City to settle with demoted Bisard commanders

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INDIANAPOLIS – Three top Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department commanders who were demoted in the wake of the David Bisard crash investigation in August 2010 will split $175,000 to settle their lawsuit against the city.

Darryl Pierce, Ron Hicks and John Conley claimed they were made scapegoats in what was perceived to be a botched initial investigation into the police officer crash that killed a motorcyclist and injured two others on the city’s north side.

“This has never really been about money to any of them,” said Robert Turner, attorney for former Assistant Chief Pierce. “All of them felt their families were hurt. They felt that their professional image in the police department, their character, was hurt. I think that’s what they were concerned with.”

When Bisard crashed into the trio of motorcyclists on East 56th Street on Aug. 6, 2010, from the start questions were raised about the quality of the initial investigation.

While no one at the scene or at a medical clinic determined any signs of intoxication, investigators said Bisard later tested for a blood alcohol content of 0.19, more than twice the legal limit.

Legal battles continued examining police procedure and documentation of evidence.

Two weeks after the crash, Pierce, Conley and Hicks were demoted by Public Safety Director Frank Straub for allegedly losing control of the investigation, even though Straub admitted “one of the fundamental problems is that their roles at the scene were not clearly defined.”

Paul Ciesielski, police chief at the time, agreed.

“I think a lot of general orders we have don’t clearly define those roles for top administrators,” Ciesielski said.

That acknowledgement of departmental lack of accountability didn’t stop Ciesielski from standing by Straub’s side as he demoted the officers.

“It’s clear that members of my leadership team failed me, the department and the public by not providing the leadership and scrutiny that this investigation merited on the scene that day,” Ciesielski said.

Three months later, Mayor Greg Ballard endorsed an internal report that documented department-wide failures in the handling of the case.

“The comprehensive and detailed report clearly identifies failures related to this devastating accident,” Ballard wrote in the endorsement.

A year later, the officers fought back by filing a suit against the city and demanding $300,000 apiece. They accused Straub, Ballard and Ciesielski of making “false and defamatory” comments, accusing the men of participating in a cover-up and leading to threats and comments directed at their families.

“I believe we were thrown under the bus for the mere fact that they needed to take some of the pressure off them and the department at the time,” said Pierce when the lawsuit was filed. “If they were true leaders, they should’ve stood up for us.”

Within two weeks of the crash Fox 59 News began reporting proof of cell phone calls, conversations, radio transmissions and internal interviews that backed up the commanders’ accounts.

Ciesielski and Straub admitted they didn’t report to the accident scene that day or conduct immediate inquiries. The reason: both men were planning a news conference so that Ciesielski could endorse his boss, who was under fire for micromanaging the department.

“That would be very disturbing,” Ballard told Fox 59 News after he was advised of the priority Ciesielski and Straub put on propping up the public safety director’s public image on the day of the crash. “I don’t know what to say to you, but I have to check into that because that would just add to the anger if that is true.”

The case dragged on for more than a year as the city offered to settle for $9,000.

In the meantime, Pierce retired after a decorated 33-year career as a lieutenant while Hicks was promoted to assistant chief and Conley was named a district commander.

Straub resigned in the wake of controversy over the handling of a Bisard blood vial in April 2012.

When he left Indianapolis in August without sitting for a deposition in the lawsuit, the burden of explaining what went on within the very top level of Indianapolis public safety the day of the crash fell to Ciesielski. He also resigned over the Bisard blood vial mix up.

In a deposition obtained by Fox 59 News, Ciesielski told attorneys for the officers that he conducted his own investigation within two weeks of the crash and was ready to report to Straub. When he entered his boss’ office, he said, “the director’s mind was made up that all… of them would be stripped of their appointed rank. I don’t believe that they should have been demoted. The mayor actually came in the office at some point and was told of… he told the mayor what he was going to do. Even the mayor said, ‘Let’s sleep on it.”

Ciesielski felt Straub’s mind was already made up, adding “I think he felt it would bolster his image.”

The next day, after hastily informing the commanders of their demotions, Straub stripped them of their ranks.

As the city dragged its feet in settling with its officers, a $1.9 million agreement was reached for the family of Eric Wells, the motorcyclist killed in the Bisard crash.

Kurt Weekly and Mary Mills—both injured during the wreck—received a total settlement in excess of $2.3 million.

When current Public Safety Director Troy Riggs arrived in Indianapolis in late 2012, he ordered a review of all pending litigation against the department and ordered that a settlement should be reached.

“Pierce is happily retired and I think he feels that he has been vindicated to the extent that truth, not just statements but truth about what happened that day with the Bisard crash is pretty well known,” Turner said. “I think the public knows that they did not engage in misconduct. There was no cover-up. They were not negligent.”

Without revealing details of the settlement, Turner said it is typical that such agreements do not contain an admission of wrongdoing.

The three officers were unavailable for comment. The mayor’s office did not have a comment.

Bisard is currently housed in the Marion County Jail following his arrest this past weekend on two counts of operating a vehicle while intoxicated following a crash in Lawrence. He faces an October trial in Allen County on a reckless homicide as a result of the 2010 crash.

Straub is now the police chief in Spokane, Wash., where the city council next week will decide whether to pay a former top police commander $190,000 after he was demoted by Straub late last year.

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