South Bend Mayor explains end to Metro Homicide Unit

NOW: South Bend Mayor explains end to Metro Homicide Unit

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South Bend Mayor James Mueller says he and the South Bend police chief felt their “hands were tied” when ending South Bend Police Department’s participation in the St. Joseph County Metro Homicide and Special Victims Units, starting in 2022.

The decision to end the CMHU & SVU will dramatically change the way some of the most serious, violent crimes are investigated throughout St. Joseph County.

The county-wide investigation units are made up of 24 officers. While South Bend Police Department only staffs a third of those officers, since 2019 the City of South Bend has accounted for more than 75% of homicide investigations.

According to numbers from the county prosecutor's office, this year alone, 13 of the 15 homicide cases CMHU is investigating happened in South Bend.

Despite these numbers, Mayor Mueller says it actually limits the South Bend Police Department’s ability to handle its caseload.

“We absolutely need more officers,” Mueller said. “This will make South Bend better, given the issues that we’re facing.”

Those “issues” include non-fatal shootings. So far in 2021, there have been 13 fatal shootings in South Bend, which CMHU investigates. There have been 74 criminal, non-fatal shootings in 2021 that are SBPD’s sole responsibility to investigate.

South Bend wants the ability to pull officers into other investigations even if they’re not covered by the county units.

“We need to do a better job of getting shooters off the street already. And that was the case under the existing system. And we’ve got to continue to find ways to get violent offenders off the street. So there’s no question that’s going to be a top priority,” Mueller said.

In a series of emails between Mayor Mueller, South Bend Police Chief Scott Ruszkowski, and St. Joseph County Prosecutor Ken Cotter, several scenarios were thrown out to make up for the staffing.

The county suggested tweaking officer schedules to help cover patrols, but the Fraternal Order of Police was against that.

South Bend suggested reducing staffing for the CMHU & SVU. Prosecutor Cotter said decreasing staff wouldn’t work.

Mayor Mueller said the city could fund positions on the county units, if the county was responsible for staffing them. The county said no.

The idea of a county-wide Shootings Investigation Unit was considered, but the amount of officers needed for that wasn’t considered realistic.

In an email, Prosecutor Cotter gave an ultimatum: staff the positions, or end the county investigative units. In the email exchange it seemed Chief Ruszkowski agreed to continue the partnership. Then Mayor Mueller stepped in and made it clear the city was ending its participation in CMHU.

“Let’s not go through a difficult year where we’re arguing the entire year when an officer leaves a unit, why aren’t we replacing them right away,” Mueller said.

Even though the emails make it seem as though the mayor overruled his chief of police, Mayor Mueller said the decision to end the county-wide partnership.

“I mean, I’m the mayor. I appoint the police chief, so ultimately the buck stops at my desk. But on this, the chief and I are on the same page and have been on the same page all year,” Mueller said.

As of August, South Bend Police Department had about 215 officers working, which is about 15 less than it’s target staffing level. According to emails we’ve obtained through a public records request, Chief Ruszkowski expects to lose another dozen officers within the next several months.

Statement from St. Joseph Prosecutor’s Office:

As a reminder, the prosecutor’s office is not the investigative unit of the criminal justice system. Police departments are tasked with investigation of crimes. However, in order to ensure that the Units survived, we previously entered into the Interlocal Agreement with the City of South Bend and the SBPD. In order to keep the units running, we as the prosecutor’s office had to recruit and hire three law enforcement employees to fill previously committed-to slots for SBPD. These were our employees for which SBPD reimbursed us. CMHU and SVU investigations are complex and delicate, and it was difficult to find previously sworn law enforcement officers (usually retired) who had the requisite experience to conduct these investigations and who were willing and able to be on-call. For CMHU, for example, this can mean working long and hard hours while leads and evidence are fresh. We had one retired police officer, for example, who worked under the Interlocal and had to resign because the on-call and overtime hours became too taxing for his health (there were 40 homicide investigations with 41 deaths in 2020, as context). After discussion with the SVU and CMHU Commanders, and recognizing the difficulties encountered in trying to fill the existing spots under the Interlocal, recruiting and vetting an additional 8 officers with the experience necessary to adequately staff the units would not be feasible.

Furthermore, not having South Bend Police Officers involved in investigating some of the most horrific crimes that occur in South Bend would “separate” those crimes from the police department. The Specialty Units were meant to enhance and grow a multidisciplinary unit.

Our county could create a unit for shooting investigations or grow CMHU to include shooting investigations. The Prosecutor’s Office actually offered suggestions to the SBPD that would have done exactly that. However, that unit would need additional manpower from the City to make it happen. The city declined to provide that additional manpower.

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