The Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department has a perception problem. It is perceived as corrupt, incompetent and in disarray. The public is expressing concern, disgust, outrage and disappointment over the departments handling of an investigation into one of it’s own which has been a comedy of errors since Officer David Bisard, who was alleged to have blown a .19 BAC crashed his patrol car into a group of motorcycles killing one person and seriously injuring several others in the fall of 2010.
It’s arguable that everyone is sick of hearing about Bisard and the horribly flawed investigation that has allowed him to avoid the most serious of criminal charges. But there are issues that are not going away. Rank in file IMPD cops blame the media for piling on in news stories about the Bisard case but the reality is that the case won’t go away because it is being mishandled…again. The Indianapolis Star reports that people from all corners of the city expressed a range of emotions Wednesday — one day after the announcement that the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department had, for the second time, mishandled evidence in the case of a suspended police officer who crashed his squad car into a group of motorcyclists while he may have been drunk.
But everyone seemed to have the same message for the city: They want the police department and its leaders to be held accountable. “This is just over-the-top disgusting,” said Indianapolis resident Wilson Allen, 70, who has lived Downtown for 40 years. “We need the police. We need them to be good. We need them to be competent. But if they can’t even keep track of critical evidence like that, that’s pitiful.” On Tuesday, Paul Ciesielski resigned as chief of police. But others are calling for the resignation of his boss, Public Safety Director Frank Straub. Coincidentally, Straub appeared before a City-County Council committee Wednesday night — at a previously scheduled hearing — to essentially prove he deserves to keep the job Mayor Greg Ballard appointed him to.
Mary Mills, who along with her husband, Kurt Weekly, was severely injured in the crash, said the city and the police are not taking responsibility for the botched investigation. The couple’s friend, 30-year-old Eric Wells, was killed in the crash. “Every single one of (the people involved),” she said during a news conference Wednesday, “they have some sort of responsibility.” Prosecutors discovered last week that one of two tubes containing the blood of suspended police officer David Bisard was moved to an unrefrigerated storage area despite a judge’s order to preserve it. The other vial, which was tested and indicated that Bisard was drunk the day of the crash, is still preserved.
Straub and Ballard announced the mistake Tuesday and said Ciesielski had stepped down from his post but will stay on as a captain. Three others have been placed on paid leave. The FBI will investigate what led to the mishandling of Bisard’s blood, and the people involved could face criminal charges. But many in the community, including former public safety leaders, want more. “IMPD must undergo critical operational changes and stop the game of musical chairs with the chain of command,” said the Rev. Stephen J. Clay of the Messiah Missionary Baptist Church.
Clay, who also runs the Indiana chapter of the civil rights organization National Action Network, said he was “deeply troubled over the failure to protect a key piece of evidence in this case.” At Wednesday night’s Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee meeting, several City-Council members peppered Straub with questions about the mishandling of Bisard’s blood. Straub is up for a one-year reappointment, and the committee and the City-County Council can weigh in on whether he keeps his job. Their recommendations, however, are nonbinding.
Democratic Councilman Frank Mascari asked, to applause from some in attendance: “Why is it that everybody at IMPD is accountable for their actions but you?” He added: “Every time something goes wrong, it seems like you throw somebody under the bus.” Straub responded by saying that reform of IMPD is a long process. It’s been a struggle for decades, he said, citing police corruption faced by former Mayor Richard Lugar in the 1970s and repeated incidents of officer misconduct up to recent years. But if Straub’s intent is to illustrate how deep-seated problems within the department are — and thus reinforce the need for his reforms — they also have rankled former public safety leaders. In particular, they are upset with Straub’s comments Tuesday that the department has been a hotbed for corruption for decades.
Some are calling for his resignation. “How can somebody come to our city and in two years label us corrupt?” former Indianapolis Police Department Chief Jerry Barker asked. Straub, a New Yorker, was hired in January 2010. Former Sheriff Jack Cottey said Straub’s comments “made me sick.” “He should move on,” Cottey said. “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.” The Fraternal Order of Police, which also has butted heads with Straub, claimed that at least eight other former chiefs and deputy chiefs felt the same way. Current FOP President Bill Owensby also was critical of Ciesielski, who he said was a weak leader. “Our internal surveys have shown for two straight years that confidence in the executive leadership, from the chief on up, has nose-dived,” Owensby said. “Our men and women are screaming, begging, for someone to take a leadership role.”
Owensby said the perception was that Ciesielski was cowed into a subservient role by the demanding Straub and that Straub ran the day-to-day operations of the department. Ciesielski, who has not spoken publicly since his resignation, did not respond to a request for an interview. At her news conference Wednesday afternoon, Mills displayed anger toward the department but mostly just wants to see that the officer who started this chain of events is punished. Bisard has been charged with several crimes, including reckless homicide. Prosecutor Terry Curry said Tuesday that he was “furious” that the blood was moved, but he doesn’t think it will hurt the case.
Marion Superior Court Judge Grant Hawkins already had ruled the blood could not be used to support drunken-driving charges against Bisard because the blood was drawn by someone who was not authorized to do so under the state’s drunken-driving laws. But prosecutors wanted to test the second vial of blood to verify the results of the first test. They plan to use the blood to support the other charges. Mills and Weekly also have filed lawsuits against Bisard, the city and police. The couple’s attorneys, Mark Ladendorf and Bruce Kehoe, said they’ve asked the city and its attorney in the matter to discuss the case and compensation for the victims several times but the city has refused or hasn’t responded. “They need to sit down and they need to put this issue behind them, not just for Kurt and Mary but for the city of Indianapolis,” Kehoe said. “They told us for the last six months that it’s just not the right time. It’s the right time.”
Attorney Larry Mackey, who’s representing the city in the suits, said in an email statement that the city has tried to resolve the matter. “The city actively explored settlement prior to the filing of lawsuits, but our offers were rejected,” Mackey said. “We stand ready, as always, to work towards a fair resolution for the plaintiffs and the city.” Mills said she has a hard time trusting police. Every time she sees a police car, she said, she gives it “the New Jersey salute.” Mills said she would like to believe that the errors were mistakes. “But I can’t feel that way,” she said. “Not with everything that has happened. . . . It’s hard to say, ‘Oh, just another mistake on this case, OK,’ and then press on.” Allen, the Indianapolis man who described the situation as “disgusting,” said he thinks the police department needs more than a simple fix. “It’s such a big problem that there’s no easy answer,” he said. “I don’t know how to solve the problem, but it has to be solved.”
Frank Straub was brought in to Indianapolis to help reform the IMPD. It has not been an easy task. Many rank in file officers loathe Straub. He is loathed by the FOP and many police supporters. Morale among rank in file officers is said to be low but is it low because of institutional problems like the ones that have plagued the Bisard investigation or is it low because of Straub. Is the resistance to Straub because the cops don’t want change and are fighting it tooth and nail or is Straub really the centerpiece of IMPD’s problems? The 1,600 members of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department are not corrupt. They are not incompetent. They are not drinking on duty and driving their patrol cars but make no mistake, the IMPD has a public perception problem.
This perception was not created by the media or the public. The perception is caused by rogue cops and Bisard himself. Everything else is a response to one or both of those issues. Cops complain that the media reports only on the bad things that cops do. Not true. The media reports on police actions everyday and often, the heroic actions of police officers save lives and make our streets safe but herein lies the problem. When a cop is accused a blowing a .19 BAC and the investigation is so botched to make criminal prosecution difficult at best…well…yeah, we have a problem. Part of the problem is the perception that there is a thin blue line that protects cops. Reality or not, this is how it seems and why? The FOP police union has rallied around Bisard and outrage about this horrible accident has been limited to command staff officers and Indianapolis elected leaders.
Many of us would just like to know that the rank in file officers are as outraged as we are. We want to know that Bisard has made your job more difficult not hear that we have made it more difficult by asking serious questions that deserve serious consideration. Contrary to what cops may think, they have the support of the people, most of the people, who put our faith in the men and women who put the badge on with honor everyday to do a most difficult job that we ask but I have to be honest, even this case makes me wonder just what is going on inside the IMPD.