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Monday, Dec. 31, 2007

Skirmish Over Police Pay Continues

Legislature weighs alternatives

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The city of Milwaukee and the state Legislature are still grappling with the legacy of former Milwaukee Police Chief Harold Breier, the chief for life who ruled the department with an iron fist and often fired officers without just cause. The former chief was so autocratic that state legislators had to step in during the 1980s and take away some of his power, turning some Milwaukee police matters into state issues.

One of those state issues is the controversial practice of allowing Milwaukee police officers to continue to be paid even though they were fired from the Milwaukee Police Department, a situation that’s unique in the state. Legislators felt that this would provide a check to Breier’s practice of firing officers at whim.



More than 20 years later, Milwaukee cops are still getting paid, even after they’ve been convicted of felonies. But that situation may change soon.



A bill written by state Sen. Spencer Coggs (D-Milwaukee) and state Rep. Barbara Toles (D-Milwaukee) would stop that practice, which has cost taxpayers $4.4 million since 1990.



“Under this bill, police officers would be treated like every other employee on the planet—they wouldn’t get paid after they got fired,” Coggs said.



The bill treats those who have been fired for being charged with felonies the same as those who are accused of committing misdemeanors or rule violations—they wouldn’t get paid after being terminated from the department. Most Milwaukee-area legislators, as well as Mayor Tom Barrett and the new executive director of the Fire and Police Commission (FPC), Michael Tobin, support the measure. The police officers’ union, the Milwaukee Police Association (MPA), as well as legislators from rural areas, oppose it.



Tobin testified last week at the state Capitol to urge lawmakers to support the bill. Tobin, a former MPD officer and MPA member, said that the majority of MPA members he’s talked to support the bill.



“For any officer that is out there working hard every day to maintain a good reputation, their job becomes more difficult when one of their union brothers is charged with a crime,” Tobin said. “That makes it difficult for every officer when they respond to a call, because the perception of police officers is diminished each time an officer is charged with some type of misconduct. And to continue to pay officers under those conditions is detrimental to the department as a whole and to the police union as an organization, and to the individual officers while they’re trying to perform their duties every day.”



Felony Charges vs. Misdemeanors

The state Senate was scheduled to vote on the bill Tuesday, but amendments were being offered as we went to press. The corresponding bill is currently being held in the Corrections and Courts Committee in the state Assembly, where a substitute amendment was introduced by state Rep. Garey Bies (R-Sister Bay), which would, among other things, only allow those charged with felonies to stop being paid. Those who have committed rule violations or misdemeanors would be exempt from the change in pay policy.



The MPA is lobbying against the original version of the bill, arguing that those who have only committed rule violations or misdemeanors shouldn’t be treated the same as accused felons.



MPA President John Balcerzak said that those who have been charged with felonies are able to defend themselves in a hearing with an attorney and can fight the firing. He argued that police officers aren’t able to appeal a rule violation or misdemeanor charge in the same way. Besides, he said, the MPD has hired officers who have committed misdemeanors, so there’s no reason why they should be fired for doing so.



“That’s why we’re focusing on the felonies,” Balcerzak said.



The FPC’s Tobin said that there’s no clean dividing line between firings for felony charges and misdemeanors. For example, he said, felony charges are often pleaded down to misdemeanors, and some misdemeanors or rule violations—such as using departmental resources for one’s private gain—should not be tolerated.



“There are many misdemeanors that the public would not want their officers to continue receiving pay after committing,” Tobin said. “Many members of the public would equate some misdemeanors as equivalent to felonies.”



Toles took issue with Balcerzak’s argument that officers can be fired before presenting a defense. Toles said that before a Milwaukee police officer can be fired, he or she works through an eight-step disciplinary process, which includes opportunities to defend himself or herself from the charges. The officer is suspended with pay while the investigation takes place.



“Officers have more than enough time and opportunity to defend themselves before they are fired,” Toles said.



She said that the MPA is trying to appear to be willing to reform the system, but that its proposals are superficial.



“The MPA recognizes that people are outraged about this,” Toles said. “Most officers are not charged with felonies, so the amendment wouldn’t change much of what is currently happening. The MPA just wants to give the appearance of doing something.”

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