Trisha Stratman, a former La Crosse County Sheriff’s Department deputy who was let go following her role in a crash that killed a Holmen High School student, is to be reinstated, an arbitrator's ruling states.
On July 20, 2010, Stratman had been driving more than 90-miles-per-hour in a Sheriff's squad car on Highway 35 and County Road OT when she struck a vehicle driven by 16-year-old Brandon Jennings. Jennings was not wearing a seatbelt, was ejected from the vehicle and was pronounced dead a short time later at a local hospital.
Stratman was responding to a call for assistance from a Holmen police officer about a bar fight with her lights and sirens on. On July 20, 2010, Stratman was placed on administrative leave.
The arbitrator, appointed by the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission (WERC), found that La Crosse County did not have proper cause under Article 2.01 for terminating Stratman. The ruling states "the grievance is sustained and the remedy is, as follows:"
1. Stratman is to be reinstated forthwith and returned to duty, subject only to passing a fitness for duty examination and satisfactorily undergoing remedial Emergency Vehicle Operation and Control training and any other necessary training;
2. Stratman's termination is reduced to a thirty-day suspension, without pay, effective October 9, 2011, which is to be reflected in her personnel file.;
3. Stratman is to receive backpay from October 9, 2011 to the date of her reinstatement at the rate of pay she was earning as of her separation from employment, to be offset by the thirty-day suspension and any income she has earned from other sources in the interim
The arbitrator's report states La Crosse County Sheriff Steve Helgeson ordered an investigation of the incident, but decided he and Chief Deputy Jeff Wolf would conduct an internal investigation instead of following department policy that requires its Accident Review Board to investiagate the crash.
On August 20, 2011, La Crosse County Sheriff Steve Helgeson discharged Stratman. Her final day of paid status was on October 8, 2011. On November 10, 2010, a jury found Stratman not guilty of homicide by neglicent use of a vehicle.
The arbitrator's report states Sheriff Helgeson issued a termination letter to Stratman, which, in part, stated: "In the end, I could not ignore the fact that as a result of your misconduct a young boy lost his life. Any form of discipline short of termination would be inappropriate in light of the effect of this event on the victim's family and friends, the community, and the La Crosse County Sheriff's Department."
The arbitrator states he found it "unfortunate that the Sheriff decided to bypass the Accident Review Board and conducted the investigation himself."
The report found that other cases involving deputies with the La Crosse County Sheriff's Department that were involved in high-speed crashes were reviewed by the Accident Review Board. Those cases did not involve fatal crashes, but the deputies at fault were issued written reprimand or had their probationary period extended. The report found that Stratman was entitled to the same degree of objectivity as any other deputy.
"The Sheriff, however, characterized her [Stratman's] actions as intentionally reckless, with which I disagree," the arbitrator's report states. "I am convinced that she [Stratman] was aware of the risks involved with responding at high speed under the conditions and weighed those risks involved with responding at high speed under the conditions and weighed those risks against the seriousness of the emergency. Her judgement was flawed, and a tragedy resulted, but I believe she was trying to do her job, and while one can find fault with her decisions, I do not believe one can say she acted with the heedless disregard with which she was charged."
Jim Palmer, the executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association says the timeline for Stratman's reinstatement will be worked through between her, her attorney and La Crosse County. Palmer says the county can appeal the decision to Circuit Court but the standard for proof is very high.
"The county would have to show that the case's arbitrator acted in an arbitrary manner and that is very difficult to do. Ms. Stratman has indicated she plans to return to active duty for the La Crosse County Sheriff's Department as a result of the award after she completes all of the necesssary certifications and training summed up in the award." Stratman was not available for comment at this time.
La Crosse County Sheriff Steve Helgeson is out of town. He tells News 8 he has not read the decision yet. La Crosse County Administrator Steve O'Malley told News 8 there was no warning that the decision was coming out on Monday. "The county needs to review the information and futher assess its options moving forward and have no further comments at this time."