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Something Stinks: A Lack of Police Accountability

Correction: According to an article of fine print in the Indiana State code, city’s were allowed to adhere to the State’s old Merit System by ordinance of the local legislature, so it appears the city is not in direct violation of a state statute.

We’re a year and a half out from what many considered the “peak” of the Black Lives Matter movement and many communities are asking themselves if anything has significantly changed? A major question left unanswered is, who exactly polices the police? In Terre Haute the primary governmental agency tasked with holding the city police department accountable is the police department itself, they handle most of the internal investigations themselves, but officers can appeal those decisions to the THPD Merit Commission. It should be concerning that two of the three members of the commission responsible for the oversight of our police department have severe conflicts of interest, but it’s also recently been discovered that the Merit Commission does not adhere to state statutes.

Of those three members one is appointed by the mayor, one by the active members of the police department, and one by the city council. After a heated exchange with members of the community attending a commission meeting it was revealed that the city council appointee at the time, Shelva Warner, was a former police matron. So, the sole appointee with a credible claim to objectivity is herself a former police officer with close ties and connections to the department. Since that time Shelva has resigned and she was recently replace by William Toney, another former Terre Haute police officer. Why does the city council keep appointing former police officers to the one position in the one agency in our community who has the authority to hold the police department accountable? Turns out they thought it was required by state statute.

When asked why they keep appointing former police officers, City Councilman Neil Garrison responded by email, “It is required that all members are made up of former members of the police department.” It is in fact not required that all members are made up of former members of the police department, it is actually required by state statute that, “A commissioner may not be an active member of a police or fire department or agency and NOT more than two (2) of the commissioners may be past members of a police or fire department or agency. In addition, a person may not serve on the commission if the person receives any remuneration as salary from the unit (36-8-3.5-6).” The statute also states that, “A merit commission consisting of five (5) commissioners shall be established for each department of a unit having a merit system.”

The statute also requires that two members be appointed by the mayor from differing political parties, one by city council, and two by active members of the police department from differing political parties. According to the State of Indiana’s website these statutes have been in effect since at least 1988, so our Merit Commission has been out of compliance for quite some time. There have been several high profile cases that have come before the Merit Board in the past few years and it is a very real possibility that they would have been decided differently if the commission adhered to state statutes. Of all the cases that have recently come before the board none has garnered more public attention than the recent case of animal abuse perpetrated by the president of the local police union, IUPA Local 133, Jesse Chambers set to be ruled on by the board February 10th.

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