It is impossible to tell how many domestic incidents the Milwaukee Police Department has not investigated. Last year, for example, the wife of a high-ranking commander in the Professional Performance Division, which investigates officer misconduct, called 911 in fear of her husband.
No one wrote up a report, and department officials say a recording of the emergency call does not exist.
Just three of the Milwaukee officers disciplined for abusing their spouses or romantic partners, including Velez, ended up with criminal records — but none of those convictions was for a felony or misdemeanor domestic violence, crimes that would have ended their careers by stripping them of their right to carry firearms under federal law.
Prosecutors charged Velez with only misdemeanor battery, and he pleaded no contest.
Even though he later violated a court order by contacting the victim, Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Jean DiMotto sentenced Velez to a year of probation.
He spent three days in jail.
Officer Edward McCrary was convicted of disorderly conduct after he fought with his wife and choked her cousin. He was sentenced to one day in jail.
Sgt. Charles Cross was convicted of criminal damage to property for kicking in the door of the apartment he shared with his girlfriend. He was fined $500. Prosecutors offered him a deferred prosecution agreement on the charge of domestic violence-related disorderly conduct. He got treatment for depression and alcohol abuse and the charge was dismissed.
A fourth officer, Zebdee Wilson, now has a clean criminal record despite pleading guilty to violating a restraining order in 1994. His wife needed oral surgery after he punched and kicked her repeatedly in the face, court records say.
That conviction should have stopped Wilson from continuing to serve as a police officer after the federal law banning domestic violence offenders from carrying guns took effect in 1996. The ban was retroactive and applies no matter when the conviction occurred. There is no exception for police officers.
But then-Gov. Tommy Thompson pardoned Wilson, erasing his conviction and saving his career.
Another provision in the federal law allows officers to carry weapons on duty despite domestic abuse restraining orders if their employers allow it.
The Milwaukee Police Department does.
What’s more, the department does not have a written policy on how to handle officer-involved domestic violence — a practice that goes against recommendations by both the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the state Department of Justice. The assistant chief who oversees officer performance and discipline, Darryl Winston, said in May he had not read the state’s model policy, released by the Wisconsin Department of Justice in 2009.
The model policy contains an educational component that discusses the causes of the problem and its impact on the community. It gives clear, step-by-step instructions for investigations, including lists of who should be called to the scene and what kinds of paperwork should be completed. The policy also addresses how departments should deal with abusive officers.
“Ignorance is no excuse,” said David R. Thomas, an instructor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who helped write a model policy for the international association.
Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn and Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm declined to discuss the issue with the Journal Sentinel.
In a written statement, Chief Deputy District Attorney Kent Lovern said prosecutors handle officer-involved domestic violence cases the same as any others.
“Domestic violence victims often are forced to struggle with interests in addition to their own personal safety, including children in the household and financial distress,” he wrote. “Cases involving police officers are no different, and we evaluate those cases just as we evaluate domestic violence cases involving citizens of other occupations, with a goal of achieving an appropriate measure of accountability under the circumstances.”
Certified letters to Velez, McCrary and Wilson were returned, and they did not respond to emails requesting comment. Cross, via email, declined to comment.
Velez received a meritorious service award in 2010 for dragging a burning trash bin away from a building and a crowd assembled for an immigration rights march.
He also provided support during a domestic violence awareness walk in the Latino community in 2006, according to a letter in his personnel file.
Wilson received the chief’s superior achievement award in 1993, the year before his criminal conviction, for rushing into a burning building and waking seven people inside. In 2002, he received a commendation for disarming and arresting a dangerous suspect.
Far above norm
Domestic violence is far more common among the families of police officers than among the rest of the population, according to the U.S. Department of Justice and the National Center for Women and Policing. At least 40% of police families are affected by domestic violence, as opposed to an estimated 10% in other households.
Because of the unique stresses that result from confronting dangerous suspects, analyzing bloody crime scenes and witnessing breakdowns in the criminal justice system, police officers also experience higher rates of suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder, experts say. If officers don’t learn to manage their stress and to separate their jobs from their personal lives, the results can be disastrous.
The very training that makes someone a good police officer can produce a frightening abuser, experts say.
For example, officers are trained to take control of every situation. They learn to interrogate suspects and to conduct effective surveillance. They learn how to pursue suspects and physically restrain them — in many cases, without leaving a mark. When they use force, they know how to provide legal justification.
Friends who work in the criminal justice system also tend to believe abusive officers who label their victims crazy or dishonest, according to Thomas.
The law that prohibits people convicted of domestic violence from carrying firearms, known as the Lautenberg Amendment, has been counterproductive when it comes to police officers, according to Diane Wetendorf, an Illinois-based consultant who has specialized in officer-involved domestic violence for the past 15 years.
Instead of taking guns away from abusive officers across the nation, it has made prosecutors — who work closely with cops every day — more lenient with them for fear of ruining their careers, she said.
Take the case of McCrary, now a detective.
On July 14, 1998, McCrary’s then-wife fled in fear to a neighbor’s house after he threw books and disconnected the phone wires when she tried to call 911, court records say. She was six months pregnant at the time.
Prosecutors agreed not to charge McCrary with a crime as long as he got counseling and stayed out of trouble. The Milwaukee County district attorney’s office has offered that type of deal, known as a deferred-prosecution agreement, to at least five other current Milwaukee police officers accused of domestic violence, according to the newspaper’s analysis.
But McCrary didn’t live up to his side of the bargain, according to a summary of the internal investigation. He didn’t go to therapy.
And in October 1998, he got into another argument with his wife. When her cousin intervened, McCrary grabbed the woman by the neck, according to a criminal complaint.
“He choked her, lifted her up off the floor, and started moving her backwards toward the front door,” the complaint says.
He yelled obscenities at the woman, pushed her out the door and threw out her clothes and shoes behind her, the complaint says. She had scratches on her neck and her hand was bleeding.
Because McCrary fell short of completing the deferred prosecution deal, prosecutors charged him with domestic violence-related disorderly conduct in connection with the July incident. He also was charged with battery against his wife’s cousin as a result of the October fight.
But under a plea agreement, the charge involving his wife was dropped and the battery charge involving her cousin was reduced to misdemeanor disorderly conduct.
McCrary pleaded no contest. Because he was not convicted of a charge in which his wife was a victim, he was not prohibited from carrying a firearm and kept his job.
Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Dominic Amato sentenced McCrary to a single day in jail.
At the sentencing hearing, McCrary apologized and said he accepted responsibility for his actions, according to a transcript.
“I didn’t want it to go this far,” he said. “Me and my wife, we decided that we weren’t going to be together, we should have just parted without incident.”
McCrary initially didn’t go to counseling because his insurance didn’t cover it, but he later started treatment, his attorney, Steve Kohn, said at the hearing.
McCrary was suspended from the department for 15 days for breaking the rule against violating laws or ordinances. He did not respond to interview requests. His ex-wife declined to comment. Her cousin could not be reached.
Lovern, chief deputy in the district attorney’s office, said the plea deal in the cousin’s case was done “in accordance with the wishes of the victim.” His written statement did not address the charge involving McCrary’s wife or explain why he was offered deferred prosecution in the first place.