How internal investigations are handled at police departments in St. Joseph County

Published: May. 24, 2023 at 6:34 PM EDT
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. (WNDU) - Police accountability is something you hear investigative reporters talk about a lot.

But in order for the police to answer to the public, they first need to conduct internal reviews to answer to themselves.

These reviews happen when an officer is accused of misconduct or, in the most crucial of circumstances– when there’s been an officer-involved shooting.

So how do we ensure these reviews are done objectively when police are policing themselves?

The International Association of Chiefs of Police say, “Trust and transparency between law enforcement agencies and the people they serve is vital to community stability, officer safety, and effective policing.”

South Bend Police Chief Scott Ruszkowski tells 16 News Now Investigates that transparency is also something expected of law enforcement leaders on the local, state, and federal levels.

“That’s one of the overall themes that our nation has said that they expect the accountability and the transparency from police departments,” he explains.

Those concepts especially matter when police are investigating complaints or allegations against their own.

“The public does have a right to know, and our officers have a right to be exonerated if that’s the case or held accountable if that’s the case,” he adds.

When asking police departments in St. Joseph County for their policies, 16 News Now Investigates focused on investigations into officer-involved shootings as well as alleged officer misconduct.

Though the agencies in St. Joseph County don’t have the same review methodologies, they do help each other with some of the most significant investigations into officers’ actions. The South Bend Police Department, Mishawaka Police Department, and St. Joseph County Police Department have a memorandum of understanding to investigate officer-involved shootings so that a department would not be investigating its own officers in incidents where they have discharged their firearms in the line of duty.

But when it comes to alleged officer misconduct, each department’s reviews are done independently.

For South Bend Police, officer misconduct is when an officer or employee commits either a criminal act, neglect of duty, or violation of a policy or rule. The review process for misconduct begins when the department receives a complaint. Complaints are sent to the Office of Professional Standards for review. The severity and type of complaint determine what happens next.

“There still is a line between a criminal matter—which, police could be charged with criminal things at times-- and policy matters, training matters, things of that nature,” says Chief Ruszkowksi. “So, there is a fine line, but it’s made with a broad brush.”

South Bend’s internal investigations may involve interviews with officers, the complainant, and witnesses, as well as the review of evidence such as video footage, photos, and arrest reports.

“We actually go out, we look for other witnesses, we do follow-ups, we let them know how the case was resolved if it was resolved. And if not, why it hasn’t been,” says Ruszkowski. “This is what the community, they pay for us to do these things and they do have a right to know exactly what goes on.”

Once the internal investigation is completed, the chief makes a recommendation for “progressive discipline.”

“This is about corrective action—things we can take to keep the officer from losing his or her job, and to maintain our standards, our reputation with the community,” he explains.

That corrective action can range from training, change of assignment, verbal or written reprimand, suspension, demotion, or termination. Disciplinary recommendations from a letter of reprimand through termination must also be reviewed by the Board of Public Safety.

For South Bend’s Chief of Police, these internal reviews are part of the job description.

“It’s obviously a service to our community. That’s what we do for a living. And we want to hold ourselves accountable for that. And just as important, if not more important is, an officer’s career is on the line. So, you can’t make mistakes when it comes to issues that are complained on,” he says.

“Some officers and maybe some community may think it’s trivial, but if there’s more than one trivial, or a sequence of trivial matters, then it becomes a problem obviously. We want to stop those before they happen.”

St. Joseph County Police also take community complaints seriously. Once a complaint is recorded, it is referred to a supervisor, the legal advisor, or for an international investigation.

Their policies go on to say the following:

“When any person applies for assistance or advice, or makes complaints or reports, either by telephone or in-person, all pertinent information will be obtained in an official courteous manner and will be properly and judiciously acted upon consistent with established departmental procedures.”

PIO Troy Warner tells 16 Investigates there are different review processes depending on the complaint.

“Violations of policy are separate investigations from violations of criminal law; there maybe both going on either simultaneously or after each other. Policy violations are internal investigations done within the department; however, anytime there is a suspected criminal law violation, Indiana state police are contacted to investigate that incident so that our officers are not investigating their own co-workers criminal acts.”

Mishawaka Police sent us this policy when we asked how they handle community complaints:

“The Mishawaka Police Department handles complaints against officers from citizens in the following manner. Citizens are welcome to call or come into our department and fill out a Citizen’s Complaint Form. This form is then directed to the division that the officer who is the subject of the complaint. The supervisor of that officer then reviews reports, camera footage and interviews the officer. The findings are then submitted to the assistant chief of that division. The assistant chief then makes the department head, Chief of Police, aware of the findings. In instances where the officer is found in violation of policy/procedure, discipline is then handed down based on an administrative review of the violations. Discipline can be levied against an officer in the form of a documented verbal reprimand, written reprimand, suspension days (unpaid) and termination.”

Like St. Joseph County Police, Mishawaka Police also turn over complaints that are criminal violations to the Indiana State Police for investigation before forwarding them to the St. Joseph County Prosecutor’s Office for charging review. For Mishawaka Police, an Internal Affairs investigation is then automatically triggered at the Mishawaka Police Department, but this step of the process does not officially start until the criminal proceedings have been completed.

Though each department polices itself in some ways, the methodology and transparency surrounding the reviews differ.

Despite his commitment to transparency during internal reviews, South Bend Police Chief Scott Ruszkowski knows you can’t please everyone.

“No matter what we do, how open, how transparent, how honest we are, there will always be people who either want more or will never believe us. And that’s just a given. It’s sad, but that’s a reality,” he explains.

To ensure the public can learn more about what South Bend Police are looking into, their website includes a transparency hub that includes a guide to the complaints investigation process, data on how many community complaints are reviewed, and what the outcome was.

“We need to be proud of the things that we do, and most departments do not do that. Most departments are very secretive with things—they shouldn’t be,” says the police chief.

Chief Ruszkowski tells 16 Investigates there are many sets of eyes on internal reviews– including a use of force committee, every level of supervision, command staff, division chiefs, and the office of professional standards. This is because police need to be able to look within their departments in order to ensure they are offering the best possible service– much like businesses in the private sector.

“A lot of people say that we shouldn’t be policing ourselves; we shouldn’t be doing that. But there’s every single career you can think of comes with somebody who’s an expert in that career. We are no different,” adds Ruszkowksi.

Indiana State Police also aim to be transparent by making all of their regulations and standard operating procedures available online– that means anyone interested can access information on how allegations of misconduct or community complaints are handled.