The Brookfield Police and Fire Commission ruled 4-1 Thursday to uphold an officer's four-day suspension for failing to properly restrain a prisoner in the back of a squad.
Commissioners said officer Sarah Mork will serve two days immediately and the other two days will be held in abeyance for a year and not served if there are no other problems. This is the same discipline imposed by a second officer involved in the case, officer Rick King, who did not appeal it to the commission.
The two-day hearing focused on the decisions of King and Mork to first not seatbelt — and later not re-seatbelt — a prisoner who was a heroin addict going through withdrawal, at times thrashing and erratic.
The prisoner — John Sporer, 30, of Menomonee Falls — had caused problems at Elmbrook Memorial Hospital, but was not overtly combative or threatening to the officers, according to testimony from the officers.
On the drive from the hospital to the jail, when they were less than one or two miles from the sally port, they heard Sporer's seatbelt unclick. They testified they thought getting him to the secure jail would be safer than pulling over to rebelt him, risking a possible escape attempt.
But the commissioners sided with Police Chief Dan Tushaus, who urged the discipline be upheld to send a message to Mork, King and all officers that seatbelting prisoners is critical for the safety of officers and prisoners, as well as protect the city from liability.
It was not the first discipline for either Mork, who has been on the department since 1984, or King, who was hired in 1996.
Started with a gas drive-off and chase
The incident started in West Allis on March 24, a Saturday morning, when Sporer left a gas station without paying for pumped fuel. The gas station owner followed Sporer, who was driving erratically, at one point driving up on a lawn, according to a criminal complaint.
Eventually, Sporer's car stalled in front of the McDonald's on Moorland Road next to Azana Salon & Spa across from Brookfield Square mall. Sporer tried to get out of the vehicle, but he nearly fell into traffic and an officer ordered him back inside his vehicle, the complaint says.
According to testimony during the Police and Fire Commission hearing:
Mork said she stood outside his car to monitor him and Sporer said he was having heroin withdrawals from his last injection the night before. Syringes were found in his car.
He had eight warrants for his arrest.
Paramedics determined he should go to Elmbrook Memorial Hospital to be examined, and King rode in the squad with him. Lt. John Beth, also at the scene in front of McDonald's, ordered that Sporer who was thrashing around, be restrained to a cot in the ambulance.
In the ambulance, he asked to move his cuffed hands to one side so he could lie on his side and sleep. That was done, but he tried sitting up and had to be forced back down on the cot and restrained.
Tahoe squad posed restraint problems
After being cleared at the hospital, Mork and King prepared to transport Sporer to the jail in Mork's assigned vehicle, Squad 20, a Chevy Tahoe. King didn't have a vehicle, having rode in the ambulance.
But the Tahoe was different than the typical Crown Victoria squad cars in that its back seat was divided by a plexiglass divider, not right down the middle but perhaps dividing the back seat 40-60.
The cramped area made it more difficult to seatbelt prisoners. With a typical open backseat and two officers involved, one officer will stand at one rear car door and feed the belt across the back to an officer standing at the opposite rear door, who clicks the belt in.
The Tahoe has since been retired and is no longer being used. Commissioners inspected it in the City Hall parking lot. Andrew Schauer, Mork's attorney from the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, conducted a demonstation where he was handcuffed and Mork tried to seatbelt him in.
King testified that he was afraid Sporer would headbutt him, if King leaned over to dig the seatbelt buckle out of the back seat and secure the seatbelt.
"I believed there was a strong chance that I would be headbutted," he said.
Officer crashed car into parking lot pole
He told Mork — who was the driver and the lead, arresting officer — he was not going to seatbelt him and she concurred. Mork backed the Tahoe up and struck a pole in the hospital parking lot.
While inspecting the minor damage, King noticed Sporer was making "exaggerated movements" in the back. He ordered him out and discovered Sporer had managed to partially get his handcuffed hands in front of him, with one hand in front and one behind him with the handcuff chain between his legs.
They got his cuffs again behind him, and Lt. Beth arrived to check out the squad crash. They had opened his window after he complained he was feeling claustrophobic and haven't trouble breathing. He also complained his neck or back hurt and was taken back inside the hospital for examination.
There he refused to be X-rayed and "flopped" around, making it impossible for the X-rays. Eventually he was again medically cleared to go to the jail and Lt. Beth ordered he be seatbelted. This time King did belt Sporer in the backseat.
Somewhere near Crites Field — maybe as close as 0.79 mile from the jail or as far as 1.7 miles — the officers hear Sporer's seatbelt unclick. He claimed it just came undone; they believed he had freed it.
What's riskier - pulling over or not?
Prosecution witnesses testified the two officers should have pulled over to the side of the road, or into a nearby parking lot, and resecured the prisoner. If Sporer wanted to escape, getting unbuckled would be the first required step, Tushaus' attorney James Korom suggested to one witness.
King and Mork testified they believed pulling over and opening the door posed greater risk for flight than continuing the drive to get in the secure jail facility.
Both sides posed multiple scenerios where pulling over — or failing to pull over — would endanger the officers, the prisoner and the public.
Ultimately, however, the commission agreed with the chief that the circumstances did not justify taking the risk of an unrestrained prisoner, even if his hands were still cuffed behind his back.
The incident ended without further trouble, and Sporer arrived at the jail and was booked inside.
Reducing speeding tickets to seatbelt violations
Korom argued Mork's prior disciplinary history also justified the four-day suspension. He brought out in testimony that Mork in 2009 had accepted a three-day suspension for giving some motorists that she pulled over for speeding tickets instead for failure to wear seatbelts.
There were some other issues, too. But he also acknowledged she had several dozen letters of commendation in her career and was a solid first-shift officer.
But Korom argued she was refusing to take responsibility in the Sporer case. She testified that was not the case; that she had taken responsibility in the past but didn't believe she erred with continuing to the jail. She pointed to an exception in the seat belt requirement that allows for deviations for safety reasons.