Newton critical of mayor's response

In this file photo from 2007, South Bend police officer Dave Newton walks back to his cruiser after a traffic stop November 9, in South Bend.

SOUTH BEND -- Did South Bend Police Chief Ron Teachman ignore a fellow officer’s call for help earlier this year, or did political enemies conjure the story as an excuse to take potshots at the chief and his boss, Mayor Pete Buttigieg?

The police officer at the center of the imbroglio raised the question anew this week by blasting the mayor for downplaying the incident that sparked the complaint.

Critics say Teachman failed to assist Lt. David Newton during an April incident in which Newton tried to break up a fight outside the Martin Luther King Recreation Center. But the mayor decided the complaint did not warrant any discipline last month after reviewing an independent report by Indiana State Police investigators.

“I can no longer sit by and watch the flip characterization by Mayor Buttigieg that this incident was ‘a molehill being made a mountain,’ ” Newton said Monday in a letter asking the Common Council to keep pressuring the mayor’s office to release the report. “This statement shows that the mayor has no idea the danger we face daily.”

Buttigieg said last month that he thought some people with political motives were “making a mountain out of a molehill” in an attempt to undermine Teachman, who became the city’s first police chief hired from outside South Bend in more than 70 years when he was appointed this year.

Kara Kelly, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said Buttigieg was unavailable Tuesday because he was attending a conference out of state, but his office issued a statement in response to Newton’s comments.

“The mayor has enormous respect for anyone who wears the uniform, especially the men and women of our police department,” the statement said. “His earlier remarks were not directed at any officer, but expressed his frustration at the negativity and politicization surrounding this and other police matters in South Bend.”

Newton insisted Tuesday to The South Bend Tribune he had no political motives, saying he simply wanted to see the report for himself and make sure the chief was being held to the same standard as rank-and-file officers.

“I’m not political in any way,” he said. “My issue is you have a lot of police officers who have been disciplined for less. If the report is no big deal, why not let the council or myself read it?”

Newton’s remarks to the council marked the first time he has spoken publicly about the issue since April.

Speaking to the council late Monday, he claimed 50 people were involved in the fight, and some reportedly were getting guns from their vehicles. He also said he called for help on his police radio but received no response.

Teachman, meanwhile, allegedly stayed inside the recreation center during the fight. Teachman did not return phone and email messages left Tuesday by The Tribune.

“There was a fight, an officer resolved it and it did not rise to level of any discipline,” Buttigieg told The Tribune last month. “There are expectations about backing up a fellow officer requesting help, and there’s no indication that that provision was not respected.”

Despite Newton’s claim that the fight involved up to 50 people, city police spokesman Capt. Phil Trent said he could not find records of any police dispatches to the Martin Luther King Center on April 22, the date of the incident, and no report was filed. Newton said no specific victim was identified in the fight, and no one asked for a report to be filed.

The mayor’s office has refused to release the state police findings, saying they are considered confidential as a personnel matter. State police, meanwhile, said they would not release the report because it is an investigative record.

The Tribune has filed public records requests with the mayor’s office and state police for the report, but Luke Britt, the state’s public access counselor, said Indiana law would not require the city to release any further information unless Teachman was suspended, fired or otherwise disciplined.

“The big trigger would be if there was action taken, like a suspension, demotion or termination,” Britt said Tuesday. “Since that didn’t take place, the mayor’s office or state police wouldn’t have to release that.”

Buttigieg’s decision not to discipline Teachman prompted Patrick Cottrell, former president of the city Board of Public Safety, to resign from the post last month. Cottrell also declined to release the state police report, saying he was bound by confidentiality, but he believed the contents merited discipline.

Greg Brown, a frequent critic of the city administration, first raised the complaint publicly in a May meeting of Common Council. The council president, Derek Dieter, forwarded the complaint to the safety board, which then asked state police to conduct an investigation.

In his letter Monday, Newton asked the council to “step in on my behalf and use all possible resources” to obtain a copy of the state police report. Dieter, who is also a police officer, said Tuesday he would support an effort by the council to subpoena the report.

“When you have the president of the board of safety quit, that’s a red flag that something must be in there,” Dieter said when asked if he thought the report would be damaging to Teachman. “If the mayor says there’s nothing in there, he should have released it.”

Although the safety board is in charge of hiring, firing and disciplining rank-and-file police officers, only the mayor has the authority to discipline the chief.

574-235-6480

CSheckler@SBTinfo.com

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