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(EDITOR’S NOTE: Main article, “Town Of Madison PD Blues,” follows introductory “Cast Of Characters” sidebar immediately below. Click here to skip to main article.)
The Cast of Characters
Detectives Jim McCarthy and Mike Gehn
Chris Thomsen, James Michael Harper, Lloyd Ratliffe and Dennis Stapleton
Tom Solberg and Mike Theisen
Rick Raemisch and Bill Foust
Rob Ibarra and Brende Hofer
The Wisconsin State Journal and The Capital Times
Town Of Madison PD Blues
By Chuck Nowlen
It’s a strange combination of The Bad Lieutenant and the Keystone Kops: backstabbing and pratfalls, ass-kicking and drug deals, bureaucrats and clowns. Figuratively speaking, any door you open could leave a banana cream pie in your face.
Either that or a gun barrel. Maybe even a misconduct rap. These days, being a Town of Madison cop is not the easiest job in the world.
You’ve got pistol-toting street punks in the city’s prime crack country; you’ve got little old ladies locked out of their cars. Some shifts, it’s shoot-outs; other shifts, it’s drunk driving and domestic disputes. Internal politics have reached the boiling point, making every day a fire drill from dawn until dusk.
Forget strategic planning and progressive programs like community policing and neighborhood foot patrols. Forget things like sensitivity training too. There’s not even enough money in the budget to give a decent living wage to most Town of Madison police officers. The lion’s share, including the chief himself, need second or third jobs just to make ends meet.
To add a bit more context, the Town of Madison Police Department is one of the busiest in the entire state – with one of the most difficult enforcement challenges as well. Carved up by annexation over the years, the town itself has been whittled down to 3.8 square miles of far-flung urban islands from Badger Road on Madison’s south side to Sherman Avenue on the north, making it a logistical nightmare to cover. Yet, from 189 to 1992, the number of police calls to the 16-officer department jumped a whopping 45 percent – to more than 9,000 a year from about 6,700.
We’re talking everything under the sun here: loud stereos and parking tickets, but also murder and aggravated assault. With its territory encompassing some of Dane County’s most blighted neighborhoods, the town reports a total crime index that’s roughly three times the average for all similarly sized communities in Wisconsin.
And then there are the newspaper reporters, who have been all over the place lately like cats in a dumpster. Poking here, weaseling there. Are they really serving the public interest? Or do they just want an award or two after claiming a few sacrificial scalps?
Whatever the case, the whole situation seems to have gotten out of hand.
Problems at the tiny Town of Madison Police Department have been simmering for years, but it all exploded this February when four officers filed a massive misconduct complaint against Chief Wayne Romeis and two of their colleagues, detectives Jim McCarthy and Mike Gehn.
Since then, the story has taken a different twist almost every day, leading to two official inquiries – one by the town Police and Fire Commission and another by Dane County District Attorney Bill Foust and Sheriff Rick Raemisch. In mid-March, sheriff’s deputies began patrolling the Town of Madison in concert with regular officers – ostensibly to reassure residents while both investigations are active, but a lot of people think as a precursor to something more permanent down the road.
“This is purely my interpretation,” offers Tom Solberg, who hired Chief Romeis in 1989 near the end of a10-year tenure as Town of Madison board chairman. “But I think this is an opportunity for the Sheriff’s Department to consider what it would mean if they transitioned over time into the Town of Madison. As you probably know, state statute says the town is under no obligation whatsoever even to provide a police force. The town could dissolve it tomorrow, and then it would be the sheriff’s responsibility. Frankly, I see the sheriff’s deputy patrols as more of a getting-to-know-you situation.”
Adds Raemisch, who is making no commitments and whose manpower is already stretched to the limit by an inmate-swollen Dane County Jail: “Obviously, I would appreciate the opportunity from the town to allow a budget year to prepare for it. … On the other hand, we’re certainly used to dealing with crisis, so if the whole place collapsed today, we’d provide police services.”
The town’s investigation was scheduled to be completed at the end of March, at which time personnel changes, at minimum, were seen as likely. The other probe, however, is more far-reaching and will likely take longer to wrap up.
“We’re just scratching the surface of things to look at and substantiate or refute,” Foust explained in mid-March. “Obviously, the initial complaint focuses on three people. But we’ve not said by ourselves that these guys were the only target. There’s a lot to look at out there with an open mind.”
The detectives are accused of everything from illegally confiscating drug money to holding pistols to the heads of citizens they knew to be innocent – in short, of running wild with a cowboy mentality. And, in fact, neither of them is a stranger to controversy, particularly McCarthy.
The son of a 30-year veteran of the City of Madison Police Department, he was fired from that force in 1985 for allegedly cheating on a police academy exam, and in interviews before the complaint was filed, he said he’s proud of his in-your-face reputation. His beat, after all, includes Sommerset Circle, the city’s infamous south side drug magnet, and if you play patty-cake over there, you can end up six feet under in a heartbeat. Indeed, rumors have been circulating for some time that certain south side drug lords want McCarthy dead.
“I think of myself as a no-tolerance officer,” he once said, acknowledging that he and his partner sometimes do a little rough-housing on patrol just to send a message. “That’s what Mike and I do all the time, send messages,” he told the Wisconsin State Journal. “That’s why we do search warrants. We break down a door, and if we don’t find anything, it was a message-sending day.”
While a tough-guy attitude may be called for in a crack-cocaine cesspool, it has been raising eyebrows in some Madison criminal justice circles since long before the complaint against McCarthy and Gehn became public. One public defender who has worked often with the two detectives describes the situation this way: “The notion of them strong-arming people doesn’t surprise me. I’ve heard about it from clients and other lawyers. It’s like the old west out there, and nobody’s keeping an eye on the cops while they’re going in there and busting people up.”
The lawyer, who asked not to be identified for fear of jeopardizing future Town of Madison cases, adds that, “I’m a big believer in due process, so I wouldn’t want to convict or condemn anybody without some hard evidence. … But there’s at least an impression that sometimes the Town of Madison isn’t exactly on the ball as far an dotting the legal i’s and crossing the legal t’s is concerned.”
Meanwhile, Romeis, who is charged with ignoring sloppy police work and trying to cover up the whole McCarthy-Gehn situation, is furious. Insisting that he’s done nothing wrong and that the matter could have been settled through official channels, he’s forbidden any of his officers from discussing the case publicly. No matter what the investigation turns up, he says, the damage is already done.
“Right now, I’ve got a department that’s very divided. You’ve got two completely different groups,” he says. “I’ve got some good young officers who are absolutely devastated. Will they really want to stay here and carve out a career based on all this?”
“The media should never have been involved,” Romeis huffs. “But a couple of officers didn’t want that to happen. They wanted to assassinate characters instead. I mean, just because management doesn’t do what you think is right, you don’t have work subversively behind the scenes.”
Privately – and strictly off the record – some insiders will tell you that the complaint against Romeis and the detectives might have been driven primarily by internal politics. One of the complainants has a track record of bad-mouthing the several local police forces he has worked for, they say. (The individual was not identified, but the complaining group includes sergeants Chris Thomsen and James Michael Harper, and officers Lloyd Ratliffe and Dennis Stapleton.) According to some, the individual also did a lot of grousing when he was told recently that a detective job was not in his future. One of the officers – Ratliffe – was suspended for five days in 1992 for stopping another officer for drunk driving, an incident that Romeis felt was in retaliation for problems with the officer’s superiors. In any event, the officer who was stopped turned out to be sober as a judge.
What’s more, some of the complaining officers’ allegations have been brought up before, and they might be tainted by the City of Madison’s longstanding desire to annex the town. Frustrated by the local Police and Fire Commission’s unwillingness to act on various charges – and aided by Madison alderwoman and labor lawyer Sue Bauman, an annexation proponent – Ratliffe brought his case to the state Department of Criminal Investigation last July. That agency took no action, however, and now Bauman admits that she was approached by Ratliffe “looking for me to do something with the media.” The formal complaint hit the papers soon after.
Bauman is quick to add, though, that “from what I can see, (the complainants) are all dedicated officers who want to do a good job and who feel that their ability to do so has been compromised. … The tenor of the place over time is one where you have a chief who doesn’t feel obligated to look at stuff and a couple of detectives who sound like, well, I won’t say what they sound like.”
Indeed, Romeis has been called on the carpet several times himself. When he started the job, he commuted from his family home in Milwaukee, where he also had two part-time jobs, but he soon rented a Sun Prairie apartment under pressure from the Town Board. In April of 1992, he was also warned about misusing sick time. According to records, he called in sick one day, but later could not be found at either his Sun Prairie digs or his Milwaukee home. He was eventually tracked down at a Milwaukee muffler shop.
Then there’s the chief’s resume, which might or might not include a master’s degree from Clayton University, an unaccredited St. Louis correspondence school that might not even exist anymore. If you call the institution, all you’ll get is an answering machine that tells you academic information should be requested by mail for a $20 fee. Romeis took master’s-level classes at UW-Parkside in Kenosha, but there is no record of his ever graduating.
Romeis, in the cover letter for his Town of Madison job application, said only that he was studying for his master’s degree when he was hired. That’s how Solberg remembers it, too.
“The Police and Fire Commission does a fairly extensive background check. They hire someone to check current and previous employers,” he says. “Certainly, he was presented as somebody with extensive credentials. (Romeis spent five years as chief deputy in Door County, 14 years at the Hales Corners Police Department and several more as a City of Milwaukee officer.) He came with a very positive billing from the PFC, so I guess we gave him the benefit of the doubt.”
Asked, however, how the town’s pay scale affects its ability to attract top-notch professionals, Solberg puts it this way: “To hire a chief commanding $75,000 or $80,000 a year is out of reach. To that extent, obviously you’re handicapped.”
That problem also trickles down to cops on the street, with deep implications for the way they interact with the residents they serve. While the department to date is all-white and 94 percent male, the general town population is 22 percent minority. About 17 percent have no high school degree, and 26 percent live below the poverty line.
“It’s not for lack of trying,” Romeis said of his efforts to diversify and upgrade the department. “The good-quality candidates will go to bigger agencies where they can make more money and have more opportunity for advancement.”
A few days before questions about his resume came up, Romeis added in published reports, “I’ve got a master’s degree, and there are sergeants in the City of Madison that are making a lot more than I make.”
Yet, believe it or not, more is spent per capita on police protection in the Town of Madison (population 6,500) than nearly anywhere else in the state -- $156 per person, compared to a statewide average of about $100. Given the department’s hectic workdays, that leaves town officials who represent an historically tax-shy citizenry with a tricky situation to deal with – regardless of how the current controversy plays out.
“We’re spending beaucoup dollars for police protection, and one of the issues I was looking at when I was town chairman was contracting with other government units,” Solberg recalls. “But we did some preliminary checking and found that it really wouldn’t save any money. So it’s a theoretical option, but the numbers just haven’t added up.”
At least for the short term, the town might even be hamstrung if it wants to disband the department altogether. That’s because the police union is now smack-dab in the middle of contract negotiations.
“If we disband the department, that could be seen as strong-arming the union,” said one insider who asked to not to be identified as discussing details of pending labor negotiations. “Anything we do could be construed as an unfair labor practice.”
Perhaps surprisingly, the whole mess has not produced any groundswell of citizen concern about public safety , and Romeis points proudly to the fact that many crime statistics have dropped in the Town of Madison under his watch.
All violent crime fell 8.2 percent from 1991 to 1993, led by a 100 percent decrease in murders, a 41 percent decline in aggravated assault and a one percent decrease in robbery. Property crimes, meanwhile, fell by 7.8 percent, with burglary falling three percent, theft dropping by 10 percent and arson declining by 50 percent.
Maybe that’s why a recent reporter’s ride-along with Town of Madison police on a weekend night turned out to be far from a descent into nonstop urban criminal chaos.
During the entire four hours, my host, Sgt. Burt Boldebuck, handled only two major calls – a Lakeland Gardens domestic dispute that was quickly mediated at about midnight and a Ski Road drunk driving citation around 2 a.m..
The rest of the time was spent patrolling without incident – cruising past the often-troubled Fiedler Lane apartment complexes and various Town of Madison businesses that have generated more than their share of calls in the past. At the same time, Boldebuck noted, the previous shift had been overwhelmed with calls.
“It’s just a quiet Friday night for some reason,” he mused at one point along the way. “But that’s the way it is. One minute, it’s quiet. The next minute, you’re chasing all over.”
When I told Boldebuck that I’d expected to be spending most of the night busting crack dealers at Sommerset Circle, he laughed. “You must be reading The Capital Times too much.”
Days after the ride-along, that sentiment was echoed by Brende Hofer, the town’s interim Police and Fire Commission chair who owns several apartment buildings on Fiedler Lane. “People think there’s a knifing over here every half-hour, but that’s just not the way it is,” she added in the telephone interview.
Hofer and Boldebuck both emphasized that the Town of Madison police Department has been focusing on local landlords in an effort to get closer to the flashpoints of some crimes. Boldebuck and other officers work closely with businesses and real estate owners, for example, encouraging them to be more restrictive choosing tenants, more attentive to security and more vigilant in keeping property in good shape.
The teamwork, Boldebuck says, has sometimes yielded dramatic results.
“See that building there?” Boldebuck points now to a large, multi-unit complex on the 2500 block of Fielder. “We used to come here all the time, but another gentleman took it over; and now calls for service have almost dropped off completely. There’s been a real difference in management styles – things like doing better background checks and being present longer at the site. It used to be a real hole, but it’s been really cleaned up now.”
By contrast, Boldebuck – right hand placed firmly on the handle of his holstered revolver – then leads me down a dark staircase into the basement of a drug-ravaged building just down the block. There, the evidence is everywhere: rubble, cheaply repaired walls, empty condom wrappers on the concrete floor, pen casings that can be used for smoking crack and a few wrinkled baggies whose corners have been twisted off.
“We call that the South Side tie-off,” Boldebuck says of the baggies. “They put the crack into baggies so you don’t really know what you’re getting when you buy it. When you smoke it, you rip the corner off and toss the baggie away.”
According to current town Chairman Mike Theisen, Town of Madison landlords are the key to reducing the heavy police activity that might turn out to be the driving force behind the department controversy. He notes that a big dent has already been made at places like the sprawling Park Village Apartments on South Park Street.
One property owner who appreciates the department’s emphasis is Cheryl Dykstra, whose Sundance Manor Apartments is near the site of a murder that occurred soon after she took over. Town officials and the police department have been more than willing to go the extra mile to help with security, she notes – to the point where city workers joined landlords in cleaning up nearby Southdale Park, which had been an attractive hideout for undesirables.
Dykstra singled out Boldebuck and Chris Thomsen -- one of the officers who filed the complaint against Romeis, McCarthy and Gehn -- as being particularly helpful.
“We’ve always had a very nice relationship with the department. It’s a smaller operation, and you can interact with them on a more personal, one-to-one level,” she adds. “They do things like trying to find out who you’re using for security, just so they can be aware of who’s supposed to be out there. They even asked for pictures of our reserved parking area.”
Asked whether she has seen anything like the conduct alleged in the McCarthy-Gehn complaint, Dykstra replies: On the contrary, I’ve seen them be so careful about following the rules that it’s almost mind-boggling. I see them as people who really toe the mark. I mean, if they run a (license) plate check and they trace it back to someone who lives here, they won’t put a ticket on the windshield, even if there’s no parking sticker from our office.
“One time, we called them because it looked like somebody was breaking in. The police tapped on the door, but nobody answered. So they told me, ‘Sorry, ma’am, we can’t legally go in there.’ I mean, if they’re that stringent in following the rules on something like a car, think of what they must be like in something really major.”
Adds Bob Mercer, owner of Pitcher’s Pub on the West Beltline Highway: “They take good care of us. They’re good people, from what I’ve seen. They’re always right there when you need them.”
The department also gets high marks from other suburban police forces, most of which are also struggling with big-city crime issues, albeit under somewhat less trying circumstances.
City of Fitchburg police officer and Dane County Supervisor Tom Clauder, for example, describes his Town of Madison colleagues as “well-skilled and well-trained,” and while he doesn’t comment specifically on McCarthy and Gehn, he urges the public to take all the charges of a departmental cowboy mentality with a grain of salt.
“I don’t like the word, cowboy, but I haven’t seen it from any of the officers I’ve come in contact with,” he says. “You have to keep in mind that when you’re working in a really tough area and you’re up to your neck in calls, that an officer simply won’t make it unless he or she takes a stronger attitude, taking command of the situation. You have to have the upper hand or you’ll be eaten alive.”
Still, with all the publicity lately, the controversy seems to have reached the point of no return, and most people close to the situation agree that fundamental changes will have to be made in the Town of Madison soon. Even people like Soberg are reluctant to give Romeis anything approaching unqualified support.
“I’m not happy with the sensationalized coverage by the media, but I’m also deeply disappointed that there appear to be some legitimate underlying problems that need to be addressed,” he says. “It’s disappointing because when Chief Romeis and I talked when he first took the job, we strongly encouraged progressive things like neighborhood policing – to move the department in that direction.”
Soberg adds: “There’s no question that the level of activity is responsible in many ways for what is going on. But the chief is responsible for using the resources he’s got, and I’m sure he’d argue that he doesn’t have enough resources. … But when you’re on the inside of something like this, you tend to get into a bunker mentality. And that’s the worst thing you can do.”
Madison Mayor Paul Soglin is one of many city officials who think annexation will ultimately be the answer, but he doubts whether that’s politically possible in the short term, not when an annexation vote failed overwhelmingly just a few years ago.
“The problems out there – the drug problems and the gang problems – don’t recognize Badger Road as a municipal boundary. It all spills over into the city and it undermines the efforts we’re making,” the mayor says. “But the town leadership will never admit that they can’t provide the urban services they need. They’ve been in a state of denial that started 10 or 15 years ago, and I think that will continue until the situation becomes horrendous.”
Since the controversy began, the idea of setting up a single metropolitan police force to patrol the entire greater Madison area has gained favor with many, and it’s a notion that addresses the fact that the Town of Madison is not the only suburban community facing a crisis in police and fire services.
Town Chair Theisen and Police and Fire Commission Chair Hofer, meanwhile, agree that a big-picture approach is called for, but they worry that a metro force would mean an end to the type of services that small-town police forces can provide.
“It’s very interesting that now everybody’s talking about a metro police department,” Hofer says. “Yet not only in the City of Madison but across the United States, people are talking about decentralizing and getting back down to the community level in policing. I just can’t see how those two ideas could work together.”
Robert Ibarra, another Police and Fire Commission member, takes it a step further: “Maybe it would be a good time for all the police and fire commissions in the area to sit down and say, ‘How do we deal with the metropolitan area as a group, rather than individually?’ What kind of new coalitions and cooperative arrangements can we come up with, rather than, ‘Let’s absorb the Town of Madison?’ Personally, I don’t think dissolution is the answer. Maybe it’s time for a conference to talk about duplicating services and a whole range of issues like that.”
If such a discussion ever takes place, it’ll be interesting to see if the department is intact, with Romeis as its leader. When asked during an interview how old he was, the chief gave what might well turn out to be an ironic and prophetic answer: “I’m 45, which unfortunately isn’t old enough to retire.”
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