By Peter Cameron for Wausau Pilot & Review

Nearly 200 police officers currently employed in the state were fired or forced out from previous jobs in law enforcement, resigned in lieu of termination or quit before completion of an internal investigation, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Justice obtained through an open records request.

The list includes one officer in the Wausau area and three in surrounding counties, DOJ records show.

There are about 13,500 certified active law enforcement officers today in Wisconsin. More than 1,000 officers have been fired or resigned before termination since 2017, when the state DOJ started tracking that statistic.

Some fired officers were simply novices who didn’t perform at an acceptable level during their initial probationary period, when the bar to fire them is very low, officials say. In other cases, officers were let go because they couldn’t handle the high pressure of working in a busy urban area. Or the chief just didn’t like them. But for others, misconduct – including lying, public intoxication and sexual harassment – triggered their termination.

Officers named in this story who were fired or forced out were asked for comment but did not offer any; their chiefs or sheriff answered questions on their behalf.

Local wandering officers

Andrew Schroeder, an officer at the Rothschild Police Department, was terminated in 2019 from the police department in Berlin, just west of Oshkosh, after about five months in that job. Now, he is thriving in his new role.

Berlin Police Chief Jeffery Engel said Schroeder’s termination stemmed from the fact that the newly-hired officer was in his probationary period “and he failed to meet the standards of probation.”

Rothschild Police Chief Jeremy Hunt said his agency conducts thorough background checks on potential officers, including a psychological exam. Schroeder has worked for the department for more than 18 months now and is in good standing there, Hunt said.

“We in Rothschild pride ourselves on professionalism in law enforcement,” Hunt said.

To the north, Matthew Gorell, an officer at the Tomahawk Police Department in Lincoln County, resigned prior to the completion of an internal investigation from a police job in Kronenwetter that began when he rolled his SUV into a ditch in 2017 after taking medication.

Gorell was unresponsive, disoriented and struggled to walk when rescue crews arrived at the rollover, according to police reports.

State police originally arrested and charged him with an OWI, but he was allowed to plead no contest to non-criminal charges of reckless driving and failure to keep vehicle under control. Circuit Judge Greg Strasser, who presided over the case, ordered Gorell to pay a fine.

Tomahawk Detective Matthew Gorell

Tomahawk Police Chief Al Elvins said his department completes background checks on job applicants that includes drug tests and psychological examinations. Gorell has performed well for his department, he added, and is now a detective, “conducting all levels of investigative work.”

“He has an exemplary attendance record and is always someone that I can count on to do his job,” Elvins said. “He is competent and a team player.”

To the west in Clark County, Jason King, a deputy in the sheriff’s office, resigned from a previous position at the Neillsville Police Department after citizens submitted four official complaints against him, Neillsville Police Chief Jim Mankowski said. The department received a fifth complaint after his resignation.

Clark County Sheriff Scott Haines said King is in “good standing” with his office, where he is a patrol deputy.

Clark County Deputy Jason King

Also in Clark County, Greenwood Officer Henry Meyer resigned in lieu of termination from the Fond du Lac County Sheriff’s Office in 2019. Kevin Galske, the chief deputy for the Fond du Lac County Sheriff’s Office said Meyer worked there “for a short time and did not pass our training program.”

Greenwood Chief Bernie Bock noted that Meyer did not leave Fond du Lac County under investigation or due to any misconduct. The sheriff’s office there said Meyer could thrive in a smaller department, Bock said.

“Officer Meyer left that agency because it was not a good fit for him,” Bock said. “He has found a home with the Greenwood Police Department and is flourishing. I look forward to Officer Meyer being a long-term member of my department.”

Greenwood Chief Bernie Bock

Back in Marathon County, the sheriff’s office has fired or forced out eight officers in the past four years, while the Wausau Police Department has fired or forced out four, according to data from the state DOJ. The Everest Police Department has not fired or forced out any officers in that timeframe.

None of those three agencies currently employ any officers who were flagged by the state DOJ for being fired or forced out elsewhere.

In neighboring Shawano County, the sheriff’s office there currently employs one jail officer who was fired from another law enforcement agency.

An employee market

The total number of law enforcement officers in Wisconsin as well as the total number of state police academy graduates hit at least a 10-year low in 2020.

That could put pressure on chiefs to hire less desirable candidates in order to fill positions, or at least incentivize them to conduct less thorough background checks, experts say.

Time and cost can be big factors in who gets hired. Officers in Wisconsin must complete a 720-hour law enforcement academy program before they can work. The state DOJ covers the $5,000 tuition fee for candidates who complete the program, DOJ spokeswoman Gillian Drummond said. But the law enforcement agency or the individual are on the hook if they fail or drop out, the agency said in a follow-up email.

Fired officers already have academy training, so police departments can put them to work immediately, rather than paying a cadet for months while waiting for program completion. This can be an incentive, particularly for smaller departments, to hire fired officers, officials say.

Wisconsin officers who commit serious misconduct, like committing a felony, will have their law enforcement certification revoked, meaning they can no longer work in the field. But as long as officers keep up to date with their recertification training, only severe misconduct typically results in decertification, according to the state Law Enforcement Standards Board, which regulates police officers, sheriff’s deputies and jail guards.

A massive study in The Yale Law Journal titled The Wandering Officer found that Florida officers who had been fired from a previous law enforcement job were more likely to be fired from their next job or to receive a complaint for a “moral character violation,” compared to rookies and officers who have never been fired.

The study analyzed nearly 100,000 full-time officers from roughly 500 agencies in Florida over a 30-year period.

“Although we cannot determine the precise reasons for the firings, these results suggest that wandering officers may pose serious risks, particularly given how difficult it is to fire a police officer,” the study concluded.

Patrick Solar, a criminal justice associate professor at University of Wisconsin-Platteville and a former police chief, takes a hard stance: a termination for a cop should be a death sentence on his or her law enforcement career.

“Police officers hold positions of public trust, they are oath takers,” he said. “Once they have been proven to have violated that oath, I believe the possibility of re-employment in the craft should be forfeited,” Solar said in an email.

Others disagree and think fired officers should be given a second chance – just like criminals who are released after serving their time, Solar said.

“I reject that argument,” Solar said. “Cops are special and should be held to a higher standard.”

Solar makes a distinction, however, between officers fired due to misconduct and rookie officers who don’t pass their probationary period. 

“Any agency considering hiring an officer who did not make probation at another agency needs to be very thorough in investigating the reasons why,” he wrote.

Peter Cameron writes for The Badger Project, a Wisconsin-based nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative journalism organization. He can be reached at pcameron@thebadgerproject.org.

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