The Journal Gazette
 
 
Sunday, December 08, 2019 1:00 am

Gang unit gets guns off street

312 seized this year, though methods garner criticism

JAMIE DUFFY | The Journal Gazette

The Fort Wayne Police Department this year has pulled more than 312 illegal guns off the street, including 269 handguns, 35 rifles and eight shotguns. 

In 2018, the total number pulled was 226, said Capt. Kevin Hunter, who oversees the Vice and Narcotics Unit and the Gang Unit. Most of the guns seized came from those two units. 

Hunter credits the increase in gun seizures to the decline in homicides – 24 so far this year compared with 45 in 2018.

“It's an unusual day if they (the Gang Unit) don't get a gun,” Hunter said.

Many of the seized guns are confiscated during traffic stops, but some residents interviewed over the last six months are critical of the police tactics used in those and other instances.

And on May 22, a young black man who had no known affiliation with a clique or gang died at the hands of the Gang Unit at the corner of Oliver and Grier streets.

Three men – Timothy Coats, Phillip Billingsley and Marcus Timmons – are in different stages of filing claims against the city and the Fort Wayne Police Department, contending that their rights have been violated.

Coats' lawsuit against the city of Fort Wayne and several police officers was filed in May in U.S. District Court. Coats argues in the civil complaint that he was a victim of unlawful search and seizure, false arrest and excessive force during three traffic stops in 2018. 

Billingsley's tort claim was issued, indicating he intends to file a lawsuit against the city. His attorney, Christopher C. Myers, is waiting on Billingsley's criminal charges to be decided before proceeding, Lori Kolb, Myers' paralegal, said. Billingsley's complaint dates to May 21, when he says police ordered him out of his car for no reason and subsequently tased him.

Myers' firm said it has documented Timmons' complaint and is considering representing him in a lawsuit. Timmons says he is being harassed by the Gang Unit and pulled over needlessly, resulting in traffic violations – also known as infractions – that cost him money and peace of mind.

He is currently fighting infractions resulting from an incident on Aug. 11 and is being represented by attorney Quinton Ellis in misdemeanor court.

Coats, Billingsley and Timmons brought their stories and sent cellphone videos to The Journal Gazette.

“I don't fear a lot of stuff. My biggest fear is the Gang Unit. I don't feel they'd help me in any situation,” said Timmons, who added he has been pulled over several times this year, but not charged with a felony or misdemeanor.

The Gang Unit usually doesn't target people without reason, Hunter said.

“Typically, it's not random that we go up on somebody,” Hunter said. “If someone is involved in either gang, drug or other criminal activity, we're going to know about it and we're going to show them attention.” 

Coats, Timmons and several others say the Gang Unit's tactics are heavy-handed. They and other south-side residents are familiar with the officers' names and vehicles they use to pull them over. 

“It's never a cop car,” said one man, 26, who works in a warehouse and asked that he not be named because he's afraid of the police. Gang Unit members drive an unmarked black Chevrolet Impala, a white Chevrolet Tahoe and a black Ford Explorer, residents say. 

It was the black unmarked Impala that pulled over another young black man in his 20s one Thursday night this year after he left the Roller Dome North on Coliseum Boulevard and Lima Road. 

“They sit across the street from the Roller Dome. As people leave, they pull you out of the car,” he said. 

After he was pulled over, the man asked why and said he was told he was “acting nervous.”

Some residents see the need for a strong police presence. 

“They should mess with you if you're out there drug dealing and killing,” said Foundation One, owner of the Unity Barber Shop on East Pontiac Street. On the other hand, Foundation says “this has been going on since we've been in America. Ain't nothing we're not aware of or accustomed to.” 

Coats, 25, said young black men he knows are sometimes relieved when they realize the police are following them rather than others intent on shooting or harming them. 

At the Unity Barber Shop, several customers said they believe police are told to “do what you gotta do to keep order on the south side.”

Billingsley, 36, said the unit's aggressiveness led to his car being impounded during a February incident even though he had with him a valid driver's license from Alabama. He eventually got his car out of impound with the fees waived.

During a subsequent incident May 21, Billingsley was tased in front of Grace Avenue neighbors after an exchange with an officer during which Billingsley admitted to smoking marijuana in his car. A neighbor recorded the incident on his cellphone, a video subsequently sent to The Journal Gazette. 

On the probable cause affidavit, the officer noted that Billingsley was parked in an “area known for drug activity,” and “that people often sit inside of their vehicles and smoke illicit drugs.” 

According to the report, the officer believed Billingsley was dangerous and the officer feared for his life. When Billingsley got out of his car and walked away, the officer got out his stun gun and tased Billingsley, who fell to the ground.

Billingsley was charged with resisting law enforcement, disorderly conduct by engaging in tumultuous fighting and intentionally driving without a license. His criminal trial has been rescheduled for March.

Billingsley said the court case caused him to lose his job with a tree service and he is now doing odd jobs while he helps his sister, who is ill and lives in Fort Wayne. He will move back to Alabama as soon as he can. 

Timmons, 28, said each traffic stop costs him $200 or more.  

On Aug. 11, around 2 p.m., the Gang Unit got him on tinted windows and not having his driver's license. His license was in the car as was his 16-month-old son. According to in.gov, vehicle window tinting must allow occupants to be easily recognized or identified from outside the vehicle. 

Timmons told police where his license was, but said he was afraid to make a move to get it. 

“I feel like I have no hope with them. If I move my hand, they're going to shoot me,” Timmons said.  

His history with police dates to 2013, when he was charged with battery committed with a deadly weapon. He was sentenced in September 2014 to eight years with four years suspended. He was discharged from probation in August 2017. 

Timmons said he didn't commit the crime, but pleaded guilty rather than be a snitch and face another kind of justice on the streets. 

Now he feels he's hounded no matter where he goes. 

The August incident occurred when he parked his car at a friend's home off Lafayette Street. He was ordered out of the car at gunpoint, told to put his hands behind his head and not to move. He was then handcuffed and detained before he was let go. 

Timmons recognized one of the officers as Detective Geoff Norton, against whom he has attempted to take out a protective order because he feels Norton targets him. He was told a protective order wasn't possible.

A friend he was visiting recorded most of the incident on his cellphone. At one point officer Anthony Shefferly walks into view in the video. 

“So you guys know he's like a drug dealer and stuff, right?” Shefferly says to the friend. 

Neither a gun nor drugs were found on Timmons, who says he gave up the violent life after he served prison time. And he knows better than to carry a gun. 

“I got eight kids. That's at least eight years. I can't do that. I already did time for somebody else. I can't do that,” said Timmons, who has a bench trial scheduled for Feb. 20 and currently owes $221 for the two infractions, not counting attorney costs.

On Nov. 12, Timmons received a letter from the local police department's Internal Affairs office after he complained and named three officers: Norton, Shefferly and Sgt. Tom Strausborger, three of the five officers who conducted the traffic stop.

“While the incidents about which you are complaining may have occurred, there is insufficient evidence to suggest that the officers were in violation of the Rules and Regulations of the Fort Wayne Police Department,” the letter read. “I want to address the concern with your assertion that the officers had their weapons pointed at you during the stop. Due to your demeanor, the officers chose to conduct a 'high risk' traffic stop. The tactics used are within the parameters of the FWPD's policies and procedures. ... Your eventual cooperation with the lawful commands given by officers led to a peaceful resolution of the incident.”

Even though Coats is incarcerated at the Allen County Jail on federal drug and gun charges, he says he's “not rebellious to the law.” He claims he has been “harassed by the police” and now suffers depression.

“What they need to do is follow the law. Don't break rules,” Coats said.

At a rally against gun violence attended by a half dozen people at the Allen County Courthouse Sept. 7, the Gang Unit's Sgt. Strausborger said his officers don't break the rules. 

“We will follow the law and follow the Constitution of the United States,” Strausborger said. 

Deputy Chief James Feasel, who oversees both the Narcotics and Vice and Gang units, said those who feel they've been wrongly treated have recourse through the police department's Internal Affairs Unit.

“They can contact the IA, which will do a thorough investigation,” Feasel said.

Gang Unit officers are “out there doing their job,” Feasel said. “The harder you work, you generate complaints. Some are valid and some are not.”

jduffy@jg.net


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