“A little overboard,” is how the police chief had previously described the officers’ actions. The decision to charge them came only after ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network demanded to see the video.
Two Elkhart, Indiana, police officers who punched a handcuffed man in the face more than 10 times will face criminal charges — 11 months after the fact, and only after The South Bend Tribune requested video of the incident as part of an ongoing investigation with ProPublica.
The two officers, Cory Newland and Joshua Titus, will be charged with misdemeanor counts of battery, the police department announced Friday. Both have been placed on administrative leave pending the case’s outcome, department spokesman Sgt. Travis Snider said.
The department also released the video of the beating after 5 p.m. Friday — more than three weeks after The Tribune requested a copy.
Five months ago, the two officers were disciplined for this incident. But they received reprimands rather than suspensions or possible termination.
Speaking to the city’s civilian oversight commission in June, Police Chief Ed Windbigler said the officers used “a little more force than needed” with a suspect in custody, and “just went a little overboard when they took him to the ground.” But Windbigler offered no other details, saying nothing of the two officers punching the man in the face.
The video was recorded in the police station’s detention area after the Jan. 12 arrest of Mario Guerrero Ledesma, who was 28 at the time. The footage shows Ledesma, in handcuffs, sitting in a chair while Newland, Titus and two other officers stand nearby. At one point, Ledesma prepares to spit at Newland, and the officer warns him not to.
As Ledesma spits, Newland and Titus immediately tackle him, and the back of Ledesma’s head strikes the concrete floor. The two officers then jump on him and punch him in the face repeatedly while one calls him a “piece of shit.”
Two other officers walk up casually as the punches are being thrown. “Stop,” one can be heard saying, as the beating ends.
Ledesma pleaded guilty in July to charges of domestic battery and resisting law enforcement, and was sentenced to a year in jail, with 133 days suspended.
The Tribune and ProPublica have been investigating criminal justice in Elkhart County, looking at police accountability, among other issues.
A Tribune reporter requested the Ledesma video after noting a disparity between Windbigler’s public description to the Police Merit Commission — the city panel that exercises civilian oversight — and what the chief wrote in personnel records.
In a June 12 letter of reprimand to Newland, Windbigler wrote: “I completely understand defending yourself during an altercation. However, striking a handcuffed subject in the face is not acceptable and will not be tolerated. We cannot let our emotions direct our reactions or over-reactions to situations such as this.”
The personnel files provided by the police department did not include any response from Newland or Titus to the disciplinary allegations.
Windbigler ended his disciplinary letters to both officers on an upbeat note: “I consider this matter closed!”
At the June 25 meeting of the Police Merit Commission, chairman James Rieckhoff asked Windbigler if anyone had been injured in this incident.
“No,” Windbigler said.
Windbigler, explaining why he opted for only reprimands, told the commission that Titus “had no previous complaints.” He said of Newland: “Here, again, he had no other incidents in his file, so this is his first incident of any type of force.”
“Any questions on this one?” Rieckhoff asked the commission’s other members.
“Just a comment,” commissioner Thomas Barber said. “I like how you police your own.”
“Yes, sir,” Windbigler said.
On Friday, The Tribune requested an interview with the chief, but Snider, the police spokesman, said the department would have no further comment beyond its announcement of the pending charges.
Neither Newland nor Titus immediately returned messages left at their department phone lines. Efforts to reach them at other phone numbers were also unsuccessful.
History of Misconduct
For Newland, the reprimand was not his first disciplinary incident. It was his ninth, according to personnel records gathered by The Tribune and ProPublica.
After being hired in 2008, Newland was suspended six times and reprimanded twice in his first five years.
In 2009, Newland was “very rude and unprofessional,” using profanity toward a member of the public while responding to a call, personnel records say. The police chief at the time, Dale Pflibsen, suspended Newland for one day. “You have been employed for just over one year and this is not the first allegation of you verbally loosing (sic) control towards the public,” Pflibsen wrote to Newland.
“I want to emphasize we will not tolerate this behavior from you towards anyone,” Pflibsen added. “If you plan on continuing your career at the Elkhart Police Department I suggest you seek counseling for anger management.”
The next year, in 2010, Newland was suspended one day for causing a car crash.
In 2011, Newland received a three-day suspension for conduct unbecoming an officer. After arresting a woman for public nudity — she and her boyfriend were having sex in their car, in Elkhart’s McNaughton park — Newland sent her a friend request on Facebook and seven text messages, asking to “hang out.”
“Needless to say you attempting to establish a relationship with this female, a defendant in a criminal case, is unprofessional,” Pflibsen wrote to Newland. “This type of conduct will not be tolerated by you or anyone else.”
One year later, in February 2012, Newland was suspended again, this time for one day. Newland, while off duty, flipped off another driver — who, it turned out, was a jail officer in St. Joseph County, according to a disciplinary letter. Newland also drove recklessly, “brake checking” the other driver, according to disciplinary records.
“Should there be another sustained allegation of this type of misconduct on or off duty I will seriously consider your termination from the Elkhart Police Department,” Pflibsen wrote to Newland.
Exactly one week later, still in February, Newland received a three-day suspension for not turning on his video-audio recording equipment “while on numerous calls and traffic stops,” a disciplinary notice says.
Newland’s last suspension — and his longest, for 35 days — came in the summer of 2013. Newland failed to investigate a woman’s complaint of domestic violence, then lied about it to his superiors, according to disciplinary records.
When asked directly by supervisors if the woman had said her husband hit her, Newland “indicated that she had not made any such statement, and only that there was some pushing involved,” a disciplinary letter said. But “within minutes of the end of the interview,” Newland “returned and informed his supervisors that the victim had, in fact, reported being hit by her husband.”
An audio recording captured the woman telling Newland she had been hit, and that her husband did so in front of her children, a disciplinary letter says.
Newland’s failure to be truthful did more than violate department policy, Pflibsen wrote to the civilian oversight board. If a police officer testifies as a witness, authorities must disclose if the officer “has been dishonest in his or her official capacity,” Pflibsen wrote, adding: “This incident has been referred to the Prosecutor’s Office and may have a significant detrimental impact on their ability to prosecute this case.”
Republished with permission under license from ProPublica a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom.