The Dismissal of Palmyra’s Police Chief, Charles Warren

Last week, Palmyra’s Police Commission, on a 2-1 vote, fired Chief Charles Warren. Warren had been police chief of the village’s force for five years. Both the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Jefferson County Daily Union reported on Warren’s dismissal.

The Police Commission action followed an autumn hearing on the complaint of Gary Byers, a village resident and former Milwaukee police detective. The complaint alleging misconduct concerned Warren’s handling of a marijuana case, an accidental overdose case, and a child enticement case.

Warren’s attorney, Paul Bucher, has threatened further action.

A few observations:

Dismissal is rare. Few officers, let alone leaders, are dismissed. (The vogue term is to call police leaders part of the ‘command staff,’ but Palmyra’s very small, and no town in Wisconsin is anything like the Pentagon or a fighting front, in any event.)

Real oversight is rare. Most people, on most police commissions, in most places, mean well. But, few get their positions because they’re actual watchdogs. They get their jobs because they’re supportive, so supportive that they boost rather than scrutinize. Really, a solid chief should be able to get by without maneuvering sycophants onto a police commission, but the weaker the chief, the more important stacking the deck becomes.

In particularly bad situations, chief and commissioners will pat each other on the back, and issue mutually supportive and congratulatory declarations as often as they can. Leaders shouldn’t need these things, and commissioners shouldn’t seek them, but mediocrity invites a treacly neediness for a circle of praise.

Is Warren’s dismissal the proper exercise of oversight? I don’t know. Two of the cases are less serious than the accusations of possible child enticement in the third. I do know that the published accounts to which I have linked describe decisions and actions probably similar to those in dozens of other Wisconsin towns.

(Palmyra, one reads, doesn’t have written procedures for some of the situations described in the complaint against Warren. Palmyra is not alone, among Wisconsin towns & villages, in that regard.)

An officer or chief could be culpable of misconduct even apart from written guidelines; my point is that if Warren should be so, many others have been, too.

Does Warren’s dismissal help or hurt the cause of oversight, generally? By itself, this case is so rare that it will gain attention, but probably make no lasting impression on the state. So few commissions address discipline of officers or leaders that many police commissioners in Wisconsin probably cannot imagine any disciplinary hearing of any kind (let alone one involving possible dismissal).

Commissioners typically play no role in discipline, and learn only about it only in a pro forma way (if they learn at all). Wisconsin law allows commissioners in cities disciplinary authority (Wis. Stat. 62.13(5)); they seldom exercise it.

Commissioners across Wisconsin have probably heard about this case and either see it as proof of a very poor leader or a very loose, ill-controlled commission.

What happens next? It all depends on what Warren, through his attorney, wants. Does the chief want a settlement of some sort, or does he really want a day in court (not as a prospect to force a settlement, but for its own sake)?

There’s more ahead, but how much more depends on how practical the parties are.

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