*Update – This story has been updated to include comments from Mayor Joe Thallemer*
WARSAW — City Councilmen Michael Klondaris and Ron Shoemaker have issued strong criticisms of the city’s police controversy.
Klondaris said he will look into whether the council should hire an attorney to conduct an independent evaluation into Police Chief Scott Whitaker’s off-duty incident on Jan. 25 and the related 10-day suspensions of two officers.
Shoemaker, who is challenging Thallemer for mayor in the May primary, issued a statement, calling the situation “very troubling.”
Comments by Klondaris came shortly after State Rep. Dave Wolkins, of Warsaw, said he contacted the Indiana Attorney General’s office which advised council could look into the matter by hiring legal representation to review the circumstances.
Council is scheduled to meet Monday, March 18, and Klondaris said he will seek input from Council President Diane Quance on the matter, in part because it appears council has apparently never ventured toward such a move.
The development is the latest in a controversy that has seen Mayor Joe Thallemer offer strong support for Whitaker following the incident and suggested earlier this week the administration has done everything possible.
Klondaris thinks differently.
“I feel we probably need an immediate and independent evaluation of the Warsaw Police Department to find what in the world is going on,” Klondaris said.
“I know the mayor doesn’t agree and that’s OK … These aren’t things I find easy to say. I’ve been really supportive of the mayor in the past. I think he’s done a really tremendous job in a lot of areas, but I just have to really part company with him here. I can’t condone the use of physical force or physical violence in the way that it happened,” Klondaris said.
Whitaker is accused of shoving a 74-year-old man to the ground and then downplaying the incident in a report filed days later. In Whitaker’s report, he said the man’s legs gave out and that he “assisted him to the ground.”
Officers Jason Dobbins and Ross Minear were suspended March 8 for a variety of violations connected with making copies of a body cam footage from an officer who responded to the scene as Whitaker investigated what he thought to be an impaired driver on CR 200S on the evening of Jan. 25.
Whitaker followed the driver and then intervened as the man attempted to move his car into the garage of his home on Chickadee Lane. Whitaker later learned the vehicle had been driven by the man’s wife who has difficulty driving in the dark.
Nobody was arrested and the man did not file a complaint. Whitaker later apologized over the circumstances.
Thallemer did not reply to requests for comment.
Shoemaker declined to comment on Klondaris’ plans, saying he was not familiar with the details, but issued a statement Thursday, March 14.
“I look forward to working with the other very capable council members to resolve the current issues,” Shoemaker said.
“The community cannot thrive when people live in fear of some of those who are sworn to serve and protect, including the mayor’s office,” said Shoemaker. “To the fine men and women in uniform, we’ve got your back.”
Klondaris said Wednesday, March 13, that he has numerous concerns.
He became involved in the situation after one of the officers, Dobbins, contacted him. Klondaris and City Councilman Jack Wilhite met with the man and his wife to hear their side of the story. They then met with Thallemer, who afterward sought a review of the circumstances by Indiana State Police. Within days, ISP conferred with the Kosciusko County Prosecutor’s Office and determined Whitaker’s actions did not merit criminal charges.
The police department conducted an internal investigation into the officers’ actions.
“What kind of investigation looks at the two guys and not the chief?” Klondaris asked.
Thallemer points out ISP was contacted less than 24 hours after he learned of incident and that the review was overseen by an ISP captain 27 years of police investigation experience.
“He interviewed all parties and reviewed all investigative material,” Thallemer said, adding he finds it “Very difficult for me to understand why (a) councilman is so dismissive of this independent career police investigator.”
The District 3 councilman is also bothered by suggestions that police have been told not to contact city council members.
“I’ve been hearing that for a long time and I take offense at that. That’s what we’re here for,” Klondaris said.
He also said he thinks officials should look at the establishment of a permanent, independent board — much like a merit board — to hear internal complaints.
“If part of the issue is the chain of command, what other option is available to you? If you can’t go to your sergeant, if you can’t go to your lieutenant, if you can’t go to your captain, if you can’t go to your chief, what is left? It’s a city councilman,” Klondaris said. “To me, that is following the chain of command. That might be unconventional, but if you are desperate, what can you do? At least they didn’t go to the media.”
He says he believes that Whitaker’s grabbing the man while off duty could be viewed as criminal battery. He thinks the two officers made copies of the body cam footage because they believed it was the right thing to do.