Bench trial begins on SBPD recorded phone calls

It’s been two years in the making, but the legal battle over recorded telephone calls at the South Bend Police Department has gone to trial.

A bench trial began this morning before U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Van Bokkelen at the federal courthouse in South Bend.

It’s not wrong or illegal to record phone conversations involving police officers if it’s done under the right circumstances.

The topic of testimony in court today dealt with the exact circumstances in play in the South Bend case.

The city’s premier policy maker on the subject, former Police Chief Thomas Fautz, started the practice of recording the phone lines of his division chiefs around 2005.

Today, Fautz testified that it was never his policy or practice to record anybody without their knowledge or consent.

Fautz said that officers had an “expectation of privacy,” and that it would be improper and perhaps illegal to record an officer against that officer’s will.

The city contends that Captain Brian Young ended up with a tapped phone line by mistake when he switched officers following a promotion.

Young found out about it about two years later.

At this trial, there is only one decision to make: Whether the public will hear the tapes or not.

The city has spent some $935,000 settling all civil claims in the case.

The current Director of Communications for the SBPD today spent more than two hours on the stand.

Diane Scott says the police policy for dispatchers is clear: All of their lines are recorded all the time. Dispatchers are told all personal calls must be made from the break room on the only untapped phone they have at their disposal.

Scott said the police chief alone makes all decisions when it comes to tapping the lines of his top brass.

Scott testified that she was told in October of 2011 that Capt. Brian Young’s line had been recorded by mistakes and that it “needed to be stopped, like yesterday.”

Scott testified that she tried to separate Capt. Young’s line from the recording device but was unable.

The South Bend Common Council issued a subpoena for copies of the tapes. The council’s attorney contends that wiretapping is legal if it’s done in the ordinary course of business.

The police department does not record all phone lines because its system does not have the capacity.

The judge set aside three days to hear testimony but attorneys expressed a belief that they could wrap up by the end of business on Wednesday.

Van Bokkelen indicated that he would take the matter under advisement and rule at a later date.

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