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County Board member 'flabbergasted' by sheriff's remarks on law enforcement policy
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‘THAT’S REALLY WHERE OUR FOCUS SHOULD BE’

County Board member 'flabbergasted' by sheriff's remarks on law enforcement policy

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YORKVILLE — After a gun violence episode that left two people dead Tuesday morning, what was supposed to be a routine Racine County Board meeting turned into an impassioned exchange — and some tension.

Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling, while updating county board members on the tragedy Wednesday night, called for more support of law enforcement, including county funding, and also called one board member’s reform ideas “idiotic.”

“Now I know there are some people in this room that don’t support law enforcement. I know there are some people that vocally said that there should be citizens making traffic stops. I’ve heard this,” Schmaling said during his 10-minute speech.

He continued: “I think it’s ridiculous. I think it’s insane. Look at what happened today. You want a citizen making a traffic stop of this young man? He just executed a 22-year-old for no reason. There’s a family preparing a funeral tonight, for that reason. But we should have a citizen making a traffic stop? That’s insane and idiotic, if anything else.”

The sheriff’s remarks left some County Board members feeling a little put off.

County Supervisor Nick Demske, who has spoken out against increasing law enforcement budgets, said later he believes Schmaling was referring to him and his ideas on community policing.

Demske said that although he was also grateful that Schmaling came to the board meeting with an update, he was “flabbergasted” that the update turned into a what he regarded as a lobbying effort on the sheriff’s part for county funding.

Demske said the attention belonged with those affected by Tuesday’s gun violence and their families, as well as the recovery of the community.

Nick Demske

Demske

“The sheriff coming to the County Board was precipitated by a real, honest-to-God, terrible community tragedy that resulted in (two) people losing their lives, a number of people being traumatized and a member of law enforcement taking fire and being hospitalized, and thank God, surviving,” Demske said. “And that’s really where our focus should be, is with those people, with their families, and just hoping, praying for restoration for a tragedy like that.”

In an incident that remains under investigation, police say that John McCarthy, 32, of Hartland, on Tuesday shot to death a customer, Anthony F. “Nino” Griger, 22, of Elkhorn, at the Pilot Travel Center on Highway K adjacent to Interstate 94 in Caledonia. McCarthy then went to another gas station and exchanged gunfire with an undercover police investigator who was filling up his own gas tank.

Police say the unnamed sheriff’s investigator was wounded, and that the officer returned fire, shooting McCarthy, who then turned his own gun on himself and committed suicide.

In his remarks to the County Board hours later, Schmaling said he knows the wounded investigator personally, and that the investigator was concerned mostly about whether any of his gunshots had harmed innocent bystanders at the scene.

Sheriff Christopher Schmaling

Schmaling

“And that’s what he asked me at the hospital, while he lied there with bullet holes in his own body, he said ‘Sheriff, did I hit anybody innocent?’ That’s what he asked. Nothing else,” Schmaling said.

At the time, County Supervisor Jody Spencer, while stating her “heart breaks” for those involved in the incident, also said she was upset and resented the sheriff’s remarks criticizing one of her colleagues.

Schmaling did not identify the person he said had made “idiotic” suggestions about law enforcement.

But in an email later, Spencer questioned the appropriateness of some of the sheriff’s presentation to the County Board on Tuesday night.

Jody Spencer

Spencer

“The sheriff’s words in addressing the County Board moved me. I felt his emotional account of this incident, and was grateful that he shared what he did with us until he started to chastise a dedicated colleague’s ideas,” Spencer wrote.

“We should never feel deterred from speaking up,” she continued. “When new concepts are presented — which is what the sheriff targeted toward the end of his statement — they should at least be heard and not scoffed at.”

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are trying to negotiate a bipartisan bill to reform federal policing laws, and qualified immunity is a key sticking point. Qualified immunity protects government officials, including police officers, from lawsuits. It means you can only sue if the violation of your rights has already been "clearly established.""It requires civil rights plaintiffs to show not just that their rights were violated, but they also have to find a prior judicial decision in their jurisdiction, where someone else's rights were violated in nearly the same way," said Jay Schweikert, a research fellow at the Cato Institute's Project on Criminal Justice.The concept is not written in U.S. law. Rather it's a consequence of court rulings.Opponents argue it prevents the public from holding law enforcement officials accountable for their actions something that happens with most other professions."When we think about professionals doing their job, we recognize that mistakes happen sometimes. And for that reason, we do require certain professionals to carry insurance. That's the reason why we all carry insurance for our automobiles, because we recognize that accidents happen," said Teri Ravenell, a professor of law and the Associate Dean for Faculty Research & Development at Villanova University.Supporters worry that without qualified immunity, courts would get bogged down with a swarm of lawsuits and police officers might be afraid to do their job. But the state of Colorado shows the result might not be that extreme. In 2020, the state eliminated qualified immunity for most of its police officers, making them individually liable up to $25,000. "While there have been some suits brought under this new provision, it has absolutely not been the flood of frivolous litigation that some defenders of qualified immunity predict," said Schweikert.One compromise option lawmakers are considering is changing the provision to make the department liable in civil cases instead of the individual officer."If we do that in law enforcement, the employer will change the culture. As opposed to having one officer change or not change, we'll have all officers transforming because the departments are taking on more of that burden," said Sen. Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina. But Jay Schweikert from the libertarian CATO Institute says department liability would only work in conjunction with individual liability. "It is, in essence, telling the public, you know, we've heard your complaints about officer misconduct. In response, we're going to say it's impossible to hold individual officers accountable. But don't worry, you the taxpayer, will now be on the hook financially for all of their misconduct," said Schweikert.But that's already happening now. A study published in 2014 found police officers rarely contribute to any judgment or settlement against them in civil rights cases. In the more than 9,200 cases examined, police officers paid just .02% of the total dollar amount awarded to the plaintiffs. Villanova University law professor Teri Ravenell says any discussion about changing qualified immunity needs to keep the plaintiffs in mind, especially when considering who ultimately foots the bill. "If we're actually talking about damages, then they've often also suffered some sort of real or actual injury. So if they aren't compensated, then that loss ends up falling on them," said Ravenell.It was a 1982 Supreme Court ruling that gave us the qualified immunity as it's understood today. The court has heard dozens of cases since then dealing with the doctrine, but only a handful of plaintiffs have convinced the justices that qualified immunity should not apply. 

"The sheriff coming to the County Board was precipitated by a real, honest-to-God, terrible community tragedy that resulted in (two) people losing their lives, a number of people being traumatized and a member of law enforcement taking fire and being hospitalized, and thank God, surviving. And that's really where our focus should be, is with those people, with their families, and just hoping, praying for restoration for a tragedy like that."

Nick Demske, Racine County Board supervisor

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"We should never feel deterred from speaking up. When new concepts are presented — which is what the sheriff targeted toward the end of his statement — they should at least be heard and not scoffed at."

Jody Spencer, Racine County Board supervisor

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