Both sides of the law


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Alcohol abuse on record

Milwaukee police Officer Jason E. Rodriguez, hired as a police aide in 1997 at age 18, has a history of alcohol abuse and dishonesty, according to court records and summaries of internal investigations.

In June 1998, he was ticketed for underage drinking at Summerfest, according to a summary. Rodriguez told his supervisor he was merely holding a beer for a friend who was in the restroom. But the Milwaukee County sheriff’s sergeants who ticketed him said Rodriguez admitted drinking “one or two beers.”

He was suspended for one day for drinking and another five days for lying.

Rodriguez’s first drunken-driving offense occurred less than six months later, court records show. But police documents do not reflect the incident, which occurred Dec. 24, 1998. It is not listed on Rodriguez’s personnel record.

Rodriguez became a recruit officer in 2000, when he was 21.

Fourteen months later, Rodriguez was charged with second-offense drunken driving and obstruction, both misdemeanors, after he reported his car stolen in Madison.

According to the criminal complaint:

Rodriguez told Madison police Officer Jimmy Minton he had parked his Jeep on the street around 4 or 5 a.m. Nov. 10, 2001, and walked several blocks to a gas station for directions. When Rodriguez came back about half an hour later, he found the Jeep had been struck by another vehicle, he told Minton.

The evidence didn’t support Rodriguez’s story.

The Jeep’s rear quarter panel, bumper and tailgate were damaged, a tire was bent and a taillight was broken. But there was no debris nearby. Instead of paint from another vehicle, there were wood chips embedded in the Jeep. Tire damage also indicated the Jeep had been driven after the wreck.

“Officer Minton concluded that Mr. Rodriguez had in fact collided with another object and was attempting to cover up a hit-and-run violation,” the complaint says.

Rodriguez denied he had been drinking, but a preliminary breath test put his blood-alcohol level at 0.12. At that time, Wisconsin’s legal limit for driving was 0.10. It has since been lowered to 0.08.

As the result of a plea agreement with Dane County prosecutors, Rodriguez pleaded no contest to the misdemeanor charge of second-offense drunken driving and was ticketed for a less serious obstruction charge — a county ordinance violation rather than a crime. He was sentenced to 15 days in jail and fined $800. His driver’s license was revoked for a year.

Rodriguez did not respond to a certified letter seeking comment for this story. He attended a chemical dependency program for two months, according to a letter in his court file.

Then-Chief Arthur Jones fired Rodriguez, who appealed to the Fire and Police Commission. At his appeal hearing in November 2002, Rodriguez testified that the incident had made him realize he was an alcoholic. He acknowledged he had embarrassed himself, his family and the department. Rodriguez also testified that he had quit drinking.

The commission overturned Rodriguez’s firing and reduced his punishment to a 70-day suspension. Commissioners agreed to reduce it to a 40-day suspension if he attended Alcoholics Anonymous weekly for 12 weeks and continued treatment for two years.

Rodriguez’s personnel record shows he has since received three awards.

In 2005, he received a merit award for arresting two gang leaders. In 2009, his anti-gang unit received a service award. In 2010, Rodriguez received a meritorious service award for developing a strategy to bust a burglary ring.

Commercial crackdown

In 2005, the state got tough on truckers who drive drunk. A second drunken-driving offense since then — even with a low blood-alcohol level and no crash — means someone can never again qualify for a commercial driver’s license, according to Sgt. Paul Wolfe of the Wisconsin State Patrol.

“You’re done,” he said.

The penalty applies regardless of whether the person was driving a big rig or a personal car at the time.

No state law or department policy lays out similar sanctions for Milwaukee police.

States such as Alaska, Idaho and Tennessee prevent people with recent drunken-driving convictions from becoming police officers.

Not Wisconsin.

Joseph Zawikowski’s history of problems with alcohol, which included one conviction for drunken driving and two for underage drinking, wasn’t an issue here. In 2004, at age 24, he was hired as a Milwaukee police recruit.

Less than a year later, Zawikowski was arrested for drunken driving again.

The drunken off-duty cop approached a security guard in the parking lot of Wheaton Franciscan Health Care-St. Francis and asked for help finding a woman named Stephanie, according to a summary of the internal investigation and court transcripts. Zawikowski’s strange behavior alarmed the guard, who thought Zawikowski was impersonating an officer.

“He, in effect, threatened the guard by telling him he was a Milwaukee Police Department employee, and he better not take any action,” Assistant District Attorney Nancy Ettenheim said in court.

The security guard called police, and they pulled over Zawikowski’s car a few blocks away.

He could barely stand and couldn’t spell his own last name, according to the transcripts. Officers didn’t ask him to do any field sobriety tests — such as walking heel-to-toe — because they were afraid he might hurt himself, records say.

Zawikowski’s blood-alcohol level was 0.215, nearly three times the legal limit.

He pleaded guilty to second-offense drunken driving, a misdemeanor.

During his sentencing hearing in January 2006, Ettenheim said Zawikowski never should have been hired as a police officer.

“When I look at his record … the Police Department should have been on notice that he was a very poor candidate for employment in the first place,” she said.

The shame and embarrassment over his conviction will never go away, Zawikowski said in an interview with the Journal Sentinel.

“Unfortunately, that’s what it took for me to get my life together, but at least it is now,” he said.

The tickets for underage drinking and for his first drunken-driving offense, when he was 19, were not a big deal at the time, he said.

“Obviously I was very immature,” he said.

Zawikowski tried to stop drinking — or at least to stop mixing drinking with driving — after the first time he was caught driving drunk, but the stresses of his new job as a police officer and the murder of his uncle around the same time were too much, he said.

He remembers virtually none of the events leading up to his arrest.

“When I came to, I was in the back of a squad car, and that’s when it hit me: How did I get to that point? How did I let this happen? There’s no one else left to blame except for yourself. I just couldn’t believe it.”

Zawikowski was sentenced to 60 days in jail, which he served on house arrest, he said. His sentence was reduced to 45 days for good behavior.

He fully expected to be fired from the Police Department, but said he is extremely grateful he wasn’t. Instead, he was suspended for 16 days, according to his personnel record. He has not been disciplined since.

“I did feel a lot of guilt, that here are all these other guys going out there working really hard, and I kind of ruined the good work out there. I feel like I let the department down and myself,” he said.

He also knew he needed to get treatment.

“I learned that I really can’t handle it, so I live a different lifestyle now,” said Zawikowski, 31. “I have purchased a house, gotten married. I live a totally different life. . . . I don’t know what else would have caused me to change.”

Today, he works on bicycle patrol in District 7.

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