Indiana News

Fallout From Fatal Crash Reaches Indy's Top Cops

9/6/2010

Frank Straub came from New York to Indianapolis eight months ago with an agenda as the city's new director of public safety: to reform and modernize the city's police department.

Now, after a botched investigation of a fatal crash involving a police officer, the main reform some critics are calling for is Straub's resignation.

Straub and his boss, Mayor Greg Ballard, acknowledge that the outcry over the Aug. 6 accident and the investigation that followed, along with a scandal surrounding the beating of a 15-year-old boy during an arrest in May, have weakened public confidence in the city's police. But with internal and FBI reviews incomplete, Ballard says neither Straub nor Police Chief Paul Ciesielski, a 23-year veteran who was appointed in February, are going anywhere.

"We get the facts, what actually happened, and then we can go forward from there," Ballard said.

The department had already had a string of problems when Ballard plucked Straub from a seven-year stint as police commissioner of White Plains, N.Y., where he worked after serving as deputy commissioner of training for the New York Police Department in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

In the last two years, officers had been accused of trafficking drugs, arson, running a prostitution ring and taking bribes.

Straub said the mayor appointed him to "re-engineer" the city's 1,650-officer department, which had been through a city-county merger that was later dissolved. His goals: less crime, a more professional department, and more officers on patrol in neighborhoods, fighting local crime.

Corruption wasn't a priority.

"Coming into a major city you have to recognize that police departments in major cities have scandals ... have corruption sometimes," Straub said.

"What has happened here, although it is unacceptable, is not untypical of the police profession generally and certainly not untypical for major city departments," he said.

From the outset, Straub said, the police union viewed him as an outsider, which "has proven to be more of a challenge than I anticipated."

On the day of the crash, he was meeting with Ciesielski to discuss ways to present a united front after the city's Fraternal Order of Police rejected a four-year contract.

That meeting, which critics say showed leaders were overly concerned with Straub's image, has become a flashpoint in the weeks since Officer David Bisard, traveling at high speed, plowed into a group of motorcyclists while going to help serve a felony warrant. Eric Wells died at the scene, and two others were severely injured.

Blood tests taken hours after the crash showed Bisard had a blood alcohol level of .19, more than twice the legal limit.

Critics have questioned why no one at the scene suspected Bisard was drunk and why Ciesielski and other top investigators didn't go to the scene.

Robert Turner, attorney for former Assistant Chief Darryl Pierce, said Pierce contacted Ciesielski eight times from the scene but was summoned from the accident scene to the meeting in his office.

The chief demoted Pierce and two other high-ranking officers and removed Lt. George Crooks as the head of the city's fatal alcohol-related crash investigation team. Crooks' attorney, Ralph Staples, said a superior officer had told him he wasn't needed at the accident scene.

Outrage over the case grew when prosecutors announced they had to drop drunken driving charges against Bisard because the blood tests weren't done properly. Motorcyclists have gathered weekly in downtown to support the victims and denounce the handling of the case, and the case has dominated coverage in city media outlets.

"I believe there is a lot of corruption going on. I definitely think there was a cover-up," said Rebecca Reed, 48, who works at a downtown bank.

Michael Slaughter, a 44-year-old design engineer who knows one of the injured motorcyclists, said he was withholding judgment. But asked about the police response to the crash, he said, "They need to protect their own. I totally understand that."

Bisard still faces reckless homicide and other charges, and Ciesielski has recommended he be fired. The FBI is investigating the city's handling of the case.

The outside review could be the key to recovery, one expert said.

"I think that's critically important," said Roger Harvey of Indianapolis-based Bose Public Affairs Group, who has helped other city police departments retool their tattered images. He is not working with Indianapolis police.

Ballard is taking action, even without waiting on the results of the outside probe. On Saturday, he announced a set of new rules governing officers' use of alcohol, including a ban on drinking within eight hours of starting a shift.

And Ballard and Straub are trying to focus on the positive.

The mayor said he believes most people realize that the majority of officers are simply "out there doing their job." Straub pointed to the lowest numbers for summer homicides in three years, and an officer who had run into a building burning to rescue someone.

"Despite feeling a little down these days, they're still holding their heads up and doing excellent police work," he said.

But both he and Ballard readily acknowledge that public confidence in the police has taken a hit.

"We have an obligation to clean this up," Straub said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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