Good afternoon. Thank you for this honor to visit today but today, it is you I honor. Each time I open court I say that the court belongs to the people and it is I who was honored to have been elected to preside over it. Today the honored dignitaries are every man and woman who wears or wore a badge and swore to put his or her life on the line for a public that may or may not appreciate it. Some, as those we’ve honored today and in the past, made the ultimate sacrifice.
I come to you from an interesting perspective. I spent more than three decades working with officers as a prosecutor and now as a judge. Before that, though, I, too, wore a badge and took that oath. I know what it’s like to stop a car at night and wonder if I have a good citizen with a little lead foot or someone who has just committed a crime and will stop at nothing to get away. I know how it feels inside when you find an open door at three in the morning and hear a noise inside the building you’re checking, even if it turns out to be the furnace kicking in. I’ve been in situations where I was invited to engage in anatomical impossibilities and in high-speed chases where I would pray that the driver of the car coming up to the stop sign on a side road does indeed stop and stay there. I’ve seen the tears behind closed doors over the two year old boy who was beaten to death.
I’m happy to report that most of the time most of our officers do a very good job. They’re human. They can and do make mistakes. And as a prosecutor and judge I know the hurt feelings – and sometimes worse – when I kick out a case because despite the best efforts to make it the evidence wasn’t there and, in this great nation, the doubt goes to the accused. Misconduct? I’ve seen it. I’ve prosecuted it. I abhor it and so does every honorable officer – the vast majority – who would rather die than lie or dishonor the badge or defile their office. The good news is that it doesn’t happen that often. It recently did happen here in this community for reasons I, despite my experience, struggle to understand. But I know from what I’ve heard from officers on the street that they, too, share this sense of indignity and insult to their honest, hard work. When a few officers defile their oath they tarnish not only their badge but also the reputation of everyone who wears one. Today, though, is not about the bad apples. It’s about the good ones and indeed also about a society in which a growing number of misinformed people would not extend to a police officer seeking to protect them the same presumption of innocence we give to those who commit even the most heinous crimes.
Thank God it wasn’t like that in 1919. Before the days of police radios a dedicated Kenosha patrolman, Antonio Pingitore, was at a late night gas station, unaware that three dangerous hoodlums had just blown open a safe at American Brass and kidnapped a cab driver. Stopping at the service station for directions the cab driver signaled the officer that the thugs were armed but it was too late. One shot and killed Officer Pingitore. This community rallied and gave his widow and their eight children a home.
Fast forward to May 16, 2007, almost eight years ago. At 11:35 p.m. Deputy Sheriff Frank Fabiano was patrolling in Somers and stopped an erratic driver. A University of Wisconsin-Parkside officer, Jimmy Spino, pulled up to assist. Moments later shots were fired and Frank fell to the ground. Officer Spino returned fire but the gunman escaped, only to be captured by a consortium of officers who came together to bring the murderer to justice. This community came out in force to recognize Frank’s sacrifice on our behalf – an outpouring so moving that a Madison police officer that was at the funeral wrote the Kenosha News praising the people of Kenosha.
Almost forgotten in all of this was Officer Spino who witnessed this horror live and in person and was able to testify at the killer’s trial. He easily could have had his name added to this monument. Today, I ask all of you to join me in recognizing Officer Spino’s heroism in the face of deadly fire.
And, thanks, too, to now retired Parkside Chancellor Jack Keating, the son of a Seattle police officer, who ended decades of misguided thinking by several predecessors who thought the campus would be safer if its police officers patrolled unarmed.
And then four years ago this community turned out to honor a hometown hero, Officer Craig Birkholz of the Fond du Lac Police Department, who survived military duty in Iraq and Afghanistan only to be fatally ambushed responding to a disturbance call at six o’clock on a Sunday morning.
The reality, folks, is that every one of the officers you see here today could be the next Antonio Pingitore, Frank Fabiano or Craig Birkholz. We’ve seen a chilling rise in the number of assaults on law enforcement officers just trying to do the job they swore to do and hopefully make it home safely to their families. But that’s only part of the story.
Think about Officer Pingitore or Deputy Fabiano for a moment. And then think of Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri.
Officer Wilson by all accounts was a pretty good cop who saw two young men walking in the street who should have been on the sidewalk. When his commands to get on the sidewalk were ignored, laced with profanities, Officer Wilson approached Michael Brown who struck Officer Wilson and grabbed for the officer’s gun and during the struggle for control of it shots rang out and then Brown fled with Officer Wilson in pursuit. He commanded Brown to get on the ground but instead the much larger Brown came at the officer who fired the shots heard ‘round the world.
We all know what happened. Thousands rushed to vilify Officer Wilson. Ferguson endured many nights of demonstrations and riots. The rule of law evaporated as businesses were burned to the ground and with them the livelihoods of the people who owned and worked in them. Officer Wilson was forced into hiding and then out of his job because it was no longer safe for him to be in the community that he swore to protect and serve.
Unlike even the most heinous criminals accused of a crime, Officer Wilson, for many, was presumed guilty by those who couldn’t wait for the facts, unwittingly aided and abetted by a news media that so often lives by the motto “if it bleeds, it leads.” When the facts that came out during the grand jury investigation didn’t suit the fancy of those unwilling to hear anything other than what they wanted to believe the riots and protests continued along with calls for a federal investigation.
There the angry crowds were – perhaps reminiscent of those centuries ago demanding that Pilate turn over the innocent man – and this dragged out.
Weeks and months went by until that federal investigation justifiably lambasted a litany of questionable local law enforcement and judicial practices. But, guess what? It exonerated Officer Wilson. With all of the pressure on the justice department to do something, do you honestly think for one moment that if there was a shred of guilt on the officer’s part that they wouldn’t have run with it? But there wasn’t. And not only were Ferguson and the good people of that city ruined but so was Officer Wilson. Where does he go to get his civil rights restored? The months of anguish, threats and injustice are a national shame.
This is not to defend bad police officers. When officers act outside the law they deserve to be swiftly and promptly ferreted out and punished. Not only does the law and public confidence in our justice system demand this but so does the good work of the honorable men and women who wear the badge. Do you honestly think that any police officer starts his or her shift wishing that he or she could use fatal force?
The harsh reality, folks, is that if the circumstances were somewhat reversed, Antonio Pingitore, Frank Fabiano and any of the men and women in law enforcement today could easily become the next Darren Wilson. I say this not to rehash the events in Missouri but to point out the fine line that officers walk every day – having to make decisions in a split second that will be second-guessed for weeks, months and years by people who have never pounded a beat, stopped a fleeing car, wrestled a drunk or had to make real world life-and-death decisions on the spot.
What do we do about this? I don’t have all the answers nor do we have much time today. Good, open communication and community relations is a start. There are no “civilians” in law enforcement – it is a team effort including the public for whom we work. The late Chief Harold Breier of the Milwaukee Police Department had a good saying, “Every officer is a community relations officer.” Public awareness needs to be ramped up. It is not a one-sided conversation limited to a few select people. It starts from the bottom up, not the top down. In other words, it’s not up the chiefs and a few talking heads. Chief Breier, a tough-as-nails cop, had it right: “Every officer is a community relations officer.” So, let’s start by forever banishing the word “civilian” from the law enforcement vocabulary. Never forget that the people are the stockholders in governance and partners in the mission of making our community safer. Mark my words: if you don’t tell your story, someone else will – and they may not get it right.
40 years ago when I was in the police academy – yes, we had radios and computers then – we had shoot/don’t shoot training – simulated situations where an officer has to decide on the spot whether to use fatal force. I recall one situation required a decision in a fraction of a second. And across the nation I’ve seen journalists, judges and others who have participated in this training come away shaking their heads because they’ve either shot an innocent person or were blown away by an armed and dangerous one. Reporters and others in the community should be invited to this training so that they can see first hand the conditions under which our officers must make life or death decisions.
When Frank Fabiano was murdered, Assistant District Attorney Dave Bayer and I had less than 48 hours to file charges against the accused killer. No, the investigation was not complete, but we had to have enough in hand to make a decision. On the flip side, when an officer is involved in a fatal use of force, why is it that he or she is left in the lurch of anxiety and suspicion for weeks and months? I know that only on television are complex crimes investigated and prosecuted in 60 minutes minus time for commercials. The law mandating an independent investigation of these incidents is sound but at the same time adequate resources must be provided for the investigators to do so with both accuracy and promptness. The failure to do so is utterly inexcusable. The public and the police both deserve justice, not delays which often serve to inflame the fires of misunderstanding and prolong needless anxiety.
The Kenosha Police Association’s billboard thanking the citizens of this community for their support was flamed by our local newspaper which editorialized that it could be seen as trying to influence a pending investigation. Fair enough. But law enforcement officers who took an oath to protect the constitutional rights of others do not forfeit their own. And where…where…is the editorial taking to task the misinformed mobs, self-aggrandizing charlatans and self-appointed legal scholars who never had a day in law school but suddenly are experts on the law of arrest, search and seizure and use of force? Why isn’t their inflammatory rush to judgment being taken to task?
In closing, on this day when we honor those who paid the ultimate price to protect this community, I am reminded of a poster in an old, rickety Indiana police station of a dark and dangerous urban street. The caption read like this: “You wouldn’t go down this street for a million dollars. We do it every day for a lot less.”
To all of you who do and did that for us, thank you. May God bless you and keep you and your families safe. Thank you.