The first-century Roman satirist Juvenal asked a question that is still pertinent today: “Who shall guard the guards?”
In January in the holding area of the Elkhart police station, two officers attacked a handcuffed prisoner as other officers looked on. After five months, the police chief issued each a mild written reprimand, later telling a civilian oversight board the officers “just went a little overboard.”
But a few weeks ago, the officers were charged with misdemeanor battery, after a video obtained by the South Bend Tribune showed them pushing the prisoner to the floor when he spat at them, and striking him 10 times with their fists. The Tribune, working with the national investigative website Pro Publica, was preparing to publish a second piece showing that most of the department's supervisors had been the subject of disciplinary procedures when Elkhart's mayor, Tim Neese, asked the Indiana State Police to work with local prosecutors to take a look at the beating case and broader department policies.
When controversy rocks a police department, having an outside agency investigate is sometimes the best course of action.
The state police, though, declined to get involved, recommending that Elkhart turn to the federal government for help. “We typically don't investigate the operations of other agencies,” spokesman Capt. David Bursten said.
Though the U.S. Justice Department has become involved in such situations in the past, it's unlikely to respond to such a request now, said Max Felker-Kantor of Ball State University, in an interview Monday. “The DOJ, in the last two or three years, has taken a step back from saying we're going to really do anything to holding police departments accountable,” said Felker-Kantor, a visiting assistant professor of history and African-American studies and the author of “Policing Los Angeles: Race, Resistance, and the Rise of the LAPD.”
Congress authorized the Justice Department to investigate systemic problems in police departments after an infamous 1991 Los Angeles incident in which police beat motorist Rodney King. The Obama administration pursued cases particularly aggressively. But Attorney General Jeff Sessions steered the department away from such investigations. Before Sessions left the government last month, Pro Publica reported, he signed a policy that could make it harder for the Justice Department to pursue police department reforms in the future.
“It places local jurisdictions in a real bind,” said Felker-Kantor, who plans to teach a course on policing, prisons and punishment at Ball State next spring. Determined local officials and civilian review boards may be able to deal with problems. But sometimes customary review procedures aren't enough and communities have to ask for help, especially when it appears the challenges may be systemic. With the Justice Department out of the picture, “there's nowhere else ... where there's an avenue for external oversight” of a local department, Felker-Kantor said.
Will the state or federal government find a way to get Elkhart the help it is asking for? Will lawmakers give some thought to how situations such as this should be handled in the future?