A federal grand jury has indicted two Elkhart, Indiana, police officers on civil rights charges for repeatedly punching a handcuffed man last year, U.S. prosecutors announced Friday.
Elkhart County prosecutors had originally charged the two officers, Cory Newland and Joshua Titus, with misdemeanor battery in November, after the South Bend Tribune and ProPublica learned of the incident and requested video.
The video showed Mario Guerrero Ledesma, seated and wearing handcuffs, in a detention area at the city police station in January 2018, while Newland, Titus and other officers stood nearby. At one point, Guerrero Ledesma spat toward Newland. Titus and Newland immediately punched Guerrero Ledesma in the face, causing him to fall backward onto the floor, then jumped on top of him and punched him repeatedly. Guerrero Ledesma had initially been arrested on suspicion of domestic battery.
“Today’s indictments send a clear message that the FBI won’t tolerate the abuse of power or victimization of citizens by anyone in law enforcement,” Grant Mendenhall, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Indianapolis division, said in a statement. “The alleged actions by these individuals went against everything in the oath they took to serve and protect.”
The federal indictment accuses Newland and Titus of depriving Guerrero Ledesma of his rights by using excessive force, and it alleges he was injured in the beating.
Beyond the federal indictment, the battery charges against Newland and Titus in Elkhart County also are still pending. Both officers have pleaded not guilty. Titus is scheduled for a May trial in Elkhart Superior Court. Newland is set for a round of negotiations with prosecutors in April about a possible plea agreement, according to the docket for his case in Elkhart City Court.
The Tribune left phone messages on Friday for attorneys representing the officers in Elkhart County. Neither Newland nor Titus has returned calls seeking comment in the past.
Five months after the incident, Elkhart’s police chief at the time, Ed Windbigler, gave the officers written reprimands. Speaking to the city’s police oversight commission in June, Windbigler said the two officers “just went a little overboard” in subduing a person in custody, but he said nothing of the punches thrown and said there were no injuries in the incident.
The civil rights charge against Newland and Titus carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, according to a news release from the U.S. Department of Justice.
“My office takes allegations of civil rights violations seriously, including use of excessive force by police officers sworn to uphold the law,” U.S. Attorney Thomas L. Kirsch said in the news release.
The Tribune and ProPublica first requested video of the beating as part of an investigation into disciplinary matters in the Elkhart Police Department. The news organizations also revealed 28 of the department’s 34 highest-ranking officers had disciplinary records, 15 had been suspended and seven had opened fire in at least one fatal shooting.
Later, the Tribune and ProPublica reported on another disciplinary case in which Windbigler, the chief at the time, had provided inaccurate or incomplete information to the civilian oversight commission.
In the wake of the reports, Windbigler was suspended and later resigned. Mayor Tim Neese also announced an independent review of the Police Department, to be conducted by former U.S. Attorney Deborah Daniels. Neese has abandoned his re-election effort.