Some folks are up in arms over a provision in the Senate version of the state budget bill to revamp the process for disciplining police officers and firefighters.
"[W]hy would Wisconsin want to undermine its citizen review boards?" clucked the Wisconsin State Journal in a recent editorial. "This is an astounding change for the worse."
At present, imposing major discipline on firefighters and cops falls to Police and Fire Commissions - boards of citizens in each jurisdiction. The legislative proposal, backed by Gov. Jim Doyle, would let police and fire unions negotiate for the right to arbitrate such matters and expand their ability to appeal PFC outcomes.
Critics including Scott Herrick, longtime attorney for the Madison Police and Fire Commission, are right to point out that these changes have no business being in the budget bill, as there is no state fiscal impact. As he's written, "How can the apples of the real budget be negotiated and compromised in good faith with the oranges of nonbudgetary policy?" The whole idea arouses the grapes of his wrath.
But other objections to the proposed changes are more questionable. Herrick claims the arbitration would occur in addition to a PFC proceeding, adding mucho time and cost to the already Herculean task of disciplining officers. Jim Palmer, assistant executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, disputes this, saying officers would have to choose one or the other process.
"It's never been our intention to add more layers," says Palmer. Indeed, he argues that taking cases to arbitration - if this right is secured through bargaining, presumably in exchange for concessions from the unions - would be "a more effective and efficient process and save taxpayers a lot of money."
Herrick and others also warn that this change might close the door to complaints initiated by citizens, as opposed to those filed by chiefs. Again, Palmer disagrees, saying PFCs could and would still hear citizen complaints. The only change is that officers could take complaints brought by chiefs to arbitration.
Palmer says that's fairer because the PFC hires chiefs, creating an inherent conflict: "The PFC is inclined to sustain the actions of its chief because to do otherwise would reflect poorly on the person it hired."
Leave aside Herrick's obvious self-interest in opposing this change (his law firm has billed the city $191,276 for his work on the PFC since early 2002). The truth is that if citizens could no longer bring PFC complaints, it would be no great loss.
I am, it so happens, one of the few citizens who have ever brought a PFC complaint against a Madison police official. Suffice it to say I lost. The details (see my book, Cry Rape) are not worth recounting, but the lessons may be.
First of all, let's address why so few complaints are filed. Citizens upset by the conduct of an officer or firefighter are told, smugly and at every turn, that they can lodge a complaint with the Police and Fire Commission.
If they do so, at least in Madison, they will be advised at the outset to hire a lawyer, at their own expense. This is actually good advice, since the subject of their complaint will have a lawyer hired by the police union or city authorized to do whatever it takes, at whatever cost, to defeat them. If a citizen wishes to proceed without a lawyer, the PFC will insist that he or she act like one - marshalling evidence, subpoenaing witnesses, prosecuting the case, and writing lengthy legal briefs.
That's one reason Herrick must go way back to 1959 to cite a single instance in which the Madison PFC has imposed discipline, he says, "via a citizen complaint." That was when Police Chief Bruce Weatherly was fired for drinking on duty, driving under the influence and improper use of a city-owned vehicle, after he got drunk and crashed his squad. (Hey, this ish Wishkonshun!)
But the person who brought this complaint, it turns out, was no ordinary citizen. It was Ivan Nestigen, then mayor of Madison.
A far better example of the PFC norm occurred three years earlier, when a sheriff's department employee filed a complaint against Weatherly for drinking, philandering and fixing a friend's drunk-driving ticket. Although a prominent Madison attorney stepped in as prosecutor, the PFC tossed the case without even making Weatherly present a defense. (Thanks to Mike Miller of The Capital Times for his article of Sept. 30, 1996, recounting these events.)
Among those raising a hue and cry over the proposed changes is Wes Sparkman, a county Equal Opportunity Office employee who serves on Madison's PFC. In an op-ed piece to local media, Sparkman opines that an invaluable tool for police accountability is about to be lost.
"Did you know that you have the right to request a hearing with the Police and Fire Commission if you feel you have been treated unfairly by a police [officer] or firefighter?" he asks, before quizzically noting that no one has done so since he was appointed in January. "Maybe the public is not aware of the complaint process," he suggests.
Yeah, and then there's Sparkman's own shocking lack of awareness. Take the "true story" he tells to buttress his case.
"An African American woman was arrested, taken down to the station, booked, searched, etc.," he writes, "only for the department to find out [it] had the wrong person." He says this citizen "should have a right to a hearing on this matter to express her feelings about the situation" and receive an apology.
If the woman in Sparkman's story did file a PFC complaint, it's clear, she would have the stuffing beaten out of her by lawyers for the accused officers. And then the PFC would rule against her. Screwing up and not apologizing is not a violation of any department rule, which is all the PFC has authority to enforce. (After my case, I documented that a police detective lied under oath to the PFC and it didn't even care enough to look into that.)
The real problem with the proposed legislation isn't that it creates an alternative mechanism for disciplining officers, but that it doesn't do away with PFCs altogether.