Motorola Man brings Milwaukee a wake-up call

©2002 MilwaukeePress.Net

MILWAUKEE, WI. -- On Oct. 8, 1981, Milwaukee police officers in cars and on motorcycles chased James P. Schoemperlen to the corner of South 26th St. and W. Greenfield Ave. The reason: Police say witnesses saw Schoemperlen exposing himself to kids; Schoemperlen said he just stopped to take a roadside leak on the way home from a Brewers’ game but was scared off when he noticed people could see him.

Over the next 45 seconds, Schoemperlen was brutally beaten, kicked and repeatedly whacked in the head with a Motorola radio hard enough that evidence later showed the device’s imprint on his skull.

Over the next 10 months, the DA’s office struggled to identify and prosecute the cops who did it.

Although 21 police officers were at the scene, only three were charged and just two were convicted in 1982 on charges arising from the incident, which today stands out as one of the most glaring examples of police brutality and official conspiracy to obstruct justice in the city’s history, prosecutors maintain.

In fact, prosecutors and even one of the attorneys who represented two of the 21 officers during the investigation say the conspiracy to obstruct justice by the officers was worse than the beating.

“I think the interesting thing is this happened to a white guy on the south side,” observes Marquette Law Professor Dan Blinka, a former assistant district attorney who helped prosecute two of the police officers.

“It showed a calculated indifference toward citizens,” says Blinka. “In the (Ernie) Lacy case (in which a black man died while in custody) you didn’t have allegations of a beating but that officers just stood by and let a young man die. In Schoemperlen, you had a great number who did nothing but stood by and watched him being beaten by other police, and who did nothing to stop the beating or help Schoemperlen.”

Unlike the Los Angeles case where a decade later police were captured on tape beating Rodney King, many Milwaukee residents observed the beating and they were willing to talk about it.

“But one of the real difficulties in prosecuting this case was akin to 1968 in Chicago, where a number of guys about the same size and age, dressed the same, and witnesses couldn’t identify individuals,” says Blinka. “The issue was not whether the behavior was acceptable, but who was responsible.”

A defense attorney familiar with the case said it was not police brutality but a training failure.

“I represented a couple of the officers on the scene in Schoemperlen,” he says.

“But for their piss poor training they would have (ever) tried to subdue someone after a chase.

“All these guys were after Schoemperlen and eventually they find him, they follow him and chase him. He came to a corner; it was blocked by a squad and motorcycle. He pulled in, left side to curb,” the lawyer recalls.

“An officer came out, had a gun drawn. One motorcycle at the front right, one squad off right back corner, one squad right behind him. My two guys went between their squad and Schoemperlen’s car. They open the door to his car: Training error number one. They had no business having contact with that car. That was a training mistake. Then they made an even bigger mistake. They grabbed the guy and dragged him out of the car. You have to look at the physics of this.

“They open the door. Instead of stepping back and letting the person get out, they drew a gun and you don’t draw the gun unless you expect to kill someone.

"The number one guy is at the door,” the lawyer says. “The other is the officer closest to the car. That officer grabs Schoemperlen by the left shoulder and the other grabs him by the right arm. They’re pulling him out of the car, and they are turning him toward the back of the car.”

“Suddenly, both of his hands go to his waist. He testified that his pants were coming down from when he had stopped before. He was trying to keep them up. But what would you think he was reaching for?

“Other officers came running up. One of them was the Motorola man. You’ve got two officers holding him; one runs up and grabs him by his hair. Training teaches you to take the man to the ground. They’re trying to hold his arms up because they think he has a gun in his pants, one’s pulling his arms to try to pull him down.

“When you’re in a chase, you’re chasing somebody for a reason. Your first goal is to end the chase. The second problem is, what are you going to do when you catch them? They don’t train you. You’re all fired up. This was a breakdown in training. The likelihood of this coming up in training is pretty slim,” he says. “But the one motorcycle guy who kicked him, that’s excessive.”

Blinka disagrees: “It was a beating. This was someone administering street justice and it went too far.”

Former Circuit Judge Frank Crivello, who was lead prosecutor in the case, agrees.

Crivello said it was “a 1940 department in those days."

“We were at the point with the Police Department when as a prosecutor we had to ask prospective jurors in other cases whether they could believe a police officer’s testimony.”

“Schoemperlen was pure brutality,” he said, "but worse, the police conspired to impede the investigation.

“They all admitted they were there, but one missed the beating because he took 10 minutes to put his gun away.

“Another one looked up to see the street signs so he could identify the location, and missed it. Another guy was there but said he was alone for a moment, when it must have happened.

“There was a lieutenant and a bunch of detectives assigned to the case, not to render assistance but to monitor our investigation,” Crivello recalled.

“The day after the beating (former Deputy District Attorney Tom) Schneider and I went to the scene and took a stenographer. A ton of people witnessed it but none could identify anyone. The beating looked like a feeding frenzy.”

Later that day, Crivello recalls, “three cops came over to the office to bring lewd and lascivious behavior, fleeing and disorderly charges against Schoemperlen.”

“Later, two sergeants came over and said, ‘it’s all clear, right? This guy fled and you’re going to charge him.’

“I said, ‘What planet are you guys from? The guy was beaten,’” Crivello says. “That’s their mentality: if there’s a problem, send a sergeant to demand action.

“Later, an inspector called, yelling. Then, (former Police Chief Harold) Breier and Schneider got on the phone and I think Breier was demanding Schoemperlen be charged,” Crivello said.

"An amateur photographer who got the scene after the beating got photos of cops, but not the beating,” Crivello recalls.

“So Schneider called a public John Doe investigation and had all the police officers in the pictures come at the same time, and they all came with their lawyers. After everyone left, the lawyers started calling for immunity for their clients.”

In 1982, a Milwaukee jury convicted former officer Domonic D'Acquisto of felony aggravated battery for beating Schoemperlen with his Motorola radio.

D'Acquisto, then 43, was one of as many as seven Milwaukee police officers witnesses said converged on Schoemperlen while the others looked on.

Schoemperlen later won a $500,000 settlement from the City of Milwaukee for the beating. Schoemperlen's skull had been fractured, his nose broken and several of his teeth knocked out.

D'Acquisto was the lone officer convicted in the beating. He served a six-month sentence with work-release privileges. Crivello said former officer John Cieciwa orchestrated the cover up, and although he was acquitted of aggravated battery, he was convicted of obstructing.

The third officer charged, Allan Miller, was acquitted.