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An Elkhart Police Officer Was Convicted of Drunken Driving — Then the Chief Promoted Him

Last year, Chief Ed Windbigler said he doubted the case against the officer would stick. After the officer pleaded guilty, the chief didn’t discipline him. This year, Windbigler promoted him to detective without telling an oversight board.

Downtown Elkhart (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune)

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

Elkhart, Indiana, Police Chief Ed Windbigler is currently serving a 30-day suspension, in part for misleading a civilian oversight commission about the severity of misconduct committed by two officers who repeatedly punched a handcuffed man in the face.

But that wasn’t the first time Windbigler had provided the commission with inaccurate or incomplete information about an officer’s misconduct, according to records obtained by the South Bend Tribune and ProPublica.

In May 2017, Windbigler told the city’s Police Merit Commission that an officer, Brandan Roundtree, had been arrested in Noblesville, Indiana, on suspicion of drunken driving. But the chief said he would “be surprised if it even sticks.” Windbigler said Roundtree, a “top-notch cop,” had been charged despite breath test results under the legal threshold. The results of a blood test taken the day of Roundtree’s arrest had yet to come back, Windbigler said.

“Something just doesn’t seem right about the whole thing,” the chief said, twice.

But Windbigler’s description of the evidence wasn’t accurate, according to court records. Roundtree had been charged in late March, about six weeks before the meeting. An affidavit filed with the charging document in March included the results of Roundtree’s blood test, showing a blood-alcohol content of .083, above the legal limit of .08.

It’s unclear if Windbigler knew the information he was providing to the commission was false. A police department spokesman said Windbigler would not be available for an interview because of his suspension. Windbigler did not respond to a message sent to his work email, and other efforts to reach him by phone and email were unsuccessful. The spokesman, Lt. Travis Snider, said Roundtree declined to be interviewed, and that the department would be unable to get answers to a reporter’s questions while Windbigler was away.

In August 2017, three months after the meeting, Roundtree pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of operating a vehicle while intoxicated. He was sentenced to 60 days in jail, with 58 suspended. He was given credit for two days already served, and placed on a year’s probation.

Despite the charge and conviction, Roundtree was never disciplined by Windbigler, according to Roundtree’s personnel file.

Instead, Windbigler promoted Roundtree to detective this June, less than a year after the guilty plea. The command staff neglected to inform the oversight commission of the move, even though the commission must approve such promotions, according to Jim Rieckhoff, the commission’s chairman. He says the oversight panel was notified of the promotion in a letter this week from Todd Thayer, the acting police chief.

Rieckhoff also seemed unaware until told by a reporter Thursday that Roundtree had pleaded guilty.

“Did he?” Rieckhoff said.

While Roundtree was not disciplined in Elkhart, officers arrested elsewhere in Indiana for drunken driving have often faced serious punishment. In 2017, an Indianapolis police officer charged with misdemeanor drunken driving was suspended for 30 days. So was a Fort Wayne police detective. An Evansville sergeant was suspended for five days. A Frankfort detective resigned.

In nearby South Bend, three officers were arrested on suspicion of drunken driving between December 2005 and February 2006. All three were demoted. In addition, one was suspended for 30 days; the other two were either suspended or placed on unpaid leave for 21 days. In 2013, another South Bend officer arrested for driving while drunk was suspended for 21 days. He subsequently resigned after being arrested two more times on suspicion of drunken driving.

Windbigler’s handling of Roundtree’s arrest came as disciplinary actions dropped sharply under the chief’s command.

In the decade before Windbigler took command, previous police chiefs presented an average of 20 disciplinary actions a year to the police oversight board. In 2016, Windbigler’s first year, he brought zero.

The Tribune and ProPublica recently reported that of the Police Department’s 34 supervisors, 28 have disciplinary records. Fifteen have served suspensions, including the chief, assistant chief and patrol captain. Three supervisors were convicted of criminal charges during their careers.

In his nearly three years as chief, Windbigler has promoted 18 supervisors with disciplinary records, according to a review of personnel files.

“Some Pending Personal Things”

On Feb. 19, 2017, at 4:02 a.m., Roundtree, an Elkhart officer since 2008, was pulled over by police in Noblesville, northeast of Indianapolis. An officer stopped Roundtree because he failed to dim his headlights. The officer, in a report, said Roundtree smelled of alcohol, had watery, bloodshot eyes, unsteady balance, and failed all three field sobriety tests he was given.

The police said they couldn’t get “two successful breaths” from Roundtree when using a breath test. The probable-cause affidavit said a breath-test result of .065 had been entered on a form, but that result was invalid. So police had his blood drawn to gauge intoxication.

On March 29, Roundtree was charged in Hamilton Superior Court with operating while intoxicated, a misdemeanor. A probable-cause affidavit filed that day included the result of the blood test, showing it was above the legal limit.

A promotional review board interviewed Roundtree on April 18, two months after his arrest. The board — consisting of the assistant chief, two captains, a sergeant and a detective — selected Roundtree among three candidates for promotion to detective. Windbigler concurred with the choice.

On April 24, the Merit Commission granted Windbigler’s request to promote Roundtree. Windbigler told the commissioners that for staffing reasons, the actual move would probably not take effect for four to six weeks. At this meeting, Roundtree’s drunken driving charge was not brought up.

Windbigler appeared at the commission’s next meeting on May 8. He told the commission that because of “some pending personal things going on in Noblesville,” Roundtree was voluntarily giving up his pending promotion. But at first he didn’t say what those things were.

With the support of Elkhart Mayor Tim Neese and Windbigler, the Police Merit Commission had been formed in January 2017 to oversee discipline and promotions. Two of its five members — Clifton Hildreth and Rieckhoff, the commission’s chair — were selected by police officers themselves. Those oversight functions had previously been handled by a board whose five members were selected by the mayor.

At the meeting in May, Hildreth told Windbigler he had yet to meet Roundtree, “but I’ve heard quite a bit about him.”

“He is top-notch,” Windbigler replied. “You will not hear anything bad about Roundtree … I mean, everybody likes Roundtree … He is a top-notch cop.”

A couple of minutes passed, as Windbigler spoke about Roundtree’s general background. When asked by one commission member whether the personal issues affected Roundtree’s current position, Windbigler explained what the “personal things” were.

Roundtree, the chief told the board, had a pending criminal charge in Noblesville, where he had been arrested on suspicion of drunken driving.

“But he only tested, .05 and .06 when they tested him with the breath test. They went ahead and filed the charges anyway and took blood, we haven’t got blood back yet,” Windbigler said at the meeting. “This is very out of character for him, and I’ll be surprised if it even sticks. Because it’s just, it just, something doesn’t seem right about the whole thing.”

“So he tested .05, he blew .05, .06 and they charged him anyway?” Hildreth asked.

“Getting blood back doesn’t happen overnight. I mean it takes a while to get all those results back. So. He’s got an attorney, and he’s, they’re looking into it. But it just, I don’t know. Something just doesn’t seem right about the whole thing. And hopefully he’ll get it all squared away,” Windbigler said.

“I hope so. Huh,” Hildreth replied.

By this point, those results were already back, and had been for more than a month.

The commission approved Windbigler’s request to put off Roundtree’s promotion and give the detective spot to another officer.

The commissioners asked for no other details about Roundtree’s arrest. The panel and Windbigler had spent less than four minutes on the matter.

Starting in late March 2017, when prosecutors charged Roundtree, his driver’s license was suspended. Twice — once in May and again in July — Roundtree asked a judge to grant him special driving privileges while his case was pending.

“I am a deputized law enforcement officer in Elkhart County Indiana and my job requires me to drive in order to perform training, routine patrols, and other job related tasks,” Roundtree wrote in one of the motions. The judge denied both requests.

Even while Roundtree’s license was suspended, he continued to work for the police department.

Recently, on Nov. 27, a Tribune reporter put in a request for Roundtree’s personnel records.

A week later, on Dec. 3, Thayer, the Police Department’s acting chief, wrote a letter to the Merit Commission, according to Rieckhoff. The letter, Rieckhoff said, notified the commission that Roundtree had been promoted to detective on June 25. Thayer apologized in the letter, saying the department had neglected to alert the commission, and now wanted its approval. That request has been placed on the commission’s agenda for Monday, Rieckhoff said.

A reporter asked Rieckhoff about the commission not learning the outcome of Roundtree’s criminal case.

“I am surprised it didn’t come back in some form to us,” Rieckhoff said. “I have no idea why. I’m certainly curious.”

“I feel really sure it will definitely come up at the meeting on Monday.”

“Understating the Severity”

Two other recent cases, also involving criminal charges against Elkhart police officers, offer examples of Windbigler describing misconduct in understated terms.

In June, Windbigler told the merit commission the two officers who repeatedly punched a handcuffed man “just went a little overboard,” but he said nothing of the punches thrown. The chief said he had issued reprimands rather than more serious discipline because of the officers’ clean records. But one of the officers had six prior suspensions. Windbigler also said “no” when asked whether there were any injuries, though the handcuffed man was taken from the police station on a stretcher.

After the Tribune and ProPublica obtained video of the beating, Mayor Neese suspended Windbigler for 30 days without pay because of the chief’s “failure to promptly notify” the mayor of the officers’ actions, and for “understating the severity of the incident” to the merit commission.

In another case, the chief told the merit commission in August that a detective, Scott Hupp, had “made some irrational decisions, and because of those decisions his wife has filed some criminal charges against him.” Windbigler did not offer details about the accusations against Hupp, and the commissioners did not ask for any.

Prosecutors had charged Hupp in Elkhart Superior Court with felony residential entry and two misdemeanor counts of harassment. One harassment charge alleged Hupp called his estranged wife 31 times in 43 minutes. The felony charge alleged Hupp tried to break into his wife’s home while she and her daughter slept. According to court records, Hupp admitted to placing a GPS tracker on the car his wife was driving. Hupp has entered a not-guilty plea. A reporter was unable to reach him for comment Thursday.

The chief said he had decided to place Hupp on leave — with pay — while his criminal case worked its way through court. Hupp had gone through three bouts of cancer, Windbigler said, and he was “struggling with the meds he’s taking, he’s lost a ton of weight and he’s struggling with life in general, but when you make an irrational decision I can’t keep you working for me at the time.”

A commissioner wondered: “Maybe it’s the meds he’s on — could have something to do with the irrational…”

“It could be,” the chief said. “[W]hat I did was I ordered him to counseling and we’re working through that process now. And he accepted that freely, he said he knew he needed it, so that’s what he’s doing now, and we’ll figure it out.”

Last month, the department moved Hupp to unpaid leave. Thayer said the court case was taking too long, and it wasn’t fair to taxpayers to keep paying Hupp.

The South Bend Tribune and ProPublica are investigating criminal justice issues in Elkhart County, Indiana. If you have a story to share, please email [email protected].

Christian Sheckler covers criminal justice for The South Bend Tribune. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @jcsheckler.

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