News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

March 11, 2014

Sheriff: Investigation affecting department’s current police work

GREENCASTLE — The Putnam County Sheriff’s Department is putting the best possible face on a string of allegations lodged against one of its deputies.

Sheriff Steve Fenwick and Chief Deputy Tom Helmer said Tuesday they had never received reports of excessive force by Deputy Terry Joe “T.J.” Smith, 37, who is facing federal allegations of deprivation of civil rights in his police duties.

Smith is accused of using excessive force on four separate occasions from between late 2011 and December 2013.

“Nobody’s ever come and complained of excessive force by any of our officers,” said Helmer during a joint interview with Fenwick at the sheriff’s office in Greencastle, Putnam’s county seat. The allegations have tarnished the reputation of the department and left deputies “walking on eggshells,” he said.

“I’m going to say they’re afraid to do their job” and may wonder if they are free to defend themselves if necessary, the sheriff added.

Fenwick said he was not informed of specific allegations against Smith until the charges were made public and reported by the news media on Monday. However, thanks to “hearsay” within the department, the sheriff said he was aware of an investigation during the past several months because deputies were being called to testify by the FBI.

Nevertheless, that hearsay was not grounds to suspend Smith or place him on leave or any other action, Fenwick said. Legal advisers also stated Fenwick did not have grounds to change Smith’s duty, he said. Further, it is up to the Merit Board to discipline deputies, he said.

“I don’t hire them, and I don’t fire them,” Fenwick said. “I can suspend [deputies] up to 15 days. That’s all I can do.”

The FBI was “not happy” Smith had not been suspended, Helmer added. “You can’t suspend just by accusation.”

Fenwick said his only communication with the FBI came about a month ago when he received a subpoena for information relating to the four allegations.

Asked to comment on communication between prosecutors and the sheriff’s office, assistant U.S. Attorney Brad Blackington said Tuesday he felt it was appropriate.

“The level of communication that we had with the sheriff’s department was, in my view, appropriate for this kind of case,” he said.

Fenwick also praised Smith as a “good officer.” He “goes out and does his job. I’ve never gotten a complaint where he was abusive to anyone.”

Of the four allegations against Smith, Fenwick said at least two of them may have involved much more than prosecutors presented Monday. In one case, in which Smith was accused of striking a suspect who was restrained by other offices, Fenwick said deputies told him the suspect was actually not restrained. In a second case, in which Smith was accused of using excessive force against a woman at a Cloverdale truck stop, Fenwick said his understanding was the woman was causing a disturbance and was striking officers.

The Sheriff’s Department will not tolerate a deputy harming someone, “but you have to let officers defend themselves,” Fenwick said. Even when suspects are handcuffed, it is possible for them to kick, head-butt or spit, he added.

“Walk a mile in our shoes,” he said.

“The bottom line is,” Fenwick stated, “we don’t know. We weren’t on the scenes when this stuff occurred.”

In more than 30 years in the sheriff’s department, Fenwick and Helmer both said they have never seen allegations of this sort against a deputy.

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