When the Allen County judge presiding over the David Bisard trial said he had heard bad things about the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, the comments underscored just how deeply the case had damaged the department’s credibility with the public.
But the criticism also may have been an outdated reference, a case of the department’s reputation preceding itself.
The veteran police officer’s drunken-driving accident, in which he killed one person and severely injured two others, and the controversial investigation of it no doubt tainted the department’s image. Since the 2010 crash, though, IMPD has made significant policy changes. And more are on the way.
“That’s something a lot of people overlook in this entire affair,” said Jim White, senior lecturer at the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indianapolis. “A lot of good has come out of this tragic mess. What the public should know is that the department is really trying to clean up its act.”
The department strengthened several regulations about alcohol use on the job and how accidents are investigated.
It bolstered its officer assistance program, now a model that other departments are following.
It is developing ways to recognize troubled officers or those with disciplinary problems early so they can get help or be taken off the street.
Public Safety Director Troy Riggs says the department is making progress.
The question is whether the changes will help permanently shift the culture at IMPD from insular to accessible and, just as importantly, restore the public’s confidence.
“The Bisard incident certainly gave the department a real reason to stop and reflect,” said attorney Bruce Kehoe, who represented Bisard crash victim Kurt Weekly in a lawsuit against the city. “Whether these changes are real is yet to be seen.”
Bisard was convicted Nov. 5 in an Allen County courtroom of nine felony counts of reckless homicide, criminal recklessness and drunken driving causing death. He likely faces up to 30 years in prison. The trial was moved to Fort Wayne because of extensive pretrial publicity in Indianapolis.
The department’s handling of the incident drew criticism from the day of the crash, Aug. 6, 2010, through the trial.
Dozens of officers who went to the scene of the fatal accident on East 56th Street near I-465 said they saw no signs that Bisard was drunk. Many said they went there simply to comfort him.
Officers who drove him to the medical center where his blood was drawn for a blood-alcohol test stopped at a gas station on the way and bought Bisard a soda and chewing tobacco.
After the draw, his commander took Bisard to lunch at a deli, then drove him to a police garage to get a new squad car.
A vial of Bisard’s blood was accidentally moved from a refrigerator in the police property room to an unrefrigerated shelf. During a police investigation of the foul-up, Internal Affairs investigators secretly recorded a conversation with the deputy prosecutor trying the case and wanted to monitor the police chief’s emails, revelations later disclosed.
And despite department reforms put in place over the past three years, signs of clandestine behavior emerged once again during the trial.
Judge John Surbeck exploded when he learned that a police major sitting in the back row of the courtroom was emailing summaries of testimony to Police Chief Rick Hite and other high-ranking officials.
The problem was that many police officers were on the witness list, and Surbeck was concerned their testimony could be influenced by what other witnesses before them had said.
The revelation is what prompted the judge’s criticism of IMPD.
“I’ve heard a lot of bad things” about the department, Surbeck said. “This is bad.”
Surbeck reviewed the emails and determined they did not affect any testimony. Riggs later acknowledged the incident was embarrassing.
An Indianapolis Star open records request for all emails sent by Maj. Greg Bieberich from Oct. 13 to Oct. 23 was rejected Nov. 8.
“We are unable to locate any responsive records, given the vague nature of your public access request,” said an email from Samantha DeWester, a city official who handles public records requests.
Indianapolis Fraternal Order of Police President Bill Owensby said the email incident during the trial showed that there remains a culture of “secrecy and paranoia at the IMPD that is going to be hard to change.”
He said cultural changes have to start at the top.
“That way of doing business for some people is hard to get away from,” he said. “You cannot do business like that and be a progressive department. It has everyone looking over their shoulders, and you have seen it over and over again in the Bisard case.”
The public howled loudly and often about how the department handled Bisard, suspecting a double standard for police officers. Many residents said they couldn’t imagine police treating them so gently if they were ever in an alcohol-related fatal crash.
Indianapolis resident Fritz King, who has followed the Bisard case since the beginning and has been troubled by it, said an independent monitor needs to step in and take oversight of the department.
“The Bisard case and how it was handled from beginning to end show that we need an independent review of this department,” King said. “The culture seems to be that the rules don’t apply to police that apply to everyone else. The internal investigative process is inadequate, and it all starts at the top.”
Kehoe said incidents such as the police emails during the trial will continue to hurt the department, no matter how many reforms are adopted.
“They really need to consider the perception those things leave with the public,” he said. “It undermines credibility.”
Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago who studies police corruption and abuse, said the department seems to be on the right track.
He said repairing a department’s image always requires a strong hand from the administration. Simpson said cases in Illinois spurred new task forces or legislation.
“It requires first of all, at the top of the police department, that the police superintendent and his deputies are enforcing proper police procedures and are disciplining officers that violate the norms of proper procedure,” Simpson said.
Riggs said he does not think an outside monitor is necessary.
“I think we’re making good progress on our own,” he said.
The department has put in place a host of reforms.
Every police officer involved in a crash is now required to take a portable breath test if there is property damage or an injury. Officers are not allowed to drink eight hours before their shift or carry alcohol in their take-home cars.
They can be disciplined for driving with any amount of alcohol in their systems. Any officer convicted of drunken driving automatically faces job termination.
A special investigations unit was created to watch over incidents that might involve wrongdoing by police.
Riggs said he plans to ask the City-County Council to make it easier for the police chief to fire misbehaving officers. Riggs wants to give the chief the authority to fire officers who have pending felony charges. Now, they are suspended without pay until the resolution of their criminal cases and the firing is approved by the Civilian Police Merit Board.
“They would still have an appeals process in place, but this would let us hire people to fill those slots while these cases are being decided, which can take years sometimes,” Riggs said.
The proposal is opposed by the Fraternal Order of Police, which thinks Riggs is trying to undermine due process for officers.
Riggs said eight officers now are suspended whom Hite has recommended for termination.
“Nothing shows the pubic we are taking discipline seriously more than to show them we are holding officers accountable,” Riggs said. “The citizens expect the chief to take action when there is wrongdoing.”
Riggs is forming a task force to examine ways to make it easier for the public to file complaints against police officers and is creating a computer system to log incidents of officer reprimands. Now, for instance, a commander at one post may be unaware of a recently transferred officer’s troubles at a prior post.
Riggs said 600 supervisors also are being trained to better spot red flags for behavior issues and how to intervene when a problem arises.
White, the senior lecturer at IUPUI, said the Bisard saga certainly has made regaining the public’s trust much more difficult, but he thinks the department is succeeding.
“The public shouldn’t let this one incident overshadow a lot of good that’s going on in the department,” he said.
Riggs, who just finished his first year on the job, knew coming in that there was a lot of damage control to be done because of the Bisard case.
“Frankly, a lot of people warned me not to take the job because of Bisard,” said Riggs, who was hired from Corpus Christi, Texas, and had worked as an officer in his hometown of Louisville, Ky. “And when I visited the police stations my first weeks on the job, every officer I talked to mentioned Bisard and how it had negatively impacted the department.”
Some of the greatest strides have been in the department’s employee-assistance program.
The department has boosted efforts to get officers who are dealing with emotional, medical or substance-abuse problems to voluntarily seek counseling. Walk-ins have increased dramatically, the department says.
The aim is to get officers into counseling before a problem becomes a crisis and to make supervisors more aware of small signs that could indicate big problems.
Riggs said officers want to be held to a higher standard than the average citizen. They also know that is the only way to regain the public’s trust.
“They welcome it, they want to be held accountable, they want this to be behind us,” Riggs said.
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