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Brookfield commission upholds officer's suspension for failing to fasten prisoner's seatbelt

Dec. 12, 2012

The Brookfield Fire and Police Commission voted, 4-1, last week to uphold a four-day suspension of an officer who failed to properly buckle a prisoner in a seatbelt in her squad car.

Andrew D. Schauer, attorney from Wisconsin Professional Police Association, said his client, officer Sarah Mork, will serve the suspension and is looking forward to moving on.

"Sarah and the association are disappointed with the commission's decision, but we fully respect the decision. It will be carried out as the commission orders, and Sarah looks forward to returning back to work, ready to serve and protect the citizens of Brookfield," Schauer said after the ruling. "The statutes provide for a circuit court appeal, which we will not be doing."

Chief Daniel Tushaus filed charges against Mork alleging she had engaged in "serious acts of misconduct warranting disciplinary action" earlier this year. She appealed, and the case was heard Dec. 6.

Suspect hard to buckle in

Mork and her partner, officer Rick King, arrested a man suspected of a gas drive-off on Moorland Road, near Bluemound Road, March 24, after the man's car broke down.

"He told me he was going through withdrawal from heroin and had used the night before," King told the commission during the hearing. "The individual was extremely erratic, restless and unable to sit still."

The man was wanted on eight warrants and there was a syringe in the back of his car.

The officers took him to Elmbrook Memorial Hospital in an ambulance for observation, and while he was there he tried to escape, King said.

The man eventually was medically cleared and escorted back to Mork's car - a caged squad - to go to jail.

"When he was placed in the back of the car, he immediately complained about the tight space," King said. "He was still moving and thrashing. ...

"I tried to secure him with a seatbelt, but I was not able to. While I was attempting to lean over to fasten the seat belt, I was unable to locate the seatbelt latch due to his movements. I also believed there was a strong chance I would be head-butted, and I feared for my safety."

"I told Officer Mork that I was unable to fasten the seatbelt latch," King said. "I then got into the passenger side of the car, and while backing up, she hit a cement pole."

A supervisor then arrived at the hospital, asked if there were any injuries and if the prisoner was properly restrained, the charges said. King verified that information, adding that the lieutenant told both he and Mork they needed to properly restrain the suspect in a seatbelt for the ride to the jail.

They did fasten his seatbelt this time, but less than two miles from the jail, the man's seatbelt came undone.

Instead of pulling over to refasten the seatbelt, the officers continued to the jail, according to the statement of charges.

"I believed it was safer to go to the jail rather than stopping to secure him on the side of the road," King said. "The jail is a secure facility. Stopping on the side of the road could give the individual the opportunity to kick whoever opened the door or allow him to run away and escape."

King said he served his suspension without an appeal because he wanted the incident "behind him." Although King broke state law and veered from department rules, he said he believed he did the right thing March 24.

"To the letter of the law, there were some violations, but given the circumstances, I believe I acted reasonably," King told the commission.

Special circumstances and existing problems with Squad 20

Mork told her superiors after the incident that the configuration of her caged squad car makes it difficult to secure prisoners in seatbelts, causing a "special circumstance" in buckling her prisoner on March 24, but she had never reported her concerns about her vehicle before the incident, according to the statement of charges.

Several officers, however, testified similarly during the hearing.

Officer Kevin David has been with the department for two years and told the commission he had problems buckling prisoners in Squad 20 in the past.

"It's (buckling prisoners) more difficult and much more complicated than a regular, open-back seat squad car," David said. "There was one point it took me two to three minutes to secure someone. Because of the close quarters of the cage and the location of the latch, it's harder to reach over and down to buckle the seatbelt."

City Attorney Roger Pyzyk said the commission members took notice of the nearly universal assertion that Squad 20 presents challenges for seatbelt use.

Nonetheless, the commission upheld the suspension, ordering Mork to serve two days of suspension now and holding the other two days in abeyance for a year.

Schauer said Mork, who has been with the department since 1984, has never been disciplined for this type of incident.

"It should be noted that this was the first instance of her ever being accused of not buckling a prisoner. We don't believe Officer Mork will engage in this type of violation again."

According to the statement of charges, Mork had been disciplined in the past for other violations, including "neglect of duty, misconduct, discourteous behavior and reporting late for duty."

In June 2010, Mork was suspended for three days for "unsatisfactory performance and conduct unbecoming an officer," according to the charges.

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