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March 07, 2006
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Wis.: Many fired cops drop appeals at 11th hour

JOHN DIEDRICH, Staff, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Copyright 2006 Journal Sentinel Inc. 

Byron Andrews was fired as a Milwaukee police detective in September 2004 as he sat in jail on battery and drunken driving charges.

But he continued to collect his $65,000-a-year salary.

His taxpayer-funded wages continued to roll in even after Andrews was convicted and sent to jail. From behind bars, he drew out his appeal before the Fire and Police Commission for months, using provisions under a state law unique to Milwaukee police.

Four months later, Andrews' appeal was finally set.

Two days before the hearing, he quit.

Andrews' case is among several in which fired officers appealed their terminations as long as possible and continued to be paid, only to quit days before the appeal hearing, according to the Fire and Police Commission.

Nearly 40% of the 18 officers fired in the last two years who appealed - and whose appeals are no longer pending - either quit or retired shortly before their appeal hearing. Salaries for those seven officers cost city taxpayers nearly $170,000, commission records show.

City officials and supporters of an Assembly bill to change the 26-year-old law label the last-minute resignations evidence that the state-mandated system rewards fired officers who drag out their appeals.

"This is a case of officers playing the system, clearly doing what they can get away with, and they know they will get paid," said Rep. Barbara Toles (D-Milwaukee), who sponsored a bill to change the law requiring payment to fired Milwaukee officers.

"They are guilty and they know it, so they resign just before their hearing date," she said.

Union head defends process

The police union president defended the resignations, saying officers must file appeals to get a full picture of the city's case against them. He said officers also need time to make a decision that will change their lives.

"What other choice do they have?" said John Balcerzak, president of the Milwaukee Police Association, which is lobbying against Toles' bill. Balcerzak and another officer, Joseph Gabrish, were fired in 1991 after they turned a 14-year-old boy over to serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer months before police discovered Dahmer's crimes. Dahmer killed the boy. A judge later overturned the terminations, and they were reinstated in 1994.

Balcerzak said the union has its own bill to be considered by the Legislature next year. He declined to give details.

Toles' bill calls for ending pay to fired Milwaukee officers charged with crimes, speeding up the appeal process and making fired officers who lose their appeals reimburse the city for wages and benefits paid after termination. It is a compromise from an earlier bill that would have stopped pay to all fired MPD officers. It passed a committee 8-1 but has not gone to the full Assembly.

Assembly Speaker John Gard (R-Peshtigo) has refused to bring the bill to a vote, saying Toles needs to do more work to guarantee it will pass. He also said the city and police union need to come to a compromise. The current legislative session ends Thursday.

Gard also expressed concerns that the bill will hurt good officers who face trumped up disciplinary actions. However, when told so many fired officers appeal then quit when their hearings are imminent, Gard said that needed to change.

"That is an abuse of the law," Gard said. "That's the kind of thing that they can sit down and work through on this."

The Milwaukee police union is a politically powerful player in Madison, giving endorsements and contributions. The union gave Gard's Congressional campaign $5,000 last year. Gard said that has not influenced his position on the bill.

Perhaps the union's biggest victory in Madison was the 1980 law that, among other things, required the city to pay fired officers until their appeals are exhausted with the commission, a process that takes an average of nine months.

Since 1990, the city has paid more than $2.5 million in wages and benefits to fired officers, according to city records. Officers who lose appeals do not have to repay the salary they've earned since termination.

Police officers elsewhere in Wisconsin don't get paid after they're fired, though outside Milwaukee, fire and police commissions, not chiefs, do the firing.

Mayor backs legislation

In response to Gard's call for a compromise, Mayor Tom Barrett said Toles' bill is a compromise, one that addresses the worst cases: fired officers who also are charged with crimes.

Barrett pointed out that since at least 1994, no Milwaukee officer who has been fired and charged with a crime has ever been reinstated. Thirty-two officers were fired and charged with crimes, and none of them got their jobs back, he said.

"It tells me if you are fired and charged with a crime, you are not coming back to the Milwaukee Police Department, and to continue to pay them is only costing taxpayers more money," Barrett said. "This is the most glaring problem and we are trying to address it."

Speeding the process

Barrett acknowledged that city staff will have to move appeals along faster. The practice of dragging out an appeal and quitting at the end would be addressed by the bill, he said.

"Right now there is every incentive in place to drag out this process, particularly when the person knows the inevitable will occur," Barrett said.

Three of the officers who quit shortly before their hearings were among the nine officers fired for their roles in the beating of Frank Jude Jr. at an off-duty officer party in October 2004.

Each officer filed appeals and took a "free" adjournment, also provided under the law, which allowed them to delay the proceedings against them without reason. The bill would remove the right to such an adjournment.

Each of the three officers agreed to resign - two will do so later this month and one will step down in April.

Balcerzak said those officers would not have been able to resign without an agreement from the city and Chief Nannette Hegerty.

"Any agreement takes two parties," he said.

Bill targets charged officers

Rep. Garey Bies (R-Sister Bay), who opposed the first version of Toles' bill and helped author the compromise, said he is concerned about treating all officers like criminals. That is why the new bill targets officers who are fired and charged, he said.

Bies was troubled by the practice of fired officers dragging out an appeal.

"They carry it out like, 'This is my last act of being vindictive, in your face and I will run it out to the last day,' " he said. "That (bill) will make officers make decisions a lot quicker."

Copyright 2006, Journal Sentinel Inc. All rights reserved. (Note: This notice does not apply to those news items already copyrighted and received through wire services or other media.) 
 
March 5, 2006

Full story: Wis.: Many fired cops drop appeals at 11th hour






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