(Originally printed in The Elkhart Truth, Jan. 24, 2016)
ELKHART — Lack of manpower keeps Elkhart Police Chief Ed Windbigler, sworn in on Jan. 1, from pursuing some of the changes he hopes to implement in the police department.
“With 13 open positions, I can’t do a lot of the extra things that I want to do, that are in my plan to do,” said Windbigler, appointed by new Mayor Tim Neese to take over from Laura Koch, the former chief. The department, fully staffed at 123, currently employs 110 sworn officers.
That said, he’s got big ideas (and he emphasizes that current staffing is sufficient to protect the city until more officers are brought on).
One idea is divvying the city into a series of quadrants and assigning a police supervisor to each to be responsible for reviewing all the reports generated within their particular geographic zone. As is, several officers may review reports generated in an individual sector in the course of a day, complicating efforts to identify trends.
“My goal is to have one person who will know every single thing that is happening, identify who we think are causing these problems, why they’re being caused,” Windbigler said. Thus, he argues, the officials in charge in each section — starting with a pilot quadrant in south Elkhart — will be better positioned to design plans of action.
Aside from that, Windbigler has been addressing morale issues within the department. Before he took over, morale among some officers had taken a hit, apparently stemming from a sense that their views weren’t being taken into account, according to Neese. Things seem to be on the mend.
Other initiatives and changes:
- Windbigler is encouraging officers to get out of their cars and interact more directly with people in neighborhoods.
- He plans to increase patrols in downtown Elkhart during night events at The Lerner Theatre to augment safety.
- He’s tweaked the city’s draft policy governing use of police body cameras, yet to be implemented but moving forward.
Three weeks after Windbigler took over, Neese is pleased. Windbigler served in the police department from 1987 to 2011 and then moved to the Elkhart County Prosecutor’s Office, where he served as chief investigator before returning to the department as chief.
“He’s been well-accepted by the rank and file,” Neese said. Over time, Neese continued, he foresees “gradual, substantial change” in the department. Koch — who had taken over as chief on Sept. 9, 2014, from the retiring Dale Pflibsen — remains in the department, according to Windbigler, working with records management systems.
Elkhart City Councilman Dave Henke had tough words for the police department during a Dec. 7 City Council meeting, before Windgibler took over. One officer told Henke that he essentially did the minimal work necessary while on patrol, and the city councilman heard similar anecdotal reports about other officers.
The seeming attitude issues, Henke said, reflected a “lack of confidence in the leadership and politics inside the department,” according to the minutes of the Dec. 7 meeting. But Henke said this week that things seem to be improving under Windbigler.
“I think they’re poised and ready and they were needing someone like Chief Windbigler to lead them on,” Henke said.
Staffing: Windbigler said the department was running low when he took over as chief. He’s not sure what accounts for the departures, but he’s confident the department will get back to full strength.
Interviewing of eight officers is planned and preliminary testing of 30 or so applicants is scheduled for early February. Wage increases approved by the City Council last year at the urging of Neese’s predecessor, Mayor Dick Moore, should help.
What’s more, the department plans to conduct preliminary testing more frequently to maintain a pool of potential recruits.
Quadrants: The proposal to divide Elkhart into quadrants will start with a pilot initiative in a sector centered on Washington Gardens, extending out in each direction from the low-income housing project in south-central Elkhart.
“In the past few years there have probably been more issues there than other parts of town. There have been a lot of issues there,” Windbigler said. Eventually, he envisions dividing the city into perhaps six sections.
Having a supervisor assigned to each quadrant, aside from permitting centralized review of reports, will create a point of contact for the public in each zone. And it will connect the supervisor more intimately with his or her quadrant.
“But my opinion, if one person’s responsible for an area, you’ll get buy-in. They’ll take pride in that area, they’re going to make contact with the people who live in that area,” Windbigler said.
He envisions supervisors working with other city departments to address issues as they pop up — road markings that need to be re-painted, trees needing trimming and more. That, he says, will minimize and prevent bigger problems from occurring in the first place, the broken-window theory of policing.
Community policing: Having police meet and greet the public while on the beat to foster good relations is not a new concept.
Windbigler, though, is getting the word out that that’s the sort of policing he wants, particularly when staffing levels get back to normal and police have more leeway for such public relations.
“That’s one less barrier between you and the people, if you’re actually on foot and you’re walking on Marion Street and you stop and say hi to somebody who’s on their porch versus only showing up when something bad happens,” Windbigler said. “That just goes a long way.”
Drugs are probably the top police issue in the city, followed by gangs, Windbigler said. Drugs are tied to many other issues, thefts, for instance, by addicts looking for money to get their next fix.
As such, Windbigler sees the department working closely with theElkhart County Interdiction and Covert Enforcement unit, or ICE, which he led when he was chief investigator in the county prosecutor’s office. ICE, focused on drug crimes across the county, contains officers from the Elkhart and Goshen police departments and the Elkhart County Sheriff’s Department.
There’s a lot of meth in Elkhart, Windbigler said, and a growing quantity of heroin, which has been more common in Valparaiso, LaPorte and western South Bend. “It’s creeping a little bit further east. ... We saw it in the ICE unit, so we know it’s here. It’s not like crack was in the ’90s, but it is here,” Windbigler said.
Deals are typically completed within tight-knit circles of people who know each other, not in open-air street markets.
The gangs here are typically spin-offs of organizations from larger cities. But they don’t typically wear garb or colors giving away their affiliation.