Known civil rights violator, Officer Aaron Knepper, has been involved in at least three extremely problematic interactions with South Bend residents in the past few years. He was recently found guilty of having violated the rights of a young black man in South Bend. He was involved in the public posting of a video in which he, and a couple other SBPD officers, tricked a developmentally challenged gas station clerk into taking the "cinnamon challenge" (the sometimes fatal prank that more generally lands high schoolers and moronic frat boys in trouble).
Today, in "an unusual statement" (South Bend Tribune's words), Chief Ruszkowski cleared Knepper of any wrongdoing in a more recent case, a case in which he claims Notre Dame football player Devin Butler attacked him and he had to defend himself (a claim Butler and at least two eye-witnesses dispute).
The statement is unusual for a number of reasons.
First, let me say: I take no position as to whether or not Knepper did anything wrong in the Butler case. How could I? I wasn't there. The eye-witnesses were, and they claim Knepper attacked Butler unprovoked.
So what's the evidence relevant to the case? And how did the Chief determine Knepper was innocent of all wrongdoing?
We have no idea.
For all we know, there is video footage of Knepper punching Butler in the face unprovoked (as he did with DeShawn Franklin while he lay sleeping in his own bed in 2012). For all we know the chief saw this footage and thought, "Ah, Butler probably deserved it. Knepper's good to go."
For all we know, there's absolutely no evidence either way, or maybe evidence impugning the reports of the eye-witnesses.
This is why we need a public and transparent process. This is why literally any process other than the one that actually occurred would have provided accountability this is absolutely and completely lacking in this case.
The Chief could have voluntarily kicked this up to the Board of Public Safety.
The Chief could have brought in an external investigator, or asked someone else to conduct the internal investigation.
Instead, he's asking us to take him at his word. Even though we know about how much the word of an SBPD officer is worth in South Bend these days.
What could possibly explain this bizarre public statement? What could possibly explain the fact that -- at a time when South Bend needs transparency and accountability more than ever -- the Chief, along with our Mayor, seem to be conspiring to deny or cover up patterns of abuse in the SBPD and city administration? What could explain why the Chief, whom I have met and whom I think is a smart, caring, and passionate human being, would put himself between this city and justice, transparency, and accountability? What's at stake here, and for whom?
I don't know.
But it could be that Mayor Pete Buttigeig is preparing himself for a legal battle. It could well be that the mayor knows that in order for him (and the Chief) to emerge unscathed after such a battle, they'd need to establish a public record denying there to be any patterns of abuse or injustice here in South Bend. It could be that the mayor sees this as the only way forward for himself politically. That actually addressing systemic injustice -- by engaging residents, challenging the police department, opening up the public process (by doing things like releasing the results / report of the $25k outside consultation that he requested of the SBPD in the past year or so) -- is just too politically risky for him. It's a process he couldn't control.
If that's the right reading of the situation, I'm ashamed for him. I'm embarrassed that he would -- in full knowledge of what he is doing -- put himself and his career, his political ambitions and aspirations, the good of himself and his friends, above the good of our city.
In fact, it's more than embarassing.
It's morally despicable.
And you don't need degrees from Harvard and Oxford to realize that.