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Should Citizens Have the Right to Fire a Police Officer?

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In 127 years, they had never done this before. The Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission reversed a decision and fired a police officer. The reversal followed a week of protests by community groups and leaders. But why they did it -- to correct themselves in response to public outrage -- raises a broader question: when should citizens have the right to fire a police officer?

Here are the facts. On September 22, 2011, Officer Richard Schoen stopped Jeanine Tracy, because she made a sudden lane change without the proper signals. She was handcuffed for disorderly conduct and driven to District Seven police station. During the ride, she cursed, spat at the car's partition, and stomped on the backseat. When they arrived at the station, she did not get out. With his left hand, Schoen grabbed her shirt. With his right hand, he punched her repeatedly in the head. He grabbed her by the hair, dragged her out of the car, threw her on the ground, and struck her with his knee. These are the facts and we know they are facts, because there is video from the squad car's dashboard camera.

Here's what happened next. Schoen was fired on May 1, 2012, because he violated the department's code of conduct. That code says a police officer must use the minimum force necessary to accomplish his or her purpose. But the story doesn't end there. Schoen had been a police officer for nine years. He had a positive record, and only praise from superiors. Before he joined the MPD, he gave ten years of his life to military service. So, when he appealed the case to the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission, they held a two-day hearing. On December 3, the Commission reinstated him, deciding sixty days without pay was a better punishment.

Here's what the community thought. Three days later, at least a hundred people showed up at the Commission meeting to protest the reinstatement. Audience members said they wanted both the chief and the mayor removed from the Commission. Some held signs that said the MPD supports violence against women. Occupy the Hood, Urban Underground, and ABE (All Black Everything) organized community protests. Some marched to the home of Mayor Barrett -- who saw the protest from a distance and drove away. The NAACP Milwaukee and county supervisors stood with the community. County Supervisor David Bowen wrote, "The commission's inability to make sound and responsible decisions to protect the public enables officers who choose to violate the rights and humanity of city residents."

The Commission decided to reconsider. On December 11, they reconvened. They still had to resolve a central challenge. How do you weigh a positive record of service against a very serious conduct violation? Citing Schoen's counsel, the Commission wrote that he "was out of control... really, only a matter of seconds." The Commission also noted that they "see no affirmative desire on Schoen's part to cause injury -- angry and uncaring, yes, but not deliberately sadistic." But ultimately they concluded that Schoen should be permanently discharged. In addition to the seriousness of the violations, they felt Schoen "failed to accept responsibility" since he maintained that his actions -- the grabbing, the punching, the dragging, and the kneeing -- were not inappropriate.

A willingness to protect is noble. So when should we refuse it? In the case of Officer Schoen, Milwaukee citizens decided they did not want his protection -- that his proven capacity to do harm undermined his proven capacity to do good. Even so, the case is still not over. Schoen will appeal to the Milwaukee Circuit Court. We can expect the court will review the policy violations and the disciplinary response. But they should also consider whether the citizens of a community have the right to fire a police officer -- and choose who will protect them. What ensures our safety is not only more who are willing to protect, but also fewer who are willing to harm.