The following story contains language that some readers may find disturbing. Discretion is advised.
GREENWOOD — A Greenwood police officer has filed a federal lawsuit against the police chief alleging the chief retaliated against him because he criticized the chief on Facebook.
WRTV has learned the officer who filed the lawsuit, Sam Bowen, is one of five officers who were facing termination. Three of those officers have resigned.
Newly obtained disciplinary documents reveal why the city is taking action against some of its force— the city says officers exchanged instant messages that “contained, profanity, sexually explicit content, disrespectful/explicit comments concerning supervisors, and pejorative racial and religious comments.”
Bowen told WRTV Investigates he sees police work as a service to his Johnson County home.
“The biggest thing for me is helping people,” said Bowen. “I didn’t want to be a police officer anywhere else. I wanted to be a police officer where my family and friends were.”
Bowen has worked at Greenwood Police since 2020 and said he’s concerned by what he sees on the streets.
"From my own experience, crime is on the rise,” said Bowen. “As a police officer you can see it's significantly more. Almost every call I go on is significantly more violent, there's more frequently guns involved."
In the days leading up to the May primary, Bowen commented in Greenwood Facebook chatter groups about the crime rate, and criticized Greenwood Police Chief James Ison and Mayor Mark Myers, who was running for re-election.
- “Neither of them care. They're too worried about policing their police and tanking morale at the department,” wrote one comment from Bowen on Facebook.
- "I wish the police department would be more transparent and post what is actually going on all the time,” Bowen commented on Facebook. “Unfortunately, Chief Ison tries to sweep most things under the rug."
Bowen commented on a post in Greenwood Indiana Crime Tracker about an alleged incident in which a man stole a U-Haul, drove around shooting a gun out the window and crashed into a building.
- “I think something you should wonder is why the Greenwood Police Department has not released any statement on this? Or why they never notify the public about anything, unless it’s hiring 12 new officers right before an election to make the mayor look good,” Bowen commented.
Bowen points out he is not identified on his own Facebook page as a GPD officer.
"I was at home, posting from my own devices, not in uniform,” said Bowen. “I never identified myself to be a police officer.”
WRTV Investigates: “Some might say you're a Greenwood police officer and your words represent the department?”
Bowen: I would agree if I'm in uniform, working as a police officer.
Bowen said on May 2, primary election day, Chief Ison informed him he was revoking two of Bowen’s privileges: a take-home vehicle and Bowen’s ability to work off-duty law enforcement.
"My house was hit by the tornado that went through Whiteland,” said Bowen. “I had $50,000 worth of repairs I had to do for my house. I was going to be relying on this extra money to cover these repairs."
Bowen said he tried talking to human resources and the mayor, but got nowhere.
On June 26, he filed a federal lawsuit alleging Ison “illegally retaliated” against him because of the Facebook posts.
“Ison made it clear to Bowen that the reason for the actions was Bowen's participation in the Facebook exchanges critical of Myers and Ison,” read the lawsuit.
The lawsuit also alleged the chief violated his First Amendment rights.
"Bowen's right to speak, as a private citizen, on matters of public concern, is guaranteed by the First Amendment,” read the lawsuit.
"My speech is protected as a First Amendment right,” said Bowen. “The fact that action is being taken against me for this protected speech is clearly a First Amendment violation. I’m speaking as a private citizen on a matter of public concern.”
Bowen said things took an unexpected turn after filing the lawsuit.
The city obtained all of his instant messages Bowen had exchanged with other officers from his work computer.
On August 7, Chief Ison recommended Bowen and four other officers be terminated allegedly based on what was in those instant messages, read the lawsuit.
"The only officer whose IMs were obtained by the chief was Officer Bowen,” said Jay Meisenhelder, attorney for Bowen. "It's not like they went out and found all the other for the other officers. I think (the other officers) are collateral damage."
WRTV Investigates to Bowen: “Can you tell us what was in those messages that had the chief concerned?”
Attorney: “We don't want to talk about the content of the messages prior to the merit board hearing."
Disciplinary documents obtained by WRTV on Tuesday say Officer Bowen used derogatory language to describe African Americans, gay people and jews.
Here are some examples listed in the documents:
On 03/27/23 Officer Bowen called Officer Hagist a ‘Hannukah loving fag,’” read the disciplinary document. “On 04/15/23 Officer Bowen comments to Officer Hagist, ‘ur being awfully Jewish tonight.’
On 03/23/23 Officer Bowen commented, 'the fat retard at Popeyes didn’t give me my sauce so now I gotta eat my chicken dry af.' Officer Hennig responded, 'awful 13% of you.' Officer Bowen replied, 'I was feeling like indulging in what it’s like to be a coon for dinner.'
Disciplinary documents show Officers Elijah Allen and Jacob Hagist are also accused of using slurs in their instant messages, including derogatory language for gay people.
On 09/07/22 Officer Elijah Allen commented, ‘fags.’ This was directed at his shift mates,” read the documents.
On 03/05/23 Officer Jacob Hagist sent an instant message to Officer Samuel Bowen that read, ‘FAGGOT.’ Officer Bowen replied, ‘bitch ass,’” read the documents.
The Greenwood Police Merit Commission will meet September 20 at 5 pm to make a decision about the employment of Officer Bowen, as well as Officer Elijah Allen.
Three other officers—Jacob Hagist, Zane Hennig, and Tyler Kintzele—all resigned this month.
Indianapolis attorney Elizabeth Bemis represents Hennig, Kintzele and Allen and she declined to comment to WRTV.
City attorney Drew Foster said Hennig and Kintzele resigned before the city could present any documents to the merit commission. Officer Hagist resigned after formal charges were brought, said Foster.
- Sam Bowen, hired 10/19/2020 to present
- Elijah Allen, hired 4/15/2019 to present
- Jacob Hagist, hired 10/19/2020 and resigned 8/17/2023
- Zane Hennig, hired 6/7/2021 and resigned 8/10/2023
- Tyler Kintzele, hired 8/19/2019 and resigned 8/10/2023
WRTV Investigates contacted Chief Ison.
"I will be happy to speak to you on camera after the hearing,” Ison wrote in an email to WRTV. “Until then I cannot speak about on-going internal investigations or lawsuits."
WRTV Investigates also reached out to Greenwood city attorney Drew Foster.
"As far as the lawsuit filed by Bowen, beyond that it is without merit, the City does not comment on pending litigation,” Foster wrote in an email to WRTV.
The federal lawsuit is scheduled for an initial pretrial conference before United States Magistrate Judge Tim A. Baker on September 13, 2023
Bowen said the lawsuit is not about getting his job back, although he would like to stay in policing.
“To me it's about improving the police department,” said Bowen.
Bowen said as a single man with no children, he’s OK taking a risk—one he hopes will allow police officers to speak their minds when they’re not on the clock.
"Resigning is backing down from that fight and that's not something I want to do yet,” said Bowen.
The department currently has 69 police officers following the resignations, according to the city attorney.
The five officers are accused of violating the following policies:
Violation of Greenwood Police Department Policy 321 “Information Technology Use”. Specifically, section 321.2 Policy – It is the policy of the Greenwood Police Department that members shall use information technology resources, including computer, software and systems that are issued or maintained by the Agency in a professional manner and in accordance with this policy.
Violation of Greenwood Police Department Policy 422 “Mobile Data Center Use”. Specifically, section 422.4 “Restricted Access and Use”- Sending derogatory, defamatory, obscene, disrespectful, sexually suggestive, harassing or any other inappropriate messages on the MDC system is prohibited and may result in discipline.
Violation of Greenwood Police Department Policy 320 “Standards of Conduct”. Specifically, section 320.5.9 (h) Use of obscene, indecent, profane or derogatory language while on-duty or in uniform and section 320.5.9 (p) Any other on- or off-duty conduct which any member knows or reasonably should know is unbecoming a member of this agency.
Jay Meisenhelder, attorney for Officer Sam Bowen, released the following response after Chief Ison released the disciplinary documents against Bowen and other officers on Tuesday.
Greenwood Police Chief James Ison's decision to release detailed information concerning the charges against Officer Sam Bowen is, first and foremost, simply another means by which Ison is retaliating against Officer Bowen for filing a lawsuit against the Chief and the City of Greenwood. It is also an improper and inappropriate to deny Officeer Bowen the due process to which he is entitled.
Meisenhelder said Officer Bowen will not be commenting specifically on the communications involved here, other than to make two points:
First, the communications involved were all private banter among the officers involved, and while in retrospect the language used may have been inappropriate, it was never intended to be more than private, verbal horseplay.
Second, and most important, Officer Bowen's remarks, again, even if they were inappropriate, never affected his actions or behavior on the job.
Meisenhelder said "The investigation – and I use that word very loosely – is far more significant than the specific communications at issue.
First, as Ison acknowledges in the material he released, Greenwood's Corporation Council obtained Officer Bowen's – and only Officer Bowen's – electronic communications report in direct response to the lawsuit Officer Bowen filed."
The fact that only Officer Bowen's communications were scrutinized is significant, said Meisenhelder, "because as former Soviet NKDV Chief Lavrentiy Beria so cynically noted, 'Show me the man and I'll show you the crime.'" Meisenhelder noted that the electronic communications reports are public records, available to any citizen, and it suggested it might be quite interesting to see what a review of the electronic communications of other Greenwood Police Officers – including Chief Ison – might show.
"Finally, as noted above, this is an attempt to deny Officer Bowen the due process to which he is entitled," Meisenhelder said. "Due process requires that the Merit Commission go into Officer Bowen's disciplinary hearing unbiased, with an open mind. By releasing these documents, a month before the hearing, Chief Ison has literally thrown them in the faces of the Merit Commission members."
Ison's decision also appears to violate the Greenwood Police Department's Personnel Records Policy, which states that the Department may release "[t]he factual basis for a disciplinary action in which final action has been taken and that resulted in the employee being suspended, demoted, or discharged."
According to Meisenhelder, "Since the Merit Commission hearing will be the final action, "Ison's release of these documents is a violation of policy."
"If the Merit Commission ultimately decides that Officer Bowen should be terminated, Officer Bowen will deal with that result as required. However, neither the Merit Commission's decision, nor Ison's improper and malicious actions will have any impact on the lawsuit against Ison and the City."