By Linda Wyeth
There have been a lot of rumors and a lot of conflicting stories about the so-called “Lawnmower Phil” incident in the four months since June 17.
At the last Common Council meeting, on Tuesday, October 14, two aldermen — Patrick Pfeffer and Mark Hanson — insinuated that it was my fault and not Police Chief Andrew Schade’s that he had incurred a large bill from the city attorneys because I had filed an open records request to obtain a valid copy of the police department video of their treatment of Phil Goerl. Hanson went so far as to say that perhaps I should be responsible for those legal fees.
I would like to clarify a few things. I first filed my request on July 2, 2014. I did so because the stories I heard about what had happened did not match the version Andrew Schade wrote that was published in the O-W Enterprise on June 25, a few days after the incident. I wanted to find out what really happened to Phil.
You see, when I was growing up, my best playmate was my Uncle Roger, who was 10 years older than I. My uncle had Down Syndrome and was raised at home by my grandparents rather than institutionalized as most children with developmental disabilities were in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, and 70s. I was his best playground protector, and we remained very close until his death nine years ago at the age of 66. I simply cannot abide the idea of a person like my uncle or Phil being bullied and treated badly.
Alderman Mark Hanson seems to think that someone in city government wanted me to “get” Andrew Schade and has been spreading that story. He asked me a few months ago if the rumor was true. I was shocked and told him then and am stating again that was a lie. No one has suggested such a thing to me, ever. Not Mayor Heggemeier, not Tim Swiggum, not Terri Ernst. Or, for that matter, not Mel Lorence, or Dan Tolzmann, or Mary Lynn Kiviko, or Dennis Lulloff, or Patrick Pfeffer, or even Mark Hanson himself.
Two days after the last council meeting, I went to Madison to a seminar put on by the Department of Justice about the state’s open meetings law and open records law. Ironically, I had signed up in early June for the class, before the encounter Phil had with Police Chief Schade and Officer John Stubbe.
It was a good refresher for me and reinforced the following facts.
Did you know that anyone can make such a request? Any of the several people who witnessed all or part of the incident could have done so. You can go to the Department of Justice web site if you want to download and print your own copy of the open records law and compliance guide. You can, as I did, sign up for a seminar to learn more.
Here is one quote from the seminar I attended: The public records law “shall be construed in every instance with a presumption of complete public access, consistent with the conduct of public business. The denial of public access generally is contrary to the public interest, and only in an exceptional case may access be denied.” (Wis. Stat. 19.31.)
Three objectives of the public records law are to “shed light on workings of government and acts of public officers and employees, assist members of the public in becoming an informed electorate, and serve a basic tenet of our democratic system by providing opportunity for public oversight.”
When I first spoke with Chief Schade on the telephone a few days after I filed my open records request, he told me that a state statute would prevent him from giving me a copy of the video. When I spoke to him a few days before I was permitted to go to his office to watch the video, he told me I was “lucky” to be able to see it, because it was scheduled to be erased from the computer since he didn’t need it for filing charges against Phil. When I was at his office to see the first version of the video, he told me that my records request was not properly filed, and that it needed to be in a “very specific format.”
However, all of those things were untrue. In fact, a written request is not required. “‘Magic words’ are not required. A request which reasonably describes the information or record requested is sufficient.” No specific form is required by the public records law. Under the public records law, an authority may not destroy a record until at least 60 days after denial or until related litigation is completed. And “the material input and the material produced as a product of a computer program is subject to the right of inspection and copying.”
So, you see, there is absolutely no reason for Police Chief Andrew Schade to have delayed giving me a good and valid copy of the video. Period.
As far as my own two calls to City Attorney James Ward, the first was to verify that Chief Schade would not be allowed to delete the video, as he had threatened to do. The second was to tell him that Chief Schade had stated to me after I first saw the video that he was still planning to erase the video.
You need to ask yourselves, or perhaps the police chief, WHY he delayed, WHY he lied to me, WHY he claimed that Officer Stubbe must have accidentally left the microphone in the squad car, WHY he miraculously “found” the missing audio a few days later, claiming it had been missing from the video due to equipment breakdowns (equipment which it is his duty to maintain), WHY he then tried to pass off an amateurishly hacked video as the real deal? What was he trying to hide? What was he afraid I might see or hear?
And now, why does Alderman Pfeffer keep saying that there was nothing on the video when in the clean copy, Andrew Schade can clearly be heard saying to John Stubbe — and I quote: “Did you see I gave him a shot to the abs? I’m sure that didn’t feel very good.”
I have one last point o make. The police chief has tried to make a big point of the fact that some unnamed juveniles, who have not yet been charged with making a false police report, said that Phil had a gun, and so they had to treat him as if he did have a gun. However, in Officer Stubbe’s official report, he says that he immediately recognized Phil and knew of his cognitive, physical, and speech disabilities.
While I do understand that they needed to be wary of the possibility that Phil might have a firearm, I question whether it was necessary to treat him as roughly as they did. Of course, Phil also had no police record and was not a registered gun owner. That information would have been quickly available to the police officers via their computers prior to their confrontation with him.
I am writing here, speaking for Phil Goerl, and for those witnesses who were horrified by what they observed and were afraid to speak about it publicly but were willing to tell their stories to me, and for Eric Petersen, who is a very brave man. And I would like to say thank-you to Jackie Reinke, who has been looking out for her friend Phil for years, and others in the community, like Gail Muehlbauer, who have also been quietly going about doing God’s work and taking care of one of “the least of these,” our brother Phil.