Wisconsin’s Solution Prevents Mayors From Firing Cops

How is it possible that a mayor can’t fire a bad cop in Wisconsin? No, this time it isn’t about the police union, which can’t actually stop a cop from being fired per se, but can take the case to binding arbitration where the cop can be reinstated with back pay for not being significantly worse than the cops who haven’t been fired for being as bad.

This time, it’s because a very progressive idea came to fruition. It was meant to deal with one problem, which it did very well. It created another problem, but our concern now wasn’t the same as their concern then. Something had to be done and it was.

A state law passed in 1885 gives volunteer citizen boards authority to hire and fire police and fire chiefs. These police and fire commissions are also tasked with disciplining members of police and fire departments when issues arise.

That means when people call for the removal of a police officer or chief, the mayor or city council can’t step in.

The reason for this law was sound, as far as it went.

“It wasn’t that unusual for a new political party to come into city hall and literally fire everyone on the police department and bring in new people,” Kennedy said. “Obviously this made for disastrous favors, laws were enforced badly, or they weren’t enforced at all, and over decades, many measures were put in place to try to stop this.”

Kennedy said over the last 120 years, the setup has insulated police from oversight if there is corruption within their own department.

“This is a singular, structural, legal creation that essentially assures that lack of accountability,” Kennedy said.

The problem at hand was that police were seen as the muscle for whoever was in office. When the old regime was voted out, the police went with them. New leadership, loyal to the new regime, was installed, and cop jobs with guns and shields were handed out to loyal soldiers as payback. That’s a very serious problem, and the solution was to take the power to fire cops out of the hands of the machine and put it into the hands of citizens.

The flip side of the problem is that it removes authority from the elected civilian officials, not to mention the police chief, to deal with problems. And that includes the hiring and firing of police chiefs as well, so when issues arose with the handling of protests and riots, mayors were blamed by outraged activists even though they have no power to do anything about it.

Wauwatosa Mayor Dennis McBride has come up against the law firsthand. Members of the community called on McBride to make bold changes after an officer killed three people of color in five years. But McBride said his hands were tied.

“People insisted over and over again that I fire Joseph Mensah, and that I fire the police chief, and I would insist over and over again that I don’t have the authority under Wisconsin law,” McBride said.

Because of McBride’s “failure” to fire Mensah, McBride came under fire for his perceived failure to deal with this bad cop. The problem is that he has no more power to deal with it than any other citizen.

McBride said he was assured by Wauwatosa Police Chief Barry Weber that an internal investigation would be done and the officers responsible will be disciplined. But as mayor, he can’t call for disciplinary action. Instead, he can file charges with the police and fire commission.

“Any member of the community who feels that he or she has been mistreated by any police department can file charges,” McBride said.

Of course, that’s not a sufficient answer from a mayor, who is expected to be in charge of such things, even though the law precludes him and the police chief from firing a cop. The question of what, and whether, to further tweak the system in light of the moment’s passions is a fair one. After all, what use is civilian control over the police if it can’t address serious problems that demand action.

But then, every “fix” has its unintended consequences, a lesson that few seem capable or willing to learn.  The problem being “fixed” today might not reflect the problem as perceived years later, and it’s often hard to foresee the consequences reform that made sense at the time will have when circumstances change.

11 thoughts on “Wisconsin’s Solution Prevents Mayors From Firing Cops

  1. Guitardave

    (funny-not funny P.A…. I was working for a company that made stainless steel yacht hardware when the first example happened. Got laid off, the wife left, my dog died….but, no worries, it made me better able to preform country songs. Yea!)

        1. Guitardave

          Thanks H.
          Every time he says that, the guitar intro starts playin’ in my head…but I had to plow the driveway.

  2. B. McLeod

    I don’t see a big problem here. It just means that, instead of being dumber than fence posts, the complaining citizens need to figure out how to direct their complaints to the commission empowered to address them. These stupid idiots remind me of the “protesters” who picketed ABA headquarters to demand Kavenaugh’s disbarment. Where the power resides is not the problem. The stupidity is the problem.

      1. B. McLeod

        So people have to stay mad for a long time. Might have to revert to the old normal for a workable attention span.

  3. Joseph Masters

    Wait, the quotation cited at the very beginning says this was an 1885 law–as in on the books for 136 years, not 36 years. What even constituted “progressive” thought back then, which predated Wilson’s presidency by several decades?

    Was it simply that a capricious a-hole that is elected to the executive not have the power to run amuck? Isn’t that the entire argument for why the state and federal governments all have some concept of the separation of powers? Did the Founders have on pussy hats when they wrote the U.S.’s foundung documents?

    Or is it one more circumstance in which placing any accountability over law enforcement in practice is very difficult? Sheriff deputies normally aren’t afforded these kind of protections–they serve far more at the discretion of the man or woman elected. Yet evidence of the near-impunity of sheriffs and their deputies abounds.

    It is funny that the fact that every level of American government is extremely deferential to someone that has a badge and a gun, even or especially when not protected by statute, collective bargaining or mandatory arbitration which in practice produces decisions heavily weighted against consumers and laborers that aren’t LEOs.

    Is another story about law enforcement having special status and protections any less shocking than a proverbial “dog bites man” headline? Are there ANY stories that show law enforcement isn’t extended a measure of impunity as a matter of course, at least until a prosecutor has enough with the Amber Guygers of the LEO world?

    1. SHG Post author

      Much as I appreciate your astoundingly persistent ability to miss the point by a few million miles, I still think you ought to be able to do so in fewer words so as not to waste my bandwidth, take up more than ten second of my time reading and not bore the crap out of everyone else.

  4. Jed Dolnick

    Wisconsin law provides due process for all law enforcement and municipal firefighters regardless of rank. No one is considered “at will”. Regarding Chief Weber, to discipline or terminate a police chief requires the same proof of just cause as when it’s a member of the rank-and-file. This insulates everyone from retribution for carrying out their duties. In my past life as a police chief, I had no fear if my officers enforced tavern laws or cited “the wrong person” for speeding. My colleagues in other states, serving at the pleasure of a sheriff, mayor or city manager, didn’t have that luxury. Chiefs and officers are insulated from political interference, but not from the consequences for misconduct. It’s become popular to yell about a lack of accountability. There may be problematic police commissions, but the system does work most of the time. The alternative would be far, far worse.

    Getting back to Mensah, Atty. Motley had constantly insisted that the mayor should fire Mensah, and is now insisting the same thing about Chief Weber. Atty. Motley is certainly aware that’s not consistent with state law, but she’s reaping a lot of TV time saying it.

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