Indiana’s first man to be pardoned based on innocence was tried in Elkhart County. But that troubling case doesn’t stand alone. In a county known for cranking out RVs, there’s a deeper story about how justice is carried out by police, prosecutors and judges.
Update, Oct. 13, 2023: A federal judge in Indiana sentenced former Elkhart, Indiana, police officer Joshua Titus to one year and one day in federal prison for his role in repeatedly punching a handcuffed man in 2018. U.S. District Court Judge Philip P. Simon called the beating “one of the most shocking things I’ve seen on video, and I’ve seen a lot,” according to the South Bend Tribune.
A second police officer has pleaded guilty to a federal civil rights charge filed in response to a 2018 investigation of the criminal justice system in Elkhart, Indiana, by the South Bend Tribune and ProPublica. His conviction is the latest development in the extensive fallout from the news organizations’ reporting on the city’s policing.
Joshua Titus had been scheduled to stand trial next week. But he instead entered a plea of guilty late last month to a felony charge of violating the civil rights of a man in police custody. Both Titus and fellow officer Cory Newland had been captured on video repeatedly punching the man, who was handcuffed to a chair in the police station’s detention area, as other officers stood nearby.
The two news organizations exposed the 2018 beating after the Tribune filed a records request for the video. Newland pleaded guilty to a federal civil rights charge last year and was sentenced to 15 months in prison. Titus is scheduled to be sentenced in July, according to court records.
Titus, reached by phone Thursday, said when asked about the case, “You’ll have to speak with my attorney about that, bud.” Titus’ attorney declined to comment. Newland’s attorneys wrote in an email: “Cory long ago accepted full responsibility for his conduct. His statement to the court at sentencing was perhaps one of the most reflective, thoughtful, and compelling statements ever provided under such circumstances. It is clear to us and to all who know Cory, that his conduct was not representative of his true heart and character as a person.”
As part of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, the Tribune and ProPublica investigated wrongful convictions, questionable convictions, dubious investigative practices and a lack of police accountability in Elkhart, a city best known nationally for the manufacture of recreational vehicles. The investigation revealed that of the police department’s 34 supervisors, 28 had disciplinary records and seven had opened fire in at least one fatal shooting. (“That’s high. That’s high,” one criminal justice expert said of the number of fatal shootings by Elkhart police. “I don’t know what kind of place this Elkhart is.”)
In the wake of the newsrooms’ joint investigation:
The city’s mayor abandoned his reelection campaign.
The city commissioned an outside study of its police force, which found that officers were viewed in the community as “cowboys” who engage in “rough treatment of civilians.” The 97-page study criticized the department’s lack of accountability and its “vague and non-descriptive” use-of-force reports. The study also said the department suffered from a “trust deficit,” fueled by reports of officers driving or firing guns while intoxicated; being abusive to residents; and blaming camera malfunctions for critical police interactions going unrecorded.
Keith Cooper, a man wrongly convicted of an armed robbery in Elkhart, received $7.5 million in a record settlement with the city, which apologized for its handling of his case. (The settlement was reached in 2022; the two news organizations profiled the troubling police work in Cooper’s case in 2018.)
The main investigator in Cooper’s case was a police detective who had been forced to resign because of sexual misconduct with an informant. But the city had failed to disclose the details of his misconduct for more than 10 years. After the city disclosed the long-missing records in 2019, the former detective died in an apparent suicide.
After the news organizations published the video of Titus and Newland beating the handcuffed man, the U.S. Department of Justice, in 2019, secured indictments against the two officers. Those indictments, an FBI special agent said in a statement, “send a clear message that the FBI won’t tolerate the abuse of power or victimization of citizens by anyone in law enforcement. The alleged actions by these individuals went against everything in the oath they took to serve and protect.” The Justice Department declined to comment on their convictions.