News From Terre Haute, Indiana

April 16, 2014

EDITORIAL: Dealing with eroded trust

Putnam sheriff must take responsibility for situation

The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Our neighbors in Putnam County are understandably concerned, even outraged, over problems in their sheriff’s department. People have a right to expect their chief law-enforcement agency — one of the most important public institutions in any community — to operate professionally and effectively.

Given recent criminal charges leveled at a deputy and a reserve deputy, confidence in the county’s primary local police agency has been shaken. Deputy Terry “T.J.” Smith was indicted last month by a federal grand jury on charges of using excessive force in connection with four arrests that occurred in Putnam County. And earlier this week, Andrew “Mo” Fenwick, an unpaid reserve deputy, was charged with lying to the federal grand jury investigating Smith.

Adding to the sense of urgency and alarm in Fenwick’s indictment is that he is the son of Putnam County Sheriff Steve Fenwick.

When Smith was indicted, Sheriff Fenwick expressed a degree of defensiveness about the matter and wondered publicly why the investigation was conducted without his knowledge or involvement. The sheriff has not yet commented on his son’s indictment. A chief deputy has indicated that both Smith and reserve deputy Andrew Fenwick are suspended from duties, as is another reserve deputy.

The charges against the officers will be aired thoroughly during trial, and both will have an opportunity to offer a vigorous defense. Our judicial system dictates that people accused of crimes are to be considered innocent until proven guilty in court.

Meanwhile, the public is left to ponder what’s happening in their sheriff’s department.

That’s where Sheriff Fenwick comes into the picture. He’s in a tough spot, not only because two of his officers are under indictment, but because he faces a re-election challenge in the upcoming May 6 primary election. Political underpinnings aside, the sheriff owes a candid assessment and explanation of the situation to the people who elected him and pay him to run an effective police department. He needs to convince his constituents that he operates an ethical and professional department and will not tolerate any breaches of ethical or professional standards.

Like it or not, the dark cloud that’s formed around Sheriff Fenwick’s department is his problem to manage. He must ultimately answer to the people who put their trust in him.