brings Milwaukee a wake-up call
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
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.
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
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.”
attorney familiar with the case said it was not police brutality but a training
represented a couple of the officers on the scene in Schoemperlen,” he says.
their piss poor training they would have (ever) tried to subdue someone after a
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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?
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
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.”
disagrees: “It was a beating. This was someone administering street justice
and it went too far.”
Judge Frank Crivello, who was lead prosecutor in the case, agrees.
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
was pure brutality,” he said, "but worse, the police conspired to impede
admitted they were there, but one missed the beating because he took 10 minutes
to put his gun away.
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
“There was a
lieutenant and a bunch of detectives assigned to the case, not to render
assistance but to monitor our investigation,” Crivello recalled.
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.”
sergeants came over and said, ‘it’s all clear, right? This guy fled and
you’re going to charge him.’
‘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
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.
amateur photographer who got the scene after the beating got photos of cops, but
not the beating,” Crivello recalls.
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.
then 43, was one of as many as seven Milwaukee police officers witnesses said
converged on Schoemperlen while the others looked on.
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.
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.
officer charged, Allan Miller, was acquitted.