More police officers injured as suspects flee to avoid arrest

Gerard Phillips Sr. fled from police before. La Crosse officer Dan Ulrich didn’t expect him to cooperate this time either.

Wanted on four warrants, Ulrich was pursuing Phillips during the evening commute July 3. They wove through busy residential areas before Phillips lost control of his Chevy Impala on Ninth Street when it hopped a curb. Phillips bailed.

His Impala barreled backward, forcing the squad car door shut on Ulrich’s left hand. The officer was trapped inside.

“It hurt, but I was more upset I couldn’t get out,” he said. “My hand looked like a mini train had gone over it.”

Ulrich is one of more than two dozen members of the La Crosse and Onalaska police departments and the La Crosse County Sheriff’s Department who suffered an injury last year in the line of duty.

Police acknowledge their profession is a dangerous one. But that doesn’t mean injuries are fair game.

“It shouldn’t be that a police officer is expected to be injured or battered on duty and that’s just part of their job,” La Crosse police Assistant Chief Rob Abraham said. “It’s not.”

Kicked, punched, bit

All told, at least 45 law enforcement officers in the county sheriff’s department and La Crosse and Onalaska police departments have suffered 76 injuries in 52 separate incidents since 2010.

Dozens more were hurt outside the federal reporting criteria — even more are kicked, hit, spit on and not injured.

Officers are most often injured chasing a suspect or dealing with one fighting arrest, according to an analysis of police and human resource department reports.

They’ve been whipped in the face with handcuffs, kicked in the jaw and bit. One officer was smacked in the face with a bag of frozen hamburger.

And the problem is getting worse.

“We have more people sustaining more serious injuries in the course of an arrest than we have experienced previously,” La Crosse police Capt. Jason Melby said. “We’ve had officers kicked in the face.”

In many cases, privacy laws prevent the public from knowing the exact extent of the injury, the medical treatment it required and how long the officer was off duty.

Offenders with criminal records aren’t always willing to cooperate with arrest, sheriff’s Capt. Mike Horstman said.

“They choose fight or flight rather than following the lawful order they’ve been given,” he said.

Police put the blame partly on recent cuts that have left fewer officers on the streets to back each other up. The number of full-time officers fell 1.8 percent statewide last year.

“We think there’s strength in numbers,” said Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association. “Our officers are doing more with less with their safety in peril.”

The national rate of injured officers rose from 2.68 percent to 2.72 percent in 2011, the first increase since 2004, according to the FBI. Data for 2012 isn’t available until next year.

Statewide, injuries to officers climbed 17 percent in 2012 to 355 injuries, according to the state Office of Justice Assistance, which collects the data for the FBI.

Probation as punishment

Suspects who injure local police aren’t likely to go to prison, according to cases tracked by the FBI.

La Crosse-area offenders charged with assaulting an officer avoided prison time in all but three of the closed cases between 2010-12. Most were placed on probation, which was later revoked in some cases.

“We expect at least officer input on whether or not there is going to be a charge,” said Abraham, who once injured his shoulder during a foot pursuit. “It’s important the officers feel that justice is being served.”

Like any other victim, prosecutors consult officers before charges are filed, La Crosse County District Attorney Tim Gruenke said.

“We have always told officers, ‘You need to be involved,’” he said.

Offenders won’t face a felony battery charge unless prosecutors can prove they intended to harm the officer, which often isn’t the case. A law passed in 2010 allows prosecutors to file a charge of resisting officers causing soft tissue injury, a felony, in cases of an unintentional injury. Offenders can also face a misdemeanor charge of resisting when an officer is injured during a pursuit or arrest.

“I’ve never heard a police officer complain about a battery to police officer case,” Gruenke said.

The cost

Total officer injuries led to 21 days of lost time in 2010, 156 days in 2011 and 117 days last year in the La Crosse and Onalaska police departments and sheriff’s department.

It all ads up to $234,518 in taxpayer dollars to cover wages for lost time and medical treatment. That includes covering injuries suffered in accidents and training.

The municipalities demand restitution in cases where judges can order it.

“We can be aggressive, but if someone has nothing you can’t get anything out of them,” said Mary Marco, assistant personnel director for the county. “But we can try.”

She’s seen checks to the county for restitution siphoned from prison wages. Sometimes it’s $100. Sometimes it’s $12. At least it’s something, she said.

For sheriff’s deputies and jailers, the county pays the injured employee’s full salary for 60 days. After that, employees earns 66 percent of their wages, paid for by the county’s worker’s compensation insurance.

La Crosse officers receive full wages for the duration of their leave in a worker’s compensation injury, said city Human Resources Director Wendy Oestreich. All departments encourage employees to return to light duty until they’re ready for the road.

“The quicker we can get them back to work, the better it is for them,” Marco said.

Injuries put a significant strain on the department and compound staffing issues, Abraham said. Even a minor injury can take officers off the street for a few hours while they document and treat it, he said.

The departments have to live within a budget and can’t automatically plug an open spot with another officer on overtime.

“Sometimes it means that we’re one officer short on the street. Is that fair to other officers? Is that fair to the community? We have to do a balancing act and make sure that we’re trying to keep costs down,” Abraham said. “On the other hand, we don’t want to sacrifice officer safety and public safety.”

Officer safety is critical, said Onalaska Police Chief Jeff Trotnic, who lost an officer while a lieutenant in Joplin, Mo. In 2004, officer Tim Nielson ran into a house he didn’t know was filled with gas. It exploded.

Five of Trotnic officers in Onalaska were injured between 2010-12 during foot pursuits, an area where the department focuses its training.

“We spend so much time on emergency driving and pursuit driving, but I think one area where a lot of departments miss is the dangerousness involved in foot pursuits,” Trotnic said. “They can be just as dangerous as vehicle pursuits.”

Officers are hurt chasing offenders during inclement weather or at night when they can’t see hazards, Trotnic said.

“The main thing we stress is to be cognizant of the unknown during foot pursuits,” he said. “Just because the bad guy went running around the corner at full speed doesn’t mean we need to be running around the corner at full speed.”

The sheriff’s department’s training division analyzes each officer injury case to try to prevent it from happening again, Horstman said.

The La Crosse Police Department is considering revisiting its training and arrest tactics to reduce injuries.

“Our training is supposed to keep us from being injured,” Abraham said.

By ANNE JUNGEN | ajungen@lacrossetribune.com
Source: LaCrosse Tribune

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