Sullivan: ‘It’s time to heal the wounds’
By John Faucher
The Village of Hortonville Police Commission has found Police Chief Michael Sullivan culpable on some elements of charges brought against him, but not all of them.
On Feb. 15, the commission disciplined Sullivan with what it called “substantial suspension” totaling eight weeks.
The suspension order of two consecutive weeks without pay began Feb. 16, and the remaining six weeks will be held in abeyance for two years from the date of the order.
Sullivan has been on administrative leave since late October after allegations were made that he made inappropriate comments, used a statewide police database for personal use, mishandled employee rights, discussed his investigation after being told not to, and lied to village officials in the course of the investigation.
The village formally filed the charges Nov. 17.
The Commission held evidentiary hearings on Dec. 21-22.
The village’s attorney James R. Macy filed closing arguments on Jan. 13, which called for the dismissal of Sullivan.
Sullivan’s attorney Greg Gill Sr. filed closing arguments on Jan. 27.
Macy’s rebuttal on behalf of the village was filed with the commission on Feb. 3.
The police commission then met in closed session on Feb. 6 and Feb. 9 to deliberate and consult with its legal counsel Scott Herrick.
The commission again met in closed session on Feb. 14 before issuing its decision and order dated Feb. 15.
The commission found that evidence sustained the charges on some but not all counts.
Based on the evidence presented, the commission found the chief did not disclose confidential information, and that he did not lie during the investigation.
They did find that he made inappropriate comments, used the statewide database system for personal use, mishandled matters related to employee rights, and discussed matters during the investigation after being told not to.
The commission also determined that the chief was given a fair process and was not treated with bias or discrimination by the village.
They did, however conclude that the fairness of Sullivan’s treatment was “undermined by the absence of prior supervisory admonishment in the course of performance reviews and evaluations appearing in our record.”
The commission noted that as recently as Sullivan’s evaluation for 2016, he received highly favorable ratings, including ratings in areas closely related to the content of the Statement of Charges. They did not see indication in the record of any “earlier admonishment or program of correction.”
“Such evaluations do not license subsequent misconduct but do suggest that an avenue was available to address much of the misconduct which is alleged here,” the Hortonville Police Commission stated.
“In this case we received a clear recommendation of termination from the Complainant [village], but our consideration of the Chief’s admirable record of service, our confident anticipation of his renewed and improved leadership, and our judgment of the best interests of the department and our community cause us to temper the penalty we impose.”
Sullivan’s remaining six weeks of suspension is contingent on non-recurrence of any of the charges or retaliation against any person in connection with the case.
“We have confidence moving forward that the Chief can now lead and our officers can follow,” the commission stated.
During the course of the investigation, hearings and deliberations, Sullivan said he received numerous letters of support from community members and many fellow law enforcement colleagues in surrounding communities.
Sullivan also noted a petition that circulated in the village with more than 100 names on it supporting him.
Last week before the commission released its decision, Chief Sullivan told the Press Star that he was ready to hear a decision.
“I admit I made mistakes and I won’t make those mistakes again,” he said. “There are good officers down there that got brought into this, but let’s move on. I hope the commission makes that decision,” Sullivan said.
“There are no winners in a situation like this. There is none. A situation like this creates a lot of animosity, many questions. In it, we all feel threatened. It blindsides everybody. The village has really good officers and I feel really bad that they had to go through this,” said Sullivan.
“I hold no ill will towards the officers. I am one of them. We need to get back to the way we are supposed to operate as a professional entity.”
“It will take time.”
In a follow-up conversation with the Press-Star after learning of the commission’s decision to suspend and not terminate, Sullivan said he was happy with the outcome, though he realized, “It will take time to heal the wounds.”
“Really what it comes down to is communication somehow lapsed, and that’s what I have to establish for those officers to create that trust factor again. Moreover, it goes beyond just between the officers and me. There are individuals out there that feel slighted and I am going to have to reach out to them and communicate with them.”
“They need to know I am here to help them, and I will work to re-establish that professional relationship,” Sullivan said.
“I’m confident this unfortunate situation can be put behind us.”
He said for starters he would need to have meetings with officers, and that he would ask the Public Safety chairperson to sit in on those meetings.
“We will work on getting all of our concerns out on the same level, and I am confident we can go back to acting and working like a team again,” said Sullivan.
Reaction to the commission’s decision
A handful of village residents attended a Village Board meeting on Feb. 16 to express they felt the chief’s punishment was too lenient.
Lu Visocky, a resident of the village who has had both personal and professional interactions with Sullivan, said she felt she may be subject to personal retaliation because she has spoken out against him.
She urged the board to appeal the police commission’s decision.
Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, addressed the board.
“Chief Sullivan was found to have abused his authority, used taxpayer resources for personal reason, and violated a direct order,” said Palmer. “For any police commission to make such a finding and only impose a two-week suspension is outrageous.”
Palmer urged the village board to ask the police commission to reconsider its determination and alternatively file an appeal in circuit court.
The village board scheduled a closed session meeting on Monday, Feb. 20 to confer with legal counsel regarding possible litigation surrounding last week’s police commission decision. On Tuesday Feb. 21, Village Administrator Diane Wessel said the board did not take any formal action after convening back into open session.