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Judge upholds firing of Hudson policeman

A county judge found the Hudson Police and Fire Commission followed proper procedure in firing a police sergeant accused of using excessive force.

In a decision filed Feb. 19, Judge Edward Vlack denied Robert D. Oehmke's appeal of the commission's 2006 decision to terminate him.

According to background information in the decision, in November 2006, Lt. Paul Larson, who was acting police chief, filed charges against Oehmke.

The commission held public hearings Dec. 12-15, 2006. A few days later it issued a decision sustaining four of seven charges and fired Oehmke.

Those who testified at the hearings included a bar employee who witnessed the incident and four other police officers, one of whom is a defense tactics instructor.

According to the commission's decision, Oehmke used improper and excessive force when he "grabbed (a woman) by her hair and forcibly put her on the top of the hood of a squad car after (she) called Oehmke a crooked cop." The woman, who testified in the PFC hearings, was just over five feet tall and weighed about 90 pounds.

The decision also found Oehmke used excessive force when he struck a handcuffed man with a closed fist while holding a flashlight and when he kicked the same man, who was handcuffed and in the backseat of a squad car. The PFC determined Oehmke knowingly submitted a false incident report about his arrest of the man and woman.

When he filed the civil case asking the county court to review the PFC decision, Oehmke argued evidentiary and credibility issues. In an earlier decision, Vlack said the issues would be limited to whether the PFC acted in excess of its jurisdiction and whether it proceeded on correct theory of law. Both sides submitted briefs. Oral arguments were heard Dec. 17, 2008.

In his initial brief, Oehmke didn't contend that the PFC exceeded its jurisdiction. Therefore, wrote the judge, the issue to be determined was whether the PFC proceeded on a correct theory of law. Oehmke argued that the PFC was wrong in considering a 2003 incident in which he alleged punched a handcuffed subject three times in the chest.

The judge found that since the PFC was not a party to the grievance agreement relating to the 2003 incident, it could properly consider that incident.

Oehmke argued the PFC improperly relied on Hudson Police Department rules and a 2003 memo from former Police Chief Richard Trende prohibiting closed-fist hand strikes against handcuffed subjects and telling officers to use the minimum amount of force necessary to accomplish an arrest.

Oehmke argued that the closed-fist rule was unreasonable and inconsistent with Wisconsin Defense and Arrest Tactics. But the PFC disagreed, finding that it is in violation of DAAT standards. In any case, the judge said the PFC proceeded correctly in considering the HPD rule prohibiting closed-fist strikes against handcuffed persons.

"It is clear from the DAAT that the HPD had the authority to adopt its own policy regarding the use of force, even if more restrictive than Wisconsin law," concluded Vlack.

Whether or not the charges warranted termination and an evaluation of credibility and sufficiency of evidence aren't issues the county court can review, according to Vlack's decision.

"Even in statutory review, the circuit court must defer to the PFC's findings and credibility determinations because the PFC, unlike the circuit court, had the opportunity to observe first-hand the witnesses and their demeanor and to gauge the persuasiveness of the testimony," wrote Vlack.