South Bend’s new police chief said he knows it will take time to heal some of the deep wounds and morale issues within the city and the police department.
Ron Teachman, who comes to the department after serving on the New Bedford, Mass. Department for 34 years, added his top priorities are to listen rather than rush into sweeping changes within the department and build relationships with officers and people in the community.
In a one-on-one interview with WSBT after the city clerk swore him in as the city’s 61st police chief, Teachman addressed his plan to try and repair the rifts between the department and some community groups, as well as among officers.
Teachman is the first outsider to take over as South Bend’s top cop since the 1930s. He’s replacing former chief Darryl Boykins, who was demoted by Mayor Pete Buttigieg 10 months ago in the midst of a federal wiretapping investigation into phone recordings at the department.
That demotion – coupled with rumors that those conversations contained racist and derogatory comments by some officers – caused a divison between police and some members of the African American community. So how will he improve it?
“There is no short cut, you need to spend time,” Teachman said. “I’m coming in as an outsider, as you say, so my first order of business is to build an acquaintance with certain segments of this community. And after you build an acquaintance, you build a relationship – a friendship. And over time you build trust. And that's certainly the goal.”
The wiretapping controversy deeply divided the department as well. While Teachman won’t get into the federal wiretapping investigation or any of the lawsuits surrounding it, he said he’ll be guided by the court’s decisions when they are made.
But he said his experiences in New Bedford helped prepare him to tackle the issue of officer morale in South Bend.
“In 1997 in New Bedford we had our first chief from the outside,” Teachman added. “Usually when a city looks to the outside there are indications that there are problems internally. I don't know the extent of those problems, I know some of them. What [New Bedford] Chief Arthur Kelly did in 1997 was to engage those of us that were committed to the service that we took an oath about, invigorated our morale by giving us the opportunity to serve, to engage us in policy and procedure manuals.”
Teachman went on to say he was critical that the New Bedford department had to “go outside” to hire a chief, thinking it was a blemish on the legacy of the previous administrations and the mayoral administration at the time. However, he said, that chief groomed him to be a leader and ultimately chief of the New Bedford department.
As a result, he said communication is how he plans to improve morale here.
“I want to speak with all of them in their collective mode, in their various divisions, at their shifts at roll call and individually as much as time will permit – at their desks, in their patrol cars, walking the beat, riding bikes with them and see this city through their eyes and share their concerns. I can't fix everything. Some things are limited by budget but I will work within our means to move this department forward in collaboration with our concern,” Teachman told WSBT.
As for changes within the department, he said “everything’s on the table.” In fact, he recently asked each member of his command staff for their resumes to make sure the right people are in the right positions.
“We’re not going to make sweeping changes in the blind. We’re going to be educated and researched. But if there are ways we can better serve the community by some organizational changes, I don't want status quo to get in the way just because it's comfortable, it's what we're used to,” he added.
Teachman also said when he was in town interviewing for the position late last fall he met with former and current Lodge # 36 Fraternal Order of Police leaders to talk about problems in the department and issues they'd like him to address. But as far as specific plans he has, he’s pretty buttoned up, saying he wants to listen and assess the situation before he makes any sweeping changes.
He compared it to a doctor-patient relationship.
“I'm going to examine. I'm going to look, listen and learn. As I said, I’m bringing certain principals with me – things that I think are a foundation of policing throughout the world that are effective in a democratic society. But I'm not going to do anything dramatic the first day of, until I have a chance to examine the patient – and that means internally in the department and in the community,” he said.