03/03/2008

Milwaukee case changes complaint handling

John Diedrich
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

MILWAUKEE — For years, some in Milwaukee have complained they had no place to take complaints of police brutality, leading to sometimes-tense relations between the community and the department.

They said Milwaukee police couldn't be trusted to investigate their own, the district attorney worked too closely with the department to do the job, and the city's Fire and Police Commission just shipped complaints back to police.

But the federal Frank Jude beating trial demonstrated a lesser-known but powerful option in pursuing civil rights complaints against local police: the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office.

After state prosecutors failed to convict anyone for Jude's beating, the FBI launched its own case that ended with seven former officers being sent to prison, the three primary culprits for more than 15 years each.

The Jude case not only highlighted the potential for federal civil rights action, but is helping to change how the district attorney and the Fire and Police Commission handle complaints.

The FBI and U.S. Attorney Steven Biskupic, who helped prosecute the Jude case, said they are committed to pursuing investigations against police and other public officials. FBI agents are currently conducting at least two separate investigations, of a current and a former Milwaukee police officer, both accused of violating civil rights.

"This is extremely important to the Department of Justice," said Richard Ruminski, head of the FBI's office in Milwaukee. "(Police) have a tremendous amount of trust. You can't have individuals betraying that trust. People depend on police and other public officials to serve, and when they violate that trust, it requires a response."

Ruminski and Biskupic cautioned that they can't take on every complaint against Milwaukee police or any department. They don't have the people to do it, plus there are few federal laws to prosecute police, with the burden of proof high.

Federal authorities typically monitor such cases and get involved if there isn't a satisfactory outcome, as happened with Jude, Biskupic said. They reserve the right to get involved in any case at any time, but focus on the major cases, he said.

"The Jude case was not something close to the line," Biskupic said. "Nobody wants to be in the business of second-guessing a police officer breaking up a fight. That is not what the Jude case was or the cases that we are looking at. I hope the good cops know that."

Jude's attorney, Jonathan Safran, said one of the lessons he took from the federal Jude trial was the power of the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office to get the truth when police internal affairs and the district attorney could not.

"I think there is a little bit of distance there, which is helpful," Safran said of the FBI. "They have the clout to get around the code of silence."

Safran agreed the FBI can't do it all, leaving much of the work for the police, district attorney and others. He said, however, that a disconnect remains among those agencies.

Methods changing

Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm agrees improvement is needed. He said he understands the suspicion that some people have about police investigating themselves. Because of that, and problems highlighted by the Jude case, Chisholm designated one prosecutor to handle police cases.

Since then, two officers were found not guilty by two juries and charges against a third were dropped after a witness died and other facts surfaced. Chisholm said he isn't discouraged and will continue to charge such cases.

Chisholm said he continues to be concerned about how his office can learn about brutality complaints faster. He is interested in a countywide system to take in all complaints against law enforcement, an idea he plans to broach with Milwaukee police Chief Edward Flynn.

Flynn declined to comment for this article.

The Fire and Police Commission, too, is overhauling the way it deals with citizen complaints, said executive director Michael Tobin. With no investigators of its own, the commission had shipped all complaints back to the Police Department for investigation. Ultimately, most were not sustained. A court ruled last year that the commission's complaint process didn't follow the law.

Tobin said the commission is trying to fix the system by becoming more open and adding at least one investigator.

"We may have to have assistance from Milwaukee police. Our goal is to minimize that and keep as many of (the complaints) in the commission so people will have confidence this is an independent investigation," Tobin said.

A citizen effort

The commission's reforms are too little too late for the Milwaukee Police Accountability Coalition, a group that wants an elected citizen accountability board to accept and investigate complaints, taking that function away from the commission, said spokesman Matt Nelson.

"Brutality has no place in law enforcement," he said. "It is crucial that officers are held accountable for their actions before they lead to seriously injuring or killing a citizen. If we have accountability, that rebuilds trust."

Lenard Wells, a retired Milwaukee police officer who spent 27 years on the job, said all the agencies with the duty to investigate Milwaukee police, including the FBI, are too close to do the job.

"They work with Milwaukee Police Department on a daily basis," Wells said. "How can you turn around and investigate that group? You can't."

Wells suggested a task force with local, state and federal agents targeting police brutality, similar to a drug unit in place here for years. Such a group would be insulated from the day-to-day dealings among agencies, he said.

But some from those agencies say investigators looking into police misconduct cases are insulated already and the cases are closely watched.

At the FBI, officials said civil rights allegations are handled differently than other cases. When the FBI opens such an investigation, it cannot be closed without the approval of headquarters in Washington, D.C.

"We have that oversight," said Supervisory Special Agent David Gorr, in charge of the white collar unit, which handles civil rights cases. "I can't just put them in a file."

Copyright 2008 The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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