WARSAW — Two Warsaw Police Department officers have been placed on “investigatory leave” in connection with the reckless driving incident on Jan. 25 that was being investigated by Police Chief Scott Whitaker.
The internal review of the two officers was announced Friday, Feb. 22, during a 45-minute news conference that also included an apology from Whitaker over a set of confusing circumstances that played out while he was investigating what appeared to be an impaired driver who almost struck his personal car and other motorists head-on while Whitaker tracked the vehicle on and around CR 200S.
No details about the officers in question, including what exactly they might have done to merit an investigation or their names, was released.
Meanwhile, Warsaw Mayor Joe Thallemer announced at the news conference that an audio tape from Whitaker’s conversation with dispatch as well as the police report and body cam video from responding officers would be posted later Friday on the city’s website in another attempt to give the public a full understanding of what happened.
Thallemer and Whitaker were joined by City Attorney Scott Reust at the news conference.
Concerns about Whitaker’s involvement surfaced about a week ago after an anonymous tip sparked an Indiana State Police investigation that found no wrongdoing.
The anonymous tip suggested Whitaker had used too much force with an elderly man who he believed had been traveling erratically.
After nearly being hit, Whitaker immediately asked dispatch for other officers to come to the scene as he continued to follow the vehicle. Since he was off-duty, he followed the blue Honda, but remained “in surveillance mode” and did not attempt to pull over the vehicle.
Ultimately, Whitaker and other officers determined the driver in question, 72-year-old Kathleen Brander of Warsaw, has difficulty driving at night. Also complicating the issue was confusion over who was actually behind the wheel because Whitaker was watching from a distance before he approached the couple’s home on Chickadee Lane.
Whitaker drove into the couple’s driveway after a man, later identified as Brander’s husband, 74-year-old Michael Brander, came out of the house and appeared to be getting into the vehicle, which was still running. A brief physical interaction with Whitaker and the man led to more questions.
Whitaker — believing the man was intoxicated — grabbed him from behind to prevent him from getting back into the car.
In his report, Whitaker said the man’s legs gave out. But audio from a body came aired by a South Bend TV station revealed the man claimed Whitaker “shoved” him to the ground.
Both the man and woman were found to be sober. Nobody was arrested and the couple did not file a complaint over the incident.
The city sought and received an investigative review by Indiana State Police, which determined within days the incident did not merit consideration of criminal charges.
Friday’s news conference included the playing of a 12-minute audio of Whitaker’s conversation with dispatch as he followed the Honda that eventually parked in a driveway on Chickadee Lane.
Whitaker apologized more than once Friday in part for the public attention the situation placed on the couple.
“I’d like to make a public apology to the gentleman. At the time, I believe he’d been operating a vehicle while impaired and that I had to prevent him from getting back into the said vehicle,” Whitaker said.
“Shortly into the investigation, I learned I was wrong, but you know, in police work, we make accusations and then follow it up with investigations and that’s how we determine whether or not somebody is to be arrested,” Whitaker said.
Whitaker added that he apologized to both people that night and also shook hands with the woman and encouraged her not to drive at night.
After the physical interaction, Whitaker said the man remained on his knees for a few minutes and then stood up once other officers arrived.
Whitaker was asked Friday if he used too much force when he shifted the mans position closer to the vehicle’s hood.
“Absolutely not. The amount of force I used was what I believed to be the amount needed to accomplish what I needed to, which was to simply slide him, maneuver him from the driver’s door.”
The fact the man’s knees gave out appeared to support the notion that he was impaired, Whitaker said.
Asked if he would have done anything differently, Whitaker said he would like to have had more information from dispatch sooner and have the other officers arrive sooner.
“I feel bad that I ended up accusing the wrong individual. No doubt about it and I’m publicly acknowledging that, but to say would I do anything differently, it would be no,” he said.
Whitaker said he quickly identified himself as a police officer when he approached the car to prevent the man from getting back into the vehicle.
“My immediate assumption was that he was extremely intoxicated and he was going to operate the vehicle that was already running with its lights on,” he said.
“I wish I had a body cam on me that night,” he said.
While initially talking to the woman, assuming she was not being truthful about who was driving, Whitaker could be heard on the body cam footage cursing. He said the use of the a-word is common in those situations as a way to impress upon a person the need to be honest.
“Oftentimes in law enforcement when someone you believe is lying to you (and you) have a strong acknowledgment that you don’t believe what they are telling you is the truth — they’re not going to believe you unless you are showing an emphasis behind it,” Whitaker said. “I believe it was appropriate for the incident.”
Thallemer described the circumstances as “an unfortunate incident” and a “misunderstanding,” but also stood by the chief.
“You did the right thing and I support what you did,” Thallemer told Whitaker during Friday’s gathering.
“I’m thankful that Chief Whitaker took action to protect the safety of that driver and the motoring public,” Thallemer said. “I can’t imagine the discussion we’d be having right now if that individual had caused a wreck involving the chief or any other driver that night.”
Thallemer said he thought the ISP review released earlier this week would settle the matter and is hoping Friday’s news conference and disclosure of more information on the city website helps alleviate concerns.
“We’re making ourselves available. I don’t know what further we can do in regards to the incident,” Thallemer said.