RACINE — For more than 2½ years, Officer Brinelle Nabors hasn’t suited up for the Racine Police Department, nor has he been assigned to desk work.
The 37-year-old officer has been on paid leave since December 2015, after he was accused of using excessive force against a Park High School student on Nov. 20 of that year. During his nearly 1,000-day suspension, Nabors has been paid more than $160,000.
The City of Racine Police and Fire Commission could have held a hearing to decide Nabors’ fate with the police force years ago, but administrators chose not to, allowing him to remain on paid leave. Police Chief Art Howell said that the reason for the delay is to prevent separate investigations from overlapping, per U.S. Department of Justice recommendation.
So Nabors, the PFC and the Police Department all are waiting to see what will happen in the jury trial, which begins Aug. 28.
Following the rules
The family of the Park student made a formal citizen complaint against Nabors with the Racine Police Department less than a month after the incident, attorney Amy Scarr told The Journal Times. The department then began conducting an internal investigation, but the investigation remains open, Scarr said.
“They (the Police Department) interviewed tons of people,” Scarr said. “(The family is) not satisfied because it (the investigation) hasn’t been concluded.”
The family, like the Police Department and PFC, is waiting.
The department has no legal time limit for how long it has to close an internal investigation. Suspensions have no maximum length either. The department can take as long as it wants to come to a conclusion with internal matters.
If the family had filed a complaint with the PFC — a lesser known entity compared to the police department it oversees — then a verdict on Nabors’ suspension would have been required within 60 days, according to attorney Steven Daily, the founder of Illinois-based Law Server.
“(The family) felt that this officer probably shouldn’t be working in schools and probably shouldn’t be a police officer,” Scarr said. “They considered this a kind of child abuse, for an officer to abuse his power like that.”
Per Justice Department recommendation, it is advised for police departments to put internal investigations on hold if there is a concurrent criminal investigation. This is to ensure that independent investigations remain separate.
For an internal investigation, the standard of proof for identifying wrongdoing is lesser than that in the courts. The department only requires to find “a preponderance of the evidence,” while the courts are held to the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
When asked if Nabors would be reinstated to the police force if he is found not guilty in court, Police Chief Art Howell responded: “Not necessarily.”
A waiting game
According to Racine Police Association President Todd Hoover and PFC President Keith Rogers, no charges were ever filed against Nabors, excluding the criminal charges he now faces and the family’s complaint with the department. Nobody within the department or commission ever intended to file PFC charges, they said.
Rogers said that not filing charges is normal, if not preferred, by the PFC.
“Typically, we wait for these things to work themselves out,” Rogers said. “We need to let it work its way through the courts.”
Nabors’ criminal defense attorney, Patrick Cafferty, also is a member of Racine’s PFC.
Hoover declined to comment further on the case.
Filing a case
Police chiefs in Wisconsin have the power to suspend an officer, but they can’t fire anybody or suspend their pay. That’s up to the municipality’s police and fire commission.
If no charges are directly filed with the PFC, then no hearing can be held. And if the PFC doesn’t take action to remove a suspended officer, they can remain on the payroll indefinitely.
For an “aggrieved person,” such as the Park student or his family, to have charges filed with the PFC, a citizen complaint must be made directly to the commission — not to the Police Department. Hearings can also be called by PFC members or the police chief.
The student claimed that there were injuries to his jaw, back of his head, chin, back, neck and left ear resulting from the incident. The family settled with the City of Racine for $400,000 last summer.
Nabors has been charged with a felony count of misconduct in public office and misdemeanor counts of battery and disorderly conduct. He faces up to 3½ years in prison.
If Nabors is found guilty of the felony charge after his criminal trial in August, he’ll be a felon and would no longer be eligible to be a police officer. Thus, the PFC will more or less have its job done for it.
In the works
Earlier this year, state Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, sponsored an amendment that aimed to prevent paid suspensions from lasting this long. However, it was never voted on in the state Senate — it passed the Assembly 59-35 on Feb. 20 — and would only affect police and fire department suspensions in Milwaukee.
If the amendment does get passed when the Senate reconvenes, only two significant changes would come to Racine:
- At least one PFC board member must have either law enforcement or professional firefighting experience.
- To sustain charges against an officer, there must be a “preponderance of the evidence,” an elevated requirement from the present “just cause,” across the state.
Changes for the Milwaukee police and fire departments would be much more extensive, including a maximum of 150 days for an officer or firefighter to remain on paid leave.
“Milwaukee had egregious examples (of lengthy paid suspensions),” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, told The Journal Times. “But if this is happening in other places, I’d be happy to meet with local officials and try to come up with a solution for Racine.”
Vos acknowledged that sufficient time is needed for due process to be carried out, but he felt that a suspension lasting more than a year was “excessive.” Vos wondered why officers accused of wrongdoing aren’t put on desk duty “so the person doesn’t get paid to sit at home and watch TV.”
Wanggaard places the blame for drawn-out cases on police departments and PFCs.
“It shouldn’t have taken two years. Somebody really dropped the ball,” Wanggaard said. “The chief’s office wasn’t following up on (Nabors’ case) … the Police and Fire Commission has to do a better job.”
Wanggaard, who previously served on the Racine Police and Fire Commission, was an officer and investigator with the Racine Police Department for almost 30 years. He served alongside Nabors’ father, who also was an officer.
Not the first time
Paying Nabors’ salary hasn’t caused the Racine Police Department to go into a deficit. At a city Finance and Personnel Committee meeting on June 12, Police Chief Art Howell said that the RPD is currently under budget with regard to payroll because the department has been slightly understaffed of late.
In February, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said that taxpayers spent nearly $3 million on law-breaking Milwaukee police officers and firefighters from 2005-07, particularly regarding the seven officers who were convicted in the beating of Frank Jude Jr. in 2004.
“It is well known that officers in that position (being on leave) delay justice as long as possible, collecting money for no work,” then-Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2011.
However, Barrett opposed Wanggaard’s amendment because of Milwaukee-specific conditions tucked into the bill, restricting the mayor’s choices on appointing fire and police chiefs.
In 2008, the District 1 Court of Appeals found that Philip Sliwinski, a Milwaukee police detective, was entitled to four years’ worth of back pay, legal fees and benefits equaling almost $375,000.
Sliwinski had been fired in 2002 and was on paid leave until March 2004, which is when his firing was upheld by the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission. That’s about six years’ worth of pay for no work.
However, Sliwinski was cleared of guilt and reinstated to the police force, which would have earned him the back pay regardless.