Neenah 3rd District

Please vote for Steve Erbach

My positions on the issues

Alderman Steve Erbach
1017 Babcock St.
Neenah, WI 54956
920-725-6095 (home)
SteveErbach3rdDist@swerbach.com

• Neenah Police Department

This isn't as simple as “Fire him out the door and put an ad in Police News”.  I apologize for the length of this.

[Update, from the Appleton Post-Crescent]

Posted April 2, 2007

Neenah alderman wants review of top police officials' performance

By Duke Behnke
Post-Crescent staff writer

NEENAH — Ald. Nick Piergrossi said Monday he will request that Neenah hire a consultant to review alleged “errors in judgment” by Police Chief Ray Appel and his supervisory staff.

Appel and the police department have been under public criticism for their lengthy investigation of former police detective Daniel Dringoli, who was cleared of multiple criminal charges last week.

“If nothing was wrong, it is important for the public to know that,” Piergrossi said, “but if there were things done incorrectly, I think it’s important that that is documented so we learn for the future.”

Piergrossi will introduce a resolution to the Common Council on Wednesday that seeks proposals from professional firms to “evaluate the performance of the police chief and supervisory staff, and report all findings back to the mayor and Common Council.”

The resolution questions Neenah police for conducting the Dringoli investigation internally, for the personnel assigned to the investigation, and for “potential inaccuracies in information provided to the council as to the substance and severity of findings of the investigation.”

Piergrossi said the results of the study would provide direction to the Neenah Police Commission — the disciplinary body for the police department — if wrongdoings are found.

The Post-Crescent left a telephone message asking Appel for comment, but he did not immediately respond.

Dringoli has maintained that Neenah police unfairly targeted him because he helped expose a 2001 cover-up of misconduct by members of Neenah’s SWAT team during a training trip to Florida.

He reached a confidential settlement with the city in July to resolve his federal lawsuit against Neenah police.

He resigned from the force in September and is a candidate for alderman in Tuesday’s election.

Dringoli commended Piergrossi for pursuing an evaluation of Appel and his administrative team.

“I have been saying all along that the chief should step down,” Dringoli said. “That hasn’t happened, so I think it is time to investigate if he is not willing to do that.”

Ald. Judy Zaretzke, who is Dringoli’s opponent in the election, said she supports hiring a consultant to review the decisions that guided the Dringoli investigation.

“There have been complaints about us not doing anything,” Zaretzke said. “I think we need to deal with this and get it over once and for all.”

Neenah paid a consultant $20,000 last year to study the management of the police department. That study was highly critical of Appel and his administrative team and listed 61 recommendations for improvement.

It did not resolve all of the questions and allegations surrounding the Dringoli case, however.

Piergrossi said a professional firm is needed for a proper evaluation because the council doesn’t have the expertise to know how police investigations should be conducted.

I will say this up front:  I think that this business has been deplorably handled from just about any angle you care to name.  From appointing the guy the alleged "whistle-blower" blew the whistle on to investigate the alleged "whistle-blower" himself; to the sloppy original charges filed by the DA; – so sloppy, in fact, that the judge dismissed them a year ago in January without prejudice – to the filing of open records requests by Dringoli; to the grievance filed by the police officers to continue using exercise equipment while on duty; to the refusal of the city's request to make public the infamous 41-page report on Dringoli; to the final dismissal of all criminal charges (and here) against Dringoli ... no wonder folks are fit to be tied about the whole affair.

First of all, people may be surprised to hear that the Mayor and the City Council have limited influence on the Police Department.  The Police Commisssion was formed to put some distance between the Police Department and the political process.  That is, it offers the department a better chance at operating without the pushing and pulling of constant political elections to pay attention to.  You could think of it somewhat like the United States Army or Marines.  Those forces are under the control of the Defense Department.  Can you imagine if the Navy was controlled directly by Congress?

Having said that, a police department has vastly more direct impact on the people in a community than, say, the Air Force does.  The United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights have things to say about the allowable interactions between the armed forces and the citizens.  The Constitution says nothing about the local police force.

Therefore it's up to us.  Like many other communities around the country, Neenah has charged a Police Commission with direct control over the Police Department.  The City Council:

• controls the purse strings of the Police Department,

• has some direct input into the deliberations of the Police Commission (including the fact that the Mayor appoints the members),

• and has some oversight ability in the Public Services and Safety Committee.

With the March 27th dismissal of all criminal charges against former Detective Dan Dringoli, there has been a huge increase in public sentiment to clean house at the top.  There isn't any way to conduct a standard opinion poll on this matter, but the Appleton Post-Crescent at least has a way for people to express their opinions.  While this is certainly un-scientific (since you can vote more than once) it's an indicator.  This is a snapshot of the poll that can be found here on the P-C site:

Post-Crescent Dringoli poll results

This is one of the reasons the Police Commission exists: to put a buffer between the passions of the electorate and the functioning of a vital city service.

Some people have pointed out to me that if the Police Department were a private business heads would have rolled, new management would have been hired, and things would have turned around right quick.

The Police Department, however, is not like a private business in one very important respect: our safety, security, and law enforcement don't rely on the operation of a paper company or a printing plant. Neither can you hire temp workers to do the job while you look for permanent replacements (though this P-C story is interesting).

I confess to a bit of bias in one direction: I was Cubmaster of Pack 3038 when Chief (then Captain) Appel's son was a member of the Pack at Taft Elementary School. I've been on a number of Scout camping trips with Captain Appel, and he was always a willing participant in Pack ceremonies.

Does this make me unfit to assess his performance as Chief? No more so than anyone who wants to nail his hide to a door. If you believe that only negative assessments are valid, then we must part ways.  Believe me, I have no qualms about holding the Chief's feet to the fire when it comes to the recommendations of the Resource Management Associates study.

The City Council cannot initiate even a reprimand against any member of the police force.  However, the Council can do some things.  The most notable was the initiation of the RMA Police Department management study last year.  The Council is to meet soon in closed session (though the Mayor may decide to open it to the public) to evaluate the performance of Police Department management, especially in light of the dismissal of charges against Mr. Dringoli.  The Council cannot fire the Chief but it can certainly make known to the Police Commission in no uncertain terms what people are saying and urge the Commission to respond.

FYI, here are the names of the Police Commission members:

James Prosser, President, jprosser@gklaw.com,
831-6362 (Godfrey & Kahn)

• Gilbert Mueller, Secretary, 729-1914

• Judd Stevenson, 725-5040

• Dave Brotski, 725-6924

• Anne Paulus, 725-4268