A vocational college in La Crosse, Wisconsin, spent more than $100,000 investigating one of its instructors for allegedly saying the local police department was "full of racists."
The school is Western Technical College (WTC). The instructor is Nicole Miller, who teaches at the college's law enforcement academy; she is also a former La Crosse County sheriff's deputy and former correctional officer. Miller purportedly made the comment while warning a potential recruit against taking a job at the La Crosse department.
When then–Police Chief Ronald Tischer heard about this, he demanded an investigation. The ensuing probe, in which Tischer also enlisted the Wisconsin Department of Justice, lasted more than a year and ended with Miller being cleared of any wrongdoing. But it has cost the public college $103,445 so far in bills to a consulting firm and law firm that it hired to handle the matter, according to figures provided by WTC.
The case shows how powerful local officials, like a police chief, can leverage their influence to punish critics. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a First Amendment advocacy group, says that investigating an instructor for giving her professional opinion to a student has a chilling effect on free speech.
"Students rely on the ability of instructors to share honest views about the opportunities available to them," says Adam Steinbaugh, the director of FIRE's individual rights defense program. "That's true whether it's a student asking about an opportunity at an academic program, a private company, or a government agency. Investigations into protected speech—such as opining on a police department's culture or actions—will chill speech, to the detriment of students."
The imbroglio started on August 13, 2018, when Tischer emailed the WTC president complaining that he had heard that Miller had been telling students that the La Crosse Police Department was "full of racists" and "you shouldn't work there."
"As you can imagine, I am outraged at this comment," Tischer wrote. "The La Crosse Police Department does more than any other police department in the state to attract and hire a diverse workforce."
A week later Tischer sent an email to officials at the Wisconsin Department of Justice about a "significant problem" that had been uncovered at WTC. "We would like to meet to discuss our options and ensure this instructor or any other instructors are never allowed to unjustly defame our department," Tischer wrote.
In October 2018, WTC officials met with Tischer and representatives from the Department of Justice. The college laid out its initial investigation, which found there wasn't evidence to support Tischer's claims that Miller had said the department was "full of racists."
Tischer then complained that the investigation hadn't interviewed enough people about Miller's alleged bias against the La Crosse Police Department, and he accused her of making several other disparaging remarks about the department and individual officers. In a follow-up email, Tischer suggested that the college could also be sued for her comments.
"Western Technical College is culpable for Ms. Miller's words and bears the burden for her actions," Tischer wrote on November 5, 2018, email. "The term Vicarious Liability comes to mind" (emphasis in original).
Tischer demanded that the college remove his name from its criminal justice advisory council and said he would be asking the state for a permanent waiver for the La Crosse Police Department to avoid sending any future officers to the WTC's law enforcement academy.
The college, at the request of Tischer and the Wisconsin Department of Justice, hired a law firm and consulting firm to conduct an outside investigation.
While the investigation was taking place, several other La Crosse Police Department officers reported that Miller had made disparaging remarks about the department, each of which added additional time and costs to the investigation.
In November of this year, after conducting 24 interviews with supposed witnesses, the firms released their final report, finding that there was not sufficient evidence to substantiate any of the allegations.
"Any discussions regarding race were private conversations and the alleged statements 'full of racists' and 'you shouldn't work there' could not be substantiated," the report stated. "In addition, the main witness related to these allegations stated that Ms. Miller had no malicious intent and that she was looking out for him."
As for the other alleged disparaging remarks, the report concluded that "rumormongering was a factor in this matter and may have worsened this situation."
One thing the report didn't delve into was whether the La Crosse Police Department was in fact full of racists.
Anthony Clark, one of only two black officers at the La Crosse Police Department at the time, alleged that he was subjected to persistent racial harassment by officers and supervisors. Clark's suit claimed black officers were referred to as "jigaboo," that he was called a "house dog," and that bananas were put in his locker.
After Clark's complaint went public, he claimed the La Crosse Police Department retaliated by papering him with disciplinary investigations and reprimands.
"It became clear that following the public notice of my charges, the city has fly-specked my records, video and audio, searching for infractions and criticized actions which are routine for other white officers in the department," Clark wrote in a follow-up discrimination complaint.
The city did not admit any wrongdoing as part of the terms of its settlement with Clark, but it agreed to purge his disciplinary record.
The only black La Crosse officer who worked with Clark, Nathan Poke, filed a another discrimination lawsuit this January, alleging that he was retaliated against and ultimately fired for trying to report misconduct by a white officer. In a sworn deposition, he repeated many of Clark's claims about the department. He said another officer referred to him and his music, or anything related to black culture generally, as "jigabooish."
A spokesperson for Western Technical College said that, as of now, the La Crosse Police Department has not sent any recruits back to the school. Tischer is now the police chief of Payson, Arizona.