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Where scrapes with the law are no impediment to being a cop

SHOWCASE | October 31, 2011

Reporter Gina Barton describes the impetus for the just-published Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s gutsy, dogged investigation into police officers who ran afoul of the the law but often didn’t get fired or prosecuted. The three-part series, just concluded, had a sharp impact even before it was published.

By Gina Barton
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Although “Both Sides of the Law” was a two-year investigation, it was actually seven years in the making. Back in 2004, a group of off-duty Milwaukee Police officers beat a man at a party. Seven officers ultimately were convicted of crimes and sentenced to prison. In the course of reporting that story, my colleague John Diedrich and I learned that one of those officers had been convicted of fleeing and eluding before he was hired as a police officer. When we confronted officials at the Fire and Police Commission, which is responsible for hiring officers, they admitted that people with multiple misdemeanors on their records could get jobs in law enforcement here. That came as a surprise to both Diedrich and me.

Immediately, we wanted to know how many of those people were out there. We filed records requests asking for lists of cops who had committed crimes. The commission and the department said they didn’t have a list. The DA’s office had one, but it only went back 10 years.

We tried comparing a roster of department employees with online court records. That didn’t work either. The department wouldn’t release birth dates, which makes an accurate comparison impossible. The department also redacted the roster, leaving out officers who had worked undercover or were serving in the military.

Finally, two years ago, I realized that “violating laws and ordinances” is against a department rule. That’s when this investigation began in earnest. It didn’t get us officers who had been convicted before they were hired, but it was a way to quantify what was happening and to start a conversation.

It took the Journal Sentinel nearly two years of records requests, a court case and $7,500 in fees to compile the records upon which the series was based.

Here's what our investigation found: At least 93 Milwaukee police officers have been disciplined for violating the laws and ordinances they were sworn to uphold. Offices who run afoul of the law often aren't fired or prosecuted. Officers caught drunk behind the wheel continue to be responsible for stopping drunken drivers and enforcing other laws, even if they've been convicted more than once. The Milwaukee Police Department doesn't follow national standards on how to handle officer-involved domestic violence and allows officers with a history of domestic violence to keep their guns and their jobs.

The home page for the series is here: www.jsonline.com/bothsides. There you will find all three parts of the series, interactives, and links to past and ongoing coverage of the issue.

My work on this project had impact before it was published. When Officer Ladmarald Cates was accused of an on-duty rape, his history was practically at my fingertips. It showed he had been accused of breaking the law five times before. Three of the previous allegations involved sexual misconduct – two with female prisoners and one with a 16-year-old girl. The victim of the on-duty rape, who said he assaulted her after she called 911 for help, shared her story with me. Cates dropped his appeal to get his job back and was later indicted by federal prosecutors for violating the woman’s civil rights.

When state legislators tried to drop a provision into the state budget that would keep paying fired officers while their appeals were pending, I told the public about the troubling histories of the officers who would be getting taxpayer money. The governor vetoed the provision.

I shared my findings with the police department in June – three months before publication – and asked the chief for an interview. He declined to discuss the issues with me, but a month later he rolled out a new program of education, support and discipline for officers who have problems with alcohol.

I have received more reaction to this series than to anything else I have written in my 17-year career. Many people have called and written in, sharing their own stories of being victimized by police. Many others have angrily criticized our coverage, saying police officers shouldn’t be held to a higher standard than any other citizen. And while some in law enforcement have labeled the series as unfair, others have praised the newspaper’s courage for telling the public about problems insiders have ignored for too long.

The police chief has done interviews with other media criticizing the series and me personally, but has yet to say anything about the problem or how he plans to address it. The district attorney wrote an op-ed as well, saying he treats police officers the same as everyone else.

Neither of them – nor anyone else – has claimed there are any factual inaccuracies in the reporting.

Two responses stand out in my mind. One was an email that began: “I have read your article this morning with more interest than the average reader because my daughter … was one of the violators.”

It went on to say this: “I commend you for your patience and tenacity in trying to obtain information from the Milwaukee Police Department.  Although I disagree about the need to publish relatively minor incidents that had occurred over twenty years ago I do feel that overall you did a commendable job.”

The second response was a telephone call from an officer whose picture was on the front page of our paper and on our website as someone who had been disciplined for violating the law. I listened to his complaints, answered his questions, and encouraged him to write a letter to the editor. At the end of the conversation, he said he was glad he’d called. “I was pretty pissed off,” he said. “But I’m starting to change my mind a little bit.” He did write a letter to the editor, which was reasonable and eloquent, and which we plan to publish.

I hope that with time, those with the power to change a broken system will do as he did: Process their emotions, take a deep breath, and proceed with a productive community conversation about how to make things better.


Most misdemeanors mean nothing to me
Posted by Ace
12/06/2011, 11:38 PM

Hi Gina,

I think it takes a certain type of person to want to be a cop, and I think we should acknowledge - as members of the public - that we want those characteristics.

The correlation of misdemeanors into whether or not a police office will do their duty in protecting the public is, in my observation, a poor indicator.

I may be speaking on some personal experience here, not as a police officer, but as a prior-service military infantryman. For instance, there are plenty of periods in my younger years that would be misdemeanor offenses if they occurred in front of a police officer. The difference is whether or not I was negligent in my role as a soldier because of that past.

I mean, lets be realistic here... ever smoked pot? Ever grabbed something that you thought you "deserved" but didn't pay for? Ever toilet-papered a middle school teacher's tree, or spray painted a wall? Right. We're not perfect, and neither are police officers.

Now, don't misunderstand me. I'm of the belief that most police get their jollies off on the power that comes with the job. I've had my fair share of encounters, both legitimate and illegitimate. So I've experienced the scumbag police officer, and the ones that believe whole heartily in their job and take ethics seriously.

I admire the later, and I think I've developed a sense of who they are over time. Let's just say that I was a rambunctious youth, but have grown and matured into a smarter and better citizen.

When police are hired for their jobs, if they are honest, they will disclose their past. If they are not honest, they will keep things secret they know won't show up on a report. But sometimes they are *honest* people that tripped up in the past, and are afraid of the stigma that is associated with past mistakes, and therefore are reluctant to disclose their past.

After all, if you know inside that the mistakes of the past deserve to remain where they are, then why create trouble for yourself, potentially raise red-flags, have a prejudice against you when entering the law enforcement profession... all by "being honest" and reporting things in the past.

So I think your investigation may have felt really good to grab some "gotcha!" paper trails of past transgressions, but the meat of your work is really in those things you uncovered outside of it.

The best way to report on these things is to get involved in the world, not as a seemingly altruistic Mother Teresa.

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