South Bend officer accused of interfering claims charges filed because he spoke up

SOUTH BEND – For the first time Tuesday, a South Bend police officer on paid administrative leave told his side of the story while he fights to keep his job.

Patrolman First Class Theodore Robert is accused of interfering with an internal investigation and making derogatory comments about the department to convenience store clerks. But during day three of his hearing in front of the city’s Board of Public Safety, Robert said he didn’t do either of those things.

It stems from an incident that happened at the 7-Eleven gas station on Miami Street last fall. Two other officers have since admitted to their role in pranking a former employee at that store while on duty. Both served suspensions.

But Robert is in trouble over what happened after that prank. He’s accused of going to the store twice last October and using his status as a police officer to try and get information about the prank. Robert didn’t deny the fact Tuesday that he went to the gas station but said he only did it because of the oath he took “to serve and protect.”

“I wasn’t doing anything that would show I was embarrassing the department,” he said while on the witness stand.

Hands folded and eyes mostly to the ground, Ptl. Theo Robert spent more than four hours testifying in front of the board.

The 7-year veteran of the force testified he didn’t feel he interfered with an internal investigation when he drove his marked squad car to the 7-Eleven in his uniform but off duty on October 8 and 11. He claimed he did not know an internal investigation was already underway because those are kept confidential within the department.

“Because of the magnitude of what I was hearing, I was curious to hear if the rumor was true,” Robert testified.

He added he went to the store to ask for surveillance video of the prank involving two other officers so he could turn it into his supervisor. He denied telling the gas station employees he wanted the video so he could turn it over to a local TV station, as former interim Chief Chuck Hurley has said.

“As a police officer I took an oath, and part of that oath is to protect the community and the citizens of the community,” Robert testified. When I heard, and it was confirmed by the store clerk that incident did happen, that caused concern.”

He also said Hurley brought the charges against him in January because he stands up for himself.

“There is a mentality that your supervisors, that whatever they say goes,” Robert said on the stand. “There is something about superiors with subordinates. For example, there’s a fear among subordinates that they are sometimes afraid to challenge things that go on with their superiors.”

Robert’s attorney, Douglas Grimes of Gary, is not done presenting his case. He plans to do so July 30. It is not clear whether Grimes will subpoena more witnesses. He told the Board of Public Safety Tuesday that he might even call South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg to the stand.

Tuesday marked Day 3 of Robert’s hearing. The city already presented its case. Scheduling the hearings on multiple days that will work for everyone on the six-member board is tough because most of them have day jobs and must make time for board-related meetings.

Robert has been on paid leave since October, and it’s not the first time he’s been in trouble. He served a 30-day suspension in 2011 for punching an inmate at the St. Joseph County Jail. He also received a written reprimand in a separate incident for damaging his squad car while filling it up with gas.

He also received two Officer of the Month awards in 2010 and a commendation award for tracking down suspects after his shift ended.