get it out to you, but right now we believe in our police officers.’ They’ve never said they believe in this department.”

The Stevens incident, however, was not the first time Knepper has been accused of misconduct.

A jury found Knepper and two other officers liable for civil rights violations in the 2012 arrest of DeShawn Franklin. The officers entered Franklin’s home unlawfully and then used a Taser on, punched and detained him in a case of mistaken identity. Each received a written reprimand.

Knepper and the same two officers were also suspended in 2013 for pressuring a 7-Eleven employee to swallow a tablespoon of cinnamon. The clerk sued and the city later settled the case for $8,000.

Demler, however, didn’t place any of the blame on Ruszkowski for what he characterizes as a lack of public support for police.

“The mayor has the ultimate say in what is said,” Demler said. “The chief does the best he’s allowed to do.”

Ruszkowski didn’t respond to a voicemail message seeking comment.

Buttigieg didn’t return a call seeking comment, but he responded by email. He said that “my door is always open to the FOP, and I am disappointed to hear concerns expressed in the media when they have not visited me in person to discuss them.”

As for other factors affecting the high number of openings on the force, Demler acknowledged that South Bend officers respond to more crime than officers from other departments. But he doesn’t think that plays a major role when officers choose where to work.

“Somebody can leave here and go to another department, and the grass isn’t going to be any greener,” he said.

Demler also acknowledged that some officers have been dissatisfied with changes made to improve department policies.

“There’s a level of accountability that’s being placed on us that wasn’t there before, and not everyone likes that. But you can’t make everyone happy,” he said. “Do we have guys grumbling who are steering people away? Yes we do.”

From The South Bend Tribune