Arbitrator: Deputy wrongly fired in Jennings death; Stratman to be reinstated

A former La Crosse County Sheriff’s deputy fired after she killed a Holmen teenager in a 2010 crash has won her job back.

Trisha Stratman

Trisha Stratman

In a ruling released Monday, an arbitrator ordered Trisha Stratman be returned to duty with back pay of about 20 months.

Stratman was responding to a call for help at a Holmen bar fight in the early morning of Jan. 18, 2010, when she drove through a red light at more than 90 mph just as 16-year-old Brandon Jennings pulled into the intersection.

Jennings was thrown from his vehicle and died at the scene.

A jury acquitted Stratman on a charge of homicide by negligent operation, but she was fired in 2011 after an internal investigation found she violated department policy.

County Administrator Steve O’Malley affirmed the firing, which led to Stratman’s appeal to the Wisconsin Employee Relations Committee.

The arbitrator ruled the county did not have proper cause to fire Stratman and instead ordered her termination reduced to a 30-day suspension, effective Oct. 9, 2011. Her return is contingent on passing a fitness for duty examination and undergoing remedial emergency driving training.

Stratman clearly violated county policy by not slowing before entering the intersection, the arbitrator found, but her discipline was too severe.

He also noted the difficulty facing La Crosse County Sheriff Steve Helgeson, who admitted being affected by the Jennings’ grief and was also a friend of Stratman’s father, the previous county sheriff.

“By his own admission, Sheriff Helgeson was faced with a difficult personal and political decision,” the ruling states. “Unfortunately the Sheriff’s testimony reveals that he was influenced, at least to some degree, by a need to avoid any show of favoritism, which could only be guaranteed by imposing upon her the harshest penalty possible.”

Helgeson was out of the office Monday and did not return a message left on his cell phone. O’Malley declined to comment, saying the county hasn’t had time to review the ruling.

The executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, which represented Stratman in her arbitration, praised the decision for recognizing law enforcement officers have to make split-second decisions under duress.

“Even if mistakes were made, we take that high burden into consideration,” Jim Palmer said.

The county could appeal the ruling in circuit court, though Palmer said court appeals are rare.

Palmer said the union will work with Helgeson on how to best comply with the order, saying it could take some time before Stratman returns to work.

Noting she feels a call to duty, Palmer said Stratman is “eager to get back into doing what she loves.”

Palmer noted the case was a difficult one for all involved.

“It’s not lost on anyone, especially Deputy Stratman in particular, that this situation had a tragic outcome,” he said. “That’s something she’s going to have to carry with her for the rest of her life.”

Source: LaCrosse Tribune

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