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Elkhart’s Mayor Says He Won’t Run for Re-election, Amid Revelations of Misconduct in the Police Ranks

Since November, two police officers have been charged with misdemeanor battery; news reports have detailed the promotion of many officers with disciplinary records; and the police chief has resigned.

Elkhart, Indiana, Mayor Tim Neese announced Tuesday he will not seek re-election in 2019, a move that comes after investigations by the South Bend Tribune and ProPublica into misconduct and discipline in the Elkhart Police Department, and more than a week after the resignation of the city’s former police chief. (Michael Caterina/South Bend Tribune)

This article was produced in partnership with the South Bend Tribune a member of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network.

Tim Neese, the mayor of Elkhart, Indiana, abandoned his re-election campaign Tuesday following revelations of misconduct in the city’s Police Department, including a video showing two officers beating a handcuffed man.

A news release, issued by Neese’s office, did not provide a reason for the mayor’s decision not to run again in 2019, when his term expires. Early Tuesday, Neese’s campaign website still appeared to signal plans for a second term, promising updates on “the many things going on during my 2019 Elkhart Mayor re-election campaign.” The site also showed Neese had raised campaign money at a Sept. 25 golf outing. By Tuesday evening, the site had been taken down.

“Serving as mayor of the City of Elkhart has been a great honor,” Neese said in the news release. “Each day presents a new opportunity to make a positive difference in the lives of others. That has been my number one priority since the day I decided to run for mayor. My greatest achievement, however, has always been my family. The titles of dad and grandpa are more important than the title of mayor.”

Neese, a Republican and a former state legislator, has been mayor since January 2016. He did respond Tuesday to a phone message seeking comment.

For the past two months, Neese has been under pressure as the city deals with questions about the behavior, supervision and oversight of its police force. Last week, Ed Windbigler resigned as Elkhart’s police chief, at the request of the mayor. At least two members of the city council had pushed for that move, while the council’s president said he was “incredibly disappointed” in Neese for demanding the chief’s resignation.

In November, the South Bend Tribune, working with ProPublica, obtained a copy of a video showing two Elkhart police officers repeatedly punching a handcuffed man in the face. “If you spit again, we’re gonna party,” one of the officers said minutes before the beating. During the beating, two other officers stood nearby in the police station’s detention area. One was Sgt. Drew Neese, the mayor’s son. He has not responded to messages seeking comment.

After the video became public, Mayor Neese told a Tribune reporter, “Some officers could have done more, and some officers probably could have done less.”

In June, Windbigler issued reprimands to the two officers involved in the beating. While notifying a civilian oversight commission, he made no mention of the punches thrown.

After the Tribune requested a copy of the video through a public records request, the two officers were charged in November with misdemeanor battery and placed on administrative leave. Those charges are still pending. The two officers have pleaded not guilty.

Video by Lucas Waldron

Neese suspended Windbigler for 30 days on Nov. 14 for failing to promptly notify the mayor’s office of the videotaped beating and for understating the severity of the officers’ misconduct to the oversight commission.

Weeks later, the Tribune and ProPublica reported on another case in which Windbigler provided the oversight commission with inaccurate or incomplete information about an officer’s misconduct. The officer in that case had been accused of drunken driving, a charge to which he later pleaded guilty. Days after that story was published, Neese asked for Windbigler’s resignation. “I admit that I am not perfect and have made mistakes, but I always tried to make sure we were making decisions that would be best for the department,” Windbigler said in a letter to the Police Department.

When Neese became mayor nearly three years ago, he selected Windbigler from among nine candidates to become police chief. Under Windbigler, disciplinary actions dropped sharply, the Tribune and ProPublica found. At the same time, Windbigler promoted 18 supervisors who had disciplinary records. One officer he made a sergeant had been disciplined at least 27 times, including 11 suspensions, according to personnel records.

In all, 28 of the department’s 34 supervisors had disciplinary records, the Tribune and ProPublica reported in November. Fifteen supervisors had been suspended, including Windbigler, the assistant chief and the patrol captain.

Neese had asked Indiana State Police to investigate the handcuffed beating incident, as well as the overall operation of the department. The state police declined to investigate, saying that is more the role of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Neese later said he would hire an outside firm to investigate after the Justice Department failed to respond to three requests to help investigate the city Police Department.

Before Neese took office, civilian oversight of the police was exercised by a board whose five members were all appointed by the mayor. In 2017, at Neese’s request, that function was shifted to a five-member commission in which two members are selected by the police. Dwight Fish, the lone member of the city council to vote against that change, has been critical of Neese for not doing enough to address police misconduct. “My constituents are mad as hell,” Fish told a Tribune reporter last month. “My constituents are scared as hell.”

In his announcement that he would not seek re-election, Neese said he will “continue to focus on public safety, economic development, quality of place, and government efficiency” for the remainder of his term.

When reached by phone Tuesday afternoon, Elkhart County Republican Party chairman Dan Holtz said he had heard of Neese’s decision only minutes earlier, when the mayor’s office released the announcement.

Holtz said he was “sort of surprised, a little bit disappointed, because I thought he was running for re-election and I think he’s done a good job.”

Holtz said he had “no idea” how much Neese’s handling of recent controversies in the Police Department had to do with the decision not to run for mayor again.

Republican City Councilman David Henke said Tuesday he plans to run for mayor next year. Neese should have acted more swiftly to address misconduct in the Police Department, Henke has said.

“We just needed a firm hand,” Henke told a reporter Tuesday.

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Ken Armstrong

Ken Armstrong is a senior reporter at ProPublica.

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