BY PETER CAMERON, The Badger Project
At least 12 law enforcement officers currently working in La Crosse County and the surrounding areas have been fired or forced out from previous jobs in law enforcement, according to an investigation by The Badger Project.
One major study found that these “wandering officers” who were fired or forced out from one law enforcement agency and hired at another were more likely to commit violations and be fired again.
Most of these officers in western Wisconsin were young and failed to pass their new-hire probation, a period that can last up to 18-24 months when the bar to fire an officer can be very low.
But some were forced out for more serious conduct.
Christopher R. Larson, currently employed by the Norwalk Police Department in Monroe County and by the Army as a police officer at Fort McCoy, resigned prior to completion of an internal investigation from the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office in 2019, according to the Wisconsin Department of Justice.
He was accused of repeatedly taking “the long way” to arrive at 911 calls so he didn’t have to be the lead officer, according to an internal investigation obtained in a records request.
Norwalk Police did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Nathaniel Heffner, currently employed at the Black River Falls Police Department, failed to complete more than 300 police reports while he was an officer on probation with the Janesville Police Department, according to an internal investigation obtained in a records request. His superiors accused Heffner of being disingenuous when the officer said he was following his training, noting in the investigation evidence contradictory to his claim. He resigned in lieu of termination from that department in 2018.
Neither Heffner nor his current chief responded to messages seeking comment.
Law enforcement agencies in Wisconsin must report officers who were fired or resigned while under investigation or in lieu of termination to the state DOJ, which tracks the data. Law enforcement agencies can also consult the database before making hires, and will be notified if a new hire has previously been flagged in the system, said Steven Wagner, director of the state DOJ’s Training and Standards Bureau.
As long as officers keep up to date with their recertification training, only severe misconduct, such as criminal activity, usually results in a decertification, according to the state Law Enforcement Standards Board, which regulates police officers, sheriff’s deputies and prison guards.
About 13,500 law enforcement officers are currently employed around the state, and about 200 of those have been fired or forced from previous jobs in the field, for a rate of about 1.5%.
In total, more than 1,200 Wisconsin officers have been fired or forced out since 2017, when the state DOJ started tracking that statistic.
A huge study in The Yale Law Journal titled The Wandering Officer found that Florida cops who had been fired from a previous law enforcement job were more likely to be fired from their next job or to receive a complaint for a “moral character violation,” compared to rookies and officers who had never been fired.
The study analyzed nearly 100,000 full-time law-enforcement officers from nearly 500 agencies in Florida over a 30-year period.
“Although we cannot determine the precise reasons for the firings, these results suggest that wandering officers may pose serious risks, particularly given how difficult it is to fire a police officer,” the study concluded.
Officers in Wisconsin who have been fired or forced out may find an easier entry back into the law enforcement workforce thanks to the current hiring situation.
The total number of both officers and law enforcement academy graduates in the state fell to its lowest in more than a decade last year, according to data from the state DOJ, further worsening a long-term trend experts call the “cop crunch.”
And some law enforcement agencies in western Wisconsin appear more willing to hire these “wandering officers” than others.
The Arcadia Police Department has three wandering officers on staff at the moment, according to state DOJ records. The police departments in Osseo and Black Rivers Falls employ two.
Arcadia Police Chief Diana Anderson did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Black River Falls Chief Jeremy Isensee did not answer questions emailed to him multiple times.
Osseo Police Chief William Prudlick declined to respond in an email.
“After consideration, I am declining to make a comment at this time,” he said.
Patrick Solar, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville and a former police chief, takes a hardline stance on the idea of hiring an officer who had been fired for cause.
“I do not feel an officer who has violated their oath should get a second chance,” he wrote in an email. “I don’t care how shorthanded an agency is or any other potential justification. Law enforcement is not a job just anyone can do.”
But he is softer on the idea of hiring officers who did not pass probation at a previous law enforcement agency.
“This is different,” he wrote in the email. “Some agencies do not do a good job of training potentially good officers. So yes, they should get another shot, depending of course on the severity of the mistake(s) involved.”
The La Crosse Police Department has fired or forced out at least seven officers in the past five years, according to data from the state DOJ. The La Crosse County Sheriff’s Office has fired or forced out at least three jail officers and a detention officer at the juvenile facility in that timeframe. The Monroe County Sheriff’s Office has fired or forced out 11 jail or law enforcement officers, and the Chippewa County Sheriff’s Office has fired or forced out at least five officers.
Below is a list of current officers in the area who were fired or forced out from previous jobs in law enforcement, as well as their current employers, according to the state DOJ. Attempts were made to reach every officer named in this story directly or through their current law enforcement agencies. Every officer who replied had their response included in the story.
-Resigned in lieu of termination from Durand Police Department in 2019
-Currently employed by Osseo Police Department and Monroe County Sheriff’s Office
-Resigned in Lieu of Termination from Hudson Police Department in 2019
-Currently employed by Lake Hallie Village Police Department
Lake Hallie Village Police Department hired Fravert as a part-time officer in 2018. He also picked up a part-time police job at Hudson Police Department in 2019, but did not stick.
“Derek Fravert was released from probation, meaning he did not successfully complete his probationary period,” Hudson Police Chief Geoffrey Willems wrote in an email.
Lake Hallie Village Police promoted Fravert to a full-time position in 2021.
“Officer Fravert is currently serving an 18-month probationary period and has no current formal discipline in his personnel file,” said Lake Hallie Village Police Chief Edward A. Orgon Jr. in an email. “I can confirm that all employees are subject to a background check, psychological exam, and a full review by the civilian Police Commission. Officer Fravert will be reviewed by the Police Commission again prior to being removed from probation. Additionally, Officer Fravert’s dismissal from Hudson Police Department was also reviewed and he has declined to be interviewed at this time.”
Christopher R. Larson
-Resigned prior to completion of internal investigation from Monroe County Sheriff’s Office in 2019
-Currently employed by Norwalk Police Department
-Resigned in lieu of termination from Janesville Police Department in 2018
-Currently employed by Black River Falls Police Department
-Resigned in lieu of termination from Black River Falls Police Department in 2019
-Currently employed part-time by Arcadia Police Department
-Resigned in lieu of termination from Mondovi Police Department in 2017
-Currently employed by Dunn County Sheriff’s Office
Dunn County Sheriff Kevin Bygd said Porter has done a “fantastic job” for his office.
“We are very thankful that things didn’t work out in Mondovi for Brennan Porter, because we gained a great deputy out of it,” Bygd wrote in an email.
Given a chance to comment, Porter wrote in an email: “I have nothing further to share as my sheriff said it very well and I couldn’t have said it better myself.”
-Resigned in lieu of termination from Whitehall Police Department in 2017
-Currently employed in part-time positions at the police departments in Strum, Osseo and Arcadia
-Terminated for cause from Monroe County Sheriff’s Department in 2019
-Currently employed as a part-time officer by Melrose Police Department
Said Melrose Police Chief Cal Smokowicz by email: “Our officers are hired by the Village Board. They were aware of the incident with the previous agency and questioned the applicant on the issue during his formal interview. A board member also conducted a follow-up background (interview) with another person (knowledgeable about) the incident. The officer in question was dismissed during his probationary period by Monroe County Sheriff’s Office. A probationary employee has no rights to a position and no recourse if dismissed. The decision is normally up to the Chief or Sheriff of that agency as they see fit.”
-Resigned in lieu of termination from La Crosse Police Department in 2017
-Currently employed by Black River Falls Police Department
-Resigned prior to completion of internal investigation from La Crosse Police Department in 2018
-Currently employed by Tomah Police Department
Said Tomah Police Chief Scott Holum in an email: “Steinborn was originally hired at Tomah PD on October 28, 2012. He resigned to take a job with the La Crosse Police Department on January 3, 2018. He was rehired by Tomah PD on August 20, 2018 and promoted to Sergeant on August 25, 2019.”
“Wil Steinborn is of excellent character and performs his job to a high standard,” the chief continued in the email.
Steinborn received a written reprimand from former Chief Mark Nicholson for using harsh language towards a citizen, Holum said.
-Resigned in lieu of termination from Slinger Police Department in 2018
-Currently employed by Jackson County Sheriff’s Office
“Officer Thorson was a probationary officer, wasn’t a good fit with our department and voluntarily resigned,” Slinger Police Chief Dean Schmidt said.
Regarding Thorson, Jackson County Sheriff Duane Waldera wrote in an email statement: “With respect to your request, Jackson County does not comment on their employees. As an employer, we strongly believe in respecting the privacy of our employees, as it is important that our employees feel valued and releasing information could distract them from performing their duties and deter future qualified applicants from coming to Jackson County.”
-Resigned in lieu of termination from Onalaska Police Department in 2018
-Has worked part-time for Arcadia Police Department since 2015 and as a jail officer with La Crosse Sheriff’s Office since 2020
Onalaska Police Chief Charles Ashbeck referred questions seeking information on Voss’ termination to city administrator Eric Rindfleisch. The city sent Voss’ short, handwritten resignation letter. When asked what led to the end of the officer’s employment with the city, Rindfleisch wrote in an email “there is no other information I have to give out.”
This story was funded in part by a grant from the La Crosse Community Foundation.
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