WARSAW – Any thought of an independent review of circumstances surrounding Police Chief Scott Whitaker’s actions on Jan. 25 — and the related suspensions of two officers — appeared to die Monday night, March 18, after an emotional debate during the regular meeting of the city council.
City police came out in force at the meeting to support Whitaker, who has been criticized for a confrontation with a 74-year-old man who he mistakenly believed to be an impaired driver.
One after another, officers spoke to the council, casting Whitaker as respected and trustworthy, while also alleging that efforts to seek an independent investigation were politically motivated.
Talk of council seeking an independent review of the circumstances surfaced last week after State Rep. Dave Wolkins suggested council could take the action if they believed a fresh look was warranted.
Council was poised to take action Monday as four council members – led by Michael Klondaris – expressed support for the idea, but were met with a barrage of opposition. The issue sharply divided the all-Republican council. Klondaris was joined by Jack Wilhite, Ron Shoemaker, Jerry Frush and Cindy Dobbins, who was absent but conveyed her opinion in a letter.
Councilman Jeff Grose and Council president Diane Quance opposed the idea.
Klondaris found himself caught in the middle of the reverberating ordeal after an officer approached him and complained about how Whitaker had treated the man. In an effort to learn more, Klondaris and Wilhite interviewed the elderly man and his wife about the incident and then met days later with Mayor Joe Thallemer, who then sought a review of the incident by Indiana State Police.
The couple did not file a complaint against Whitaker and ISP concluded the case did not merit criminal charges.
The two officers involved, Jason Dobbins and Ross Minear, were suspended for 10 days without pay after it was learned they broke department policy by making copies of body cam footage taken by officers at the scene.
An internal investigation determined the officers had sought the footage for personal reasons. According to the department, one officer wanted to use it to blackmail Whitaker in case the officer found himself in trouble. The other wanted the footage to force a change in administration.
But others argued their main reason was that they were upset with how Whitaker treated the man and his wife.
The topic came up at the end of Monday’s meeting and continued for more than an hour.
Klondaris said he felt council needed to “explore” the idea of hiring somebody to look into the matter.
Police Cpl. Phil Hawks was one of several officers who implored council not to investigate the matter, saying it had already been resolved.
“Your guys’ investigation is going how you want it to go. You don’t like what the state police had to say. You don’t like what our internal investigation had to say,” Hawks said. “You’re making it hard to police in this community. I feel like it’s a waste of taxpayer money to hire a private attorney to come and give you the same answers. When is this going to end? When are you going to be happy? When Chief Whitaker is gone?”
During much of Monday’s debate, officers rebuked suggestions that the department was toxic. Klondaris had said last week that he worried that suspended officers would return to a “toxic” environment. Klondaris said Monday that was a poor choice of words, but added that he believed they would find the situation “less than pleasant.”
Grose listed numerous reasons another review was not needed, including the fact ISP had looked at the matter.
Grose said he thought the issue had turned political and asked why Jean Northernor, a longtime Republican leader, had joined Klondaris and Wilhite in the meeting with Thallemer.
“I don’t think I’m on trial here,” Klondaris responded, saying he was “unwittingly drawn into” the situation and admitted he wished he had never received the phone call that piqued his concern.
“This is a situation I did not ask for. This was dumped on me. Quite honestly, I was unsure of what to do. I handled it the best that I could … The way this is going, I’ll be glad to step down and somebody can sit here.”
A turning point seemed to arrive with comments from retired police officer Mike Cox who said he considers Whitaker to be trustworthy. “I don’t think you’re going to get a different result. It’s gonna drag it out and who knows what’s going to happen then?” Cox said.
Klondaris said he appreciated his comments.
“Personally, I’ve heard enough. I’ll probably catch hell for this, but I’m going to rescind my request for this to happen. You guys have shed a light on this for me,” Klondaris said.
Wilhite echoed Klondaris, saying comments from police made an impression on him.
Thallemer, who repeatedly said in the past that he believed he did everything possible to look into the issue, thanked the police for their thoughts and council for their input.