One officer was accused by a supervisor of snoozing in his squad car while on duty. Another had multiple drunken run-ins with police, including after bar fights. A third repeatedly sent lewd photos to a female officer.
All of them were fired or forced out. And all of them are back working in law enforcement in Wisconsin.
Nearly 200 law enforcement officers currently employed in the state were fired from previous jobs in law enforcement, resigned before completion of an internal investigation or in lieu of termination, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Justice obtained through an open records request.
And more than 1,000 Wisconsin officers have been fired or resigned before termination since 2017, when the state DOJ started tracking that statistic.
Some of the most serious offenses include Jefferson County Deputy Sheriff Janelle Gericke, who in January was sentenced to two years in prison after pleading guilty to burglary. Milwaukee County Sheriff's Deputy Joel Streicher ran a red light in his police SUV and hit a vehicle, killing a man and injuring a woman. He was sentenced in April to six months in jail.
But the state revoked the law enforcement certification of both officers, meaning they can no longer work as police. As of July, Gericke and Streicher were the only Wisconsin officers decertified since January 2020, said Steven Wagner, director of the DOJ’s Training and Standards Bureau.
Usually only severe misconduct, such as criminal activity, results in a decertification, according to the state Law Enforcement Standards Board, which regulates police officers, sheriff’s deputies and prison guards.
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, experts say. Or they couldn’t handle the high pressure of working in a busy urban area. But for others, misconduct including lying, public intoxication and sexual harassment triggered their termination.
Rehiring fired law enforcement officers can be a problem for good policing, said Meghan Stroshine, a social and cultural sciences associate professor at Marquette University who has studied policing, because “a lot of the folks who have been fired and rehired end up getting in trouble again.”
Repeated run-ins with the law
Jacob Ungerer was no stranger to the Waukesha Police Department when the neighboring New Berlin Police Department hired him in 2018. In 2016, Waukesha officers responded to a drunken fight that prompted a local bar to permanently ban Ungerer and a friend, according to a police report.
In 2018, Waukesha Police got called to a fight at another tavern. Ungerer, by then beginning his stint with New Berlin Police and out for a night of drinking, appeared to be “heavily intoxicated,” according to a police report. Video from the bar showed Ungerer swinging at a man, pursuing a man and getting punched in the head, knocking him to the ground.
Six weeks later, Ungerer was riding in the passenger seat with another off-duty New Berlin police officer when Waukesha Police pulled them over under suspicion of drunk driving.
A “visibly intoxicated” Ungerer held his police ID in his lap so it was visible to the on-duty officers, according to a police report. Still in his probationary period, he was fired a few days later for excessive use of alcohol and “unbecoming conduct,” according to documents from the New Berlin Police Department. About 18 months later, the Middleton Police Department hired him.
Ungerer was asked for comment but did not offer any; his chief answered questions on his behalf.
Middleton Police Chief Troy Hellendbrand said in an email his agency conducted a thorough background check before hiring Ungerer, and it was aware of “the circumstances surrounding the ending of his employment.”
Hellenbrand said Ungerer “made some changes in his personal life all in hopes of preventing making further mistakes like he had in 2018.” He added that the officer recently completed his 18-month probationary period without incident.
Study: Fired officers often fired again
A huge study in The Yale Law Journal titled The Wandering Officer found that Florida cops 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 law-enforcement officers from almost 500 agencies in Florida over a 30-year period. The study concluded that “wandering officers may pose serious risks, particularly given how difficult it is to fire a police officer.”
Union contracts can give police officers strong job security, sometimes even when misconduct is committed. The controversial Act 10 legislation passed by Republicans in 2011 crippled organized public-sector labor in Wisconsin, but largely left police and fire unions, groups that lean to the political right, untouched.
So departments must choose carefully.
David Bauer, chief of the Dodgeville Police Department, said job candidates he determined had lied is a “bright line rule for me.” Because police officers are often required to testify in criminal trials, those officers’ reputations are incredibly important, Bauer said.
“I can’t put someone on the stand that had issues with honesty,” he said.
Patrick Solar, a criminal justice associate professor at University of Wisconsin-Platteville and a former police chief, takes an even harder 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.
Solar makes a distinction, however, between officers fired because of misconduct and probationary officers who commit minor infractions during their probation, when the bar to fire them is much lower.
Transparency bill mulled
A tactic of some wandering officers is to agree to leave a police department without a fight if the agency seals their file. Solar acknowledged he used to do that as small-town police chief in Illinois to avoid confrontation with powerful police unions.
A bill that would require law enforcement agencies to maintain a personnel file for each employee and disclose that file to any agency that may want to hire them has bipartisan support. If enacted, the measure would bar future nondisclosure agreements that shield police personnel files from prospective employers.
The head of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association supports the bill.
“No one wants a bad cop out of the profession more than a good one,” WPPA Executive Director James Palmer said.
Supply of officers tight
For police chiefs trying to fill out their staff, times are tough. The number of law enforcement officers in Wisconsin as well as the number of state police academy graduates hit at least a 10-year low in 2020.
Law enforcement officers in Wisconsin must complete a 720-hour law enforcement academy program. Fired officers already have that certification, so police departments can put them to work immediately, providing an incentive, particularly for smaller departments, to hire fired officers, Solar said.
The Lauderdale Lakes Law Enforcement Patrol near Elkhorn has five wandering officers on staff, the highest number of any police department in the state.
Lauderdale Lakes Chief Christopher St. Clair said via email his department runs a “detailed background check” before hiring officers and was aware of the job histories of all five officers. Those officers have performed “more than satisfactorily” and have not committed any misconduct, he added.
The Town of Madison Police Department has three wandering officers on staff, as do the police departments at UW-Oshkosh and the Wisconsin State Fair Park Police Department.
Town of Madison Police Chief Scott Gregory said via email that psychological assessments and extensive background checks were completed on all the officers, and that the officers disclosed their terminations during the hiring process.
“Needless to say, mistakes were made by the officers at their previous employment and additional training occurred here to ensure those mistakes would not occur again,” Gregory wrote, adding all three were doing an “excellent job.”
UW-Oshkosh Police Chief Kurt Leibold said two of the three officers had previously and successfully worked for his department, and all three were terminated during their probationary period, “when an agency can let an officer go for any number of reasons, including that the officer simply was not a good fit.” Leibold added that they were not fired for misconduct.
Wisconsin State Fair Park Police Chief James Bruno did not respond to questions about the wandering officers on his staff.
Wisconsin’s wandering officer registry
DOJ’s publicly available database of wandering officers puts Wisconsin ahead of some states which don’t disclose police misconduct at all. Police disciplinary records in Wisconsin are public unless they are related to an active investigation; the database is available by public records request.
Law enforcement agencies in Wisconsin must report the firings or resignations under pressure of officers to the DOJ, according to state rules, but agencies are not required to check the registry before hiring an officer, said the DOJ’s Wagner.
Departments are required to report the hiring of an officer, and the DOJ will alert them of officers flagged for being fired or resigning before a termination, according to the Wisconsin Law Enforcement Standards Board Policy and Procedures Manual.
At the national level, activists have pushed for a national “bad cop” registry. House Democrats passed the sprawling George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021 that would enact one.
A National Decertification Database of police officers already exists, used by Wisconsin and 43 other states, yet it does not include officers who committed misconduct but kept their certification, said Michael Becar, executive director of the International Association of Directors
of Law Enforcement Standards and Training, which manages the database.
In the meantime, experts have advice for police departments who need to fill positions.
“Be extremely careful about who you hire and what their backgrounds are,” Stroshine said. “We know from a lot of research that there tend to be a small group of officers who cause departments the bulk of their problems.”
Peter Cameron is managing editor of The Badger Project, a nonpartisan journalism nonprofit based in Madison. The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch (wisconsinwatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.