Should Cops Have To Be Saints?
December 5, 2016 (Fault Lines) – Not all problem cops are created alike. When Milwaukee police sergeant John Corbett got pulled over for drunk driving in 2010, it seemed like his career might be over:
A sheriff’s deputy spotted Corbett’s car, alternately swerving across the centerline and weaving onto the shoulder, around 1:30 a.m. Nov. 21, 2010.
When the deputy pulled over the car, she saw two men passed out in the back seat, covered in vomit.
Corbett swayed and stumbled as he performed field sobriety tests such as walking a straight line and standing on one foot. His eyes were red and he smelled of alcohol.
That’s not all. His thirteen-year-old daughter was in the passenger seat, and it seems she didn’t read Popehat:
She told another deputy that after a day of deer hunting, she, her father, and some friends went to a bar called Mr. Lucky’s. Because the adults were drunk, the 13-year-old was driving them back to Kiel, where they were staying.
Then she got lost, and her father took over.
Parents, have “the talk” (about shutting up when police ask questions) with your kids before it’s too late.
Corbett’s case was referred to prosecutors. That’s not something that had to happen: one of the law enforcement community’s most startling characteristics is how cops routinely turn a blind eye to rules violations and even criminal acts committed by other officers. As Fault Lines contributor Ken Womble pointed out, the practice, known as “professional courtesy,” extends to cover the families and friends of cops if they’re carrying police union cards. Even prosecutors are eligible: when a New Mexico DA and self-described buster of drunk drivers, Francesca Estevez, herself turned out to be a drunk driver, the cops who caught her fell over themselves to help her get away with it.
In fact, If Corbett had been pulled over by a fellow Milwaukee cop, the case might not have gone any further. The department’s had some trouble with cops covering up each other’s misdeeds. When one of Milwaukee’s most notorious police brutality cases, the beating of Frank Jude, went to trial before a state jury in 2006, Officer Bradley Blum was the only person to contradict four non-police eyewitnesses who said they saw officers savagely beat Jude at a party in 2004. (Blum was later fired for gross neglect of duty, then reinstated when he appealed to the city’s Fire and Police Commission. He’s since been promoted to sergeant.) But Corbett was unlucky; he got caught by Fond du Lac sheriff’s deputies, who did the right thing and passed the case on to the county DA.
The fact that it was Fond du Lac was another stroke of bad luck for Corbett. If he’d gotten caught in Milwaukee County, where Sheriff David A. Clarke has been taking a hard line on police misconduct for years, his case would’ve been handled by the Milwaukee DA, which hasn’t always prosecuted cops with the same zeal as others. Consider the case of Officer Patrick Fuhrman, who, in 2008, “beat his wife so badly there was blood in every room of the house.” According to documents from a Milwaukee PD internal investigation obtained by the Journal-Sentinel in 2011, here’s what Fuhrman’s wife said he did to her:
Fuhrman grabbed his wife by the neck and threw her to the ground. The force caused her to hit her head on the floor and bite her lip. He punched her several times in the head, then in the nose. While she was on the ground, he kicked her and stomped on her repeatedly, calling her a “n—– lovin’ crazy whore woman.”
Fuhrman admitted to most of this and sort of apologized:
Fuhrman admitted throwing his wife to the ground, but said he did it because he wanted to get away from her. Fuhrman also admitted striking her “in the chest, chin and/or face area with an open hand,” but said he only did so after she tried to hit him with the baton. He also said he may have “gotten her in the nose” […]
When the investigator asked Fuhrman if he had called his wife a whore and used a racial slur, “he stated he called her many things to that effect and that many hurtful things were said by both of them” […]
“I just want to apologize that I brought shame and embarrassment to the Police Department and to my wife and my family,” he said.
“Shame and embarrassment” is a funny thing to call a brutal beating, but oh well. Prosecutors initially charged Fuhrman with a felony, a conviction on which would’ve cost him his job (as federal law bars felons from carrying guns.) But the Milwaukee DA turned out to be more than willing to offer him the ultimate sweetheart deal:
Within five weeks, prosecutors reduced the felony charge against Fuhrman to misdemeanor battery, according to court records.
Not good enough, because 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9) also makes it a crime for domestic-violence misdemeanants to carry guns. Did the DA’s office go a step further? Of course it did:
A deferred-prosecution agreement, signed by Assistant District Attorney Gilbert F. Urfer in March 2009, reduced the charge even more and saved Fuhrman’s job. […] Fuhrman’s deal required him to plead guilty upfront to two misdemeanor counts of disorderly conduct, which is less serious than battery.
Dis con, even misdemeanor dis con, for beating your wife? And if you think that’s crazy, wait until you learn what actually happened to Fuhrman.
Prosecutors agreed to reduce the charges a third time – to noncriminal tickets – if Fuhrman completed domestic violence treatment, substance abuse assessment and treatment, and a parenting class. For the seven months of the agreement, Fuhrman also agreed not to commit any additional crimes and not to use alcohol or illegal drugs. […]
Fuhrman satisfied his conditions and walked out of court with the municipal tickets and a fine. [Chief of Police Edward] Flynn suspended him for 30 days.
Fuhrman remains on the force today. Nor is his story unique: for example, Milwaukee Officer Jeremy Gonzalez was offered a diversion agreement on dis con charges after he beat up a state senator. (His brother Dimitri, who helped him out by tackling the senator’s octogenarian dad, wasn’t a cop and so had to plead no contest to misdemeanor battery.) Gonzalez, too, still has his job. Cases against other officers, including some accused of sexual assault, have vanished. But Corbett, not having hit the police-accountability jackpot, had to deal with an actual prosecution.
Wisconsin’s unusual in that first-time drunken driving is normally just a traffic offense, but the presence of Corbett’s underage daughter turned it into a misdemeanor. Corbett, who was a desk sergeant at the time, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a $1000 fine and thirty days behind bars. But he didn’t let that stop him from doing his job: during that month, he’d show up for work while on release from jail and go back to his cell to sleep at night.
Compared to villains like Blum, Fuhrman and Gonzalez, Corbett doesn’t sound so bad. So why are we discussing him? Because on December 1, the Journal-Sentinel reported that Milwaukee’s Fire and Police Commission approved his promotion to lieutenant after the police department recommended him. When the Journal-Sentinel asked Milwaukee PD how Corbett’s conviction “figured into” the decision to put his name forward, they had this to say:
“As a result of the suspension, he lost approximately $17,000 in pay,” [spokesman Timothy] Gauerke said in a statement. “He also fulfilled the criminal sanctions set forth by a judge in Fond du Lac County. Having completed the suspension and judicial process he is relieved from further sanctions related to this incident.”
This may be the first and last time I agree with a police spokesman, but here’s the truth: Gauerke’s absolutely right. Unlike Blum, Corbett didn’t do something that ought to disqualify him from policing, like cover up a fellow cop’s misconduct. Instead, he committed a crime that, despite what MADD would have you believe, isn’t the worst thing in the world. (Even the Journal-Sentinel admits that in Wisconsin, with its hordes of enthusiastic drinkers and Tavern League, drunk driving amounts to a way of life.) He faced the music for his crime. And unlike Fuhrman and Gonzalez, he wasn’t subjected to a farcical non-prosecution, but pleaded to a charge that fairly describes his conduct. He paid his fine and served his time, which, once upon a time, was considered to mean he’d paid his dues to society and was therefore eligible to rejoin it.
Should we require that people be absolutely pure and above reproach before we allow them to work as cops? Despite all the rhetoric, popular among police administrators, about holding cops to higher standards than the rest of us, there’s something dangerous about asking them to be superhuman. From the Supreme Court on down, we already give them (and their dogs) credit for ridiculous powers of detection that’d make Spiderman blush. We expect them to solve all our problems, and in the process ask them to be medical first responders and social workers, jobs to which they admit they’re ill suited. And paradoxically, the more we treat them as somehow different, the more likely we are to overlook their going astray. Heroes aren’t held to the same standards as mere mortals.
Is it hypocritical to expect cops with drunk-driving convictions to enforce drunk-driving laws? No. Cops who are unrepentant drunk drivers, maybe. But if having been punished disqualified anyone from punishing, there’d be no one left to enforce the laws. Looking on cops as human and flawed, like the rest of us, can only be a good thing. And if they’ve been in the drunk driver’s seat, they might be that much more likely to treat the person they’re arresting with empathy. Isn’t that what we’re always asking cops to do?
It’s good that John Corbett’s up for lieutenant. Here’s hoping he does a better job than those of his fellow criminal cops who weren’t really punished.