The mayor of Elkhart, Indiana, said Monday “in hindsight” his police chief should have handed down more severe punishment than reprimands to a pair of officers who now face criminal charges for repeatedly punching a handcuffed man in the face.
At the same time, Mayor Tim Neese defended Chief Ed Windbigler, who earlier told a civilian oversight board that the two officers had gone “a little overboard” with a man in custody, while saying nothing of punches being thrown. Windbigler also told the oversight board that no one suffered injuries, even though video shows the man being taken from the police station on a stretcher.
“I think probably Chief Windbigler was not attempting to mislead anyone,” Neese said.
The city announced Friday that misdemeanor battery charges would be filed against officers Cory Newland and Joshua Titus over their role in the incident. In the interview on Monday, the mayor said the case was only sent to prosecutors after a reporter for the South Bend Tribune asked for a copy of video of the incident.
In the meantime, a review of the video by The Tribune and ProPublica shows that the mayor’s son, Sgt. Drew Neese, and Jason Ray, a corporal who is president of the Elkhart lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, were in the room at the time two of their colleagues punched the man. They walked over after their fellow officers began throwing punches.
Asked about the actions of those officers, including his son, Tim Neese said, “Some officers could have done more, and some officers probably could have done less.”
Although the video shows the handcuffed man bleeding from his head after the beating, Tim Neese said he was not convinced the injuries resulted from the officers’ punches. The mayor said the man was injured during a domestic disturbance before his arrest.
“I don’t have reason to believe that he had injuries that occurred at the Elkhart Police Department,” Neese said.
When asked by a Tribune reporter if the punches themselves could be considered injurious, Neese said, “I suppose that’s a subjective call.”
The Tribune and ProPublica are partnering on an investigation of criminal justice in Elkhart, looking at police accountability, among other issues.
On Friday, the Police Department released a 30-second video clip of the beating, which happened Jan. 12 in a detention area at the police station. That clip shows Newland and Titus pushing the man, Mario Guerrero Ledesma, onto the floor and punching him after he spits toward Newland. Newland and Titus didn’t return calls seeking comment.
Through a public records request, the Tribune and ProPublica also obtained footage that shows the 30-minute chain of events from the time Ledesma arrives in a squad car to the moment medics wheel him out on a stretcher.
The video shows Newland approaching while Ledesma is still in the squad car.
“Hey, you gonna chill out?” Newland asks. “No, you’re not gonna chill out? Well, we re gonna have some fun, then, huh?
Inside the booking area, Ledesma refuses a Breathalyzer test. At one point he spits on the floor, near Titus’ feet.
“Don’t spit. I’m telling you, that’s the last time I m gonna ask you,” Newland says. “I asked you in the car; I m gonna ask you here, OK? Do not spit.
Ledesma is heard mumbling and moaning on the video.
“OK, if you spit again, we re gonna party, Newland says.
Six minutes later, Ledesma prepares to spit toward Newland, and the officer warns him not to. As Ledesma spits, Newland and Titus immediately push him onto the floor and together punch him at least 10 times. The officers leave Ledesma lying on the floor, bleeding, for about six minutes.
Ray says, “stop,” several times as the punching comes to an end. Neither Ray nor Drew Neese could be reached for comment.
Mayor Neese said his son was not disciplined for his role in the incident.
Tim Neese said Monday he learned about the beating about three weeks ago, when he was told the Tribune had requested a copy of any video the police department had of the incident. The mayor said he watched the video himself and decided the county prosecutor’s office should be notified.
Ledesma ultimately pleaded guilty to misdemeanor counts of domestic battery and resisting law enforcement. He was sentenced to a year in jail, with 133 days suspended.
A Tribune reporter requested the Ledesma video after noting a disparity between Windbigler’s public description to the city’s Police Merit Commission and what the chief wrote in personnel records.
In letters of reprimand to Newland and Titus, both dated June 12, Windbigler wrote: “I completely understand defending yourself during an altercation. However, striking a handcuffed subject in the face is not acceptable and will not be tolerated. We cannot let our emotions direct our reactions or over-reactions to situations such as this.
Speaking to the merit commission on June 25, Windbigler said Newland had “no other incidents in his file, so this is his first incident of any type of force.” Though Newland had no previous write-ups for excessive force, his record included six prior suspensions and two reprimands, issued between 2009 and 2013.
The misconduct he was suspended for included texting a woman he’d arrested for public nudity, asking her to “hang out”; failing to record numerous calls and traffic stops; and failing to investigate, then lying about, a complaint of domestic violence. The year after Newland joined the force, the police chief at the time suggested he seek counseling for anger management, according to one letter of suspension.
Neese said Windbigler may have meant Newland had no prior discipline since he took office as chief in January 2016.
Windbigler, in telling the commission that he had opted to punish the two officers with reprimands, described their actions as having been “a little too rough.
On Monday, Neese said he thought the chief should have handed down tougher punishments.
“I think in hindsight, what we know about what took place, that probably a little bit more severe discipline would have been appropriate,” Neese said. But he said he did not have broader concerns about the chief’s decision-making.
“He and I have had several conversations since this incident happened, and I know that Chief Windbigler thinks perhaps this could have been handled differently, but I do have a great deal of confidence in him.
Windbigler, through a department spokesman, declined a request for an interview Monday.
On Monday, the Tribune and ProPublica tried contacting each of the Police Merit Commission’s five members for comment.
Reached by phone, Thomas Barber, who is listed as the commission’s vice president, said: “That is an ongoing investigation, sir, and I cannot comment at this time. Thank you.
Brad Billings, listed as the commission’s secretary, did not return phone or emails messages. Roger Mansfield did not return a phone message. Efforts to reach the two other members — James Rieckhoff, the commission’s president, and Clifton Hildreth — were also unsuccessful.