• Chris Zachar

Don't fall for fake news from the La Crosse Police Department


When police officers substitute for judges and juries

Over the past few years, the La Crosse Police Department has become increasingly vocal over what it deems a “revolving door” criminal justice system in La Crosse County. The La Crosse Police Department has an official “news” site, where it issues press releases on recent arrests, officer promotions and retirements, and general news about the community. But recently the La Crosse PD has been adding editorial content: overtly attacking sitting judges over decisions on bond and sentencing. It almost always goes something like this: La Crosse Police make outstanding bust of dangerous criminal only to see clueless judge release them hours later! Sometimes the posts are anonymous, other times they originate from a specific member of LCPD leadership. These rants are posted on the official city police website, the city-administered LCPD Facebook page, and are discussed by uniformed officers with members of local media. But by and large, their complaints about a dysfunctional justice system are what President Trump loves to call “Fake News.” So what’s wrong with these editorials?


SELECTION BIAS


George H.W. Bush can probably be credited with the modern-day selective scare tactics the LCPD is employing. Remember Willie Horton? He was one out of 2.3 million American prisoners who was released on furlough program. While released Mr. Horton committed a series of violent crimes, including sexual assault. That’s obviously awful, but there is a reason we remember the name Willie Horton: there was only one of him. The vast majority of prisoners released on parole and furlough programs were not running around committing new violent crimes. Most of them were working, engaged in treatment programs, living in halfway houses, and minding their own business. Literally one bad apple was the cause for massive fear-mongering and draconian changes to our criminal justice system.


We see the same concept at work here. In his first public complaint, the Chief of Police screeched about an alleged drug dealer who a La Crosse Judge released on bond. As it turns out, his own investigators opted to allow this defendant to remain in the community, because they wanted to bolster their case by continuing to make controlled buys from him for weeks on end. When this fact was pointed out during the bond hearing, the LCPD blew a gasket and claimed that the judge at issue was putting the community in danger. It’s awfully hard to make that claim when officers chose not to arrest him despite having probable cause to do so.


But even in less ambiguous cases the LCPD tends to generalize the degree of danger created by our justice system by using one or two cherry-picked examples. One drug dealer gets out and sells drugs again? The justice system is broken!! What about one person accused of child sexual assault who is allowed to post bond? The judges care more about child molesters than the community!! How about a severely mentally ill person that the police shot repeatedly in the throes of his psychosis? He never should have been let out, treatment will never work!!


Sensationalizing single and isolated incidents leaves the community with the impression that judge are making poor decisions and that everyone is put at risk because of it. But if the LCPD really wanted to have an honest discussion about these cases, it should include the thousands of other defendants in our county who are released on bond and don’t cause any problems. The defendants enrolled in pretrial diversion programs, receiving drug testing and treatment, and maintaining employment on electronic monitoring without incident are never mentioned in LCPD editorials. Because when the goal is to incite fear and stir division our actual and objective data contradicts the department's position that our judges are putting the community at risk.


The bottom line is that anyone can come up with an extreme and contrary example to a system that works perfectly fine for a vastly larger population. There will always be a bad apple in an otherwise excellent bushel. Which is why any fair discussion of a perceived problem must include the other side of the coin, a concept LCPD apparently chooses not to embrace.


Saying something often or loud doesn't make it true

DEMONIZING THE ACCUSED AND IGNORING THE PRESUMPTION OF INNOCENCE


I can’t tell you how sick I am of hearing that defendants are a flight risk and need to be locked up because they’re “from Chicago.” Let’s not pretend that this isn’t code for some factor other than geography. This is my biggest pet peeve among many of how LCPD portrays bond hearings in our county. Police press releases are often oozing with innuendo that there is no doubt about a defendant's guilt, the person arrested is the scum of the earth, and that he/she should never see the light of day again. And the assumption that arrestees should be summarily punished is encouraged by comments to these articles permitted on government-administered social media. Just peruse the comments to any Facebook post that discusses these news releases, including those on LCPD’s own Facebook page:


“Wake up La Crosse judges! You are not representing or caring about the La Crosse community!”
“God bless the hard-working cops who seem to get slapped in the face by the thankless liberal judges in La Crosse County.”
“[local judge] the best friend a criminal ever had.”

Some of the commenters take their bias to the absurd, suggesting that defendants are paying off judges. If this ridiculous accusation were true, I wouldn’t have a job because why pay me if you could just go to the source? Also none of the high-level drug dealers with money to burn would be sentenced to prison, like they are every single week in our county. More dangerously, some commenters suggest that officers should be more liberal in their use of deadly force to prevent defendants from reaching court. What is shocking to me is that this is a city-run website and there is no moderation or rebuke of these ignorant and dangerous remarks. None. John McCain had the courage and integrity to shut down a woman who suggested that Obama was unfit for office. Yet our own police department declines to respond to dangerous and untrue rhetoric on its own Facebook page. If our officers have the courage to risk their lives in the field, their administrators should have the courage to correct ignorant and dangerous speech on its own websites.

What isn’t being discussed is that regardless of what a defendant is charged with, he or she is always presumed innocent. A defendant isn’t a violent drug dealer just because some detective says that he is: that’s a call that a jury gets to make. And since we have a presumption of innocence, all of our laws surrounding bond are designed to ensure appearance in court. In other words, the U.S. and Wisconsin Constitutions both explicitly assume that criminal defendants should not lose their jobs, homes, children, and lives just because they are accused of a crime. Which means that bond must be tailored not just to the accusation, but also to a defendant’s financial means. Ten million dollars might be necessary to assure Bernie Madoff’s return to court, but the vast majority of people in the La Crosse County Jail right now are indigent and probably couldn’t afford five hundred dollars.


A judge can’t legally set a billion dollar cash bond just because he or she doesn’t like the fact that the person is accused of selling a couple of grams of meth, they are bound by the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article I, Sections 7, 8 and 11 of the Wisconsin Constitution. Even our statutes explicitly say that cash bond must only be set in the amount necessary to assure the defendant’s return to court. This is the law, and it has existed in that form since the bill of rights was ratified in 1791. And based on other posts on the LCPD about the bond process, they know this. Which is why these rants are so troubling to me: our police department is charged with enforcing the law, yet they are actively screaming for judges to violate it when it comes to bail and sentencing.


WILLFUL IGNORANCE/IMPROPER POLITICAL ADVOCACY

It’s easy for officers to scream about the system being broken and call our criminal courts revolving doors when they aren’t there on a daily basis. But it’s incredibly dangerous for those wearing the badges to tell the community that the system isn’t working, and that the community isn’t safe. Particularly when the administration either refuses to educate itself on the legalities of sentencing and bond, or chooses to ignore what they already know. When I started my career (in another county), a police officer showed up to complain about a plea agreement that the prosecutor (now not in office) had reached with one of my clients. The judge and prosecutor listened to him talk about how badly my client deserved prison (on a pot case), and when he was finished the prosecutor slapped him down: “If the detective wants to comment on cases like this in the future, then perhaps he should go to law school, or at the very least educate himself in the basic principles of sentencing. Until then I’m not sending some kid to prison just because an officer says so.” And that is the premise of our system of criminal justice: the police investigate crimes, but they aren’t Robocop, Judge Dredd, or the Rock in Walking Tall. They don’t get to find people guilty at arrest, hang them on the courthouse lawn, or batter them with a piece of lumber just because they believe someone committed a crime.

Just let me grab my lumber, I have some guilty people to punish: No jury needed.

But that’s what our police department suggests by these news releases/Facebook posts. That our justice system doesn’t work and cops will always know better than judges, prosecutors, and juries. Taxpayer dollars are being used to draft these editorials, promote them on city-run websites, discuss them on local media, and otherwise sow discord in our system of justice. That’s not an appropriate use of taxpayer money, and when publicly-run websites impliedly endorse electoral challenges to sitting judges they are not only allocating public money for personal interests, they are also likely violating the law. All of this from the people who are supposed to be enforcing it.


In a world where news consists of soundbites and Facebook headlines, scare tactics like this can be effective. Don’t fall for the fake news.