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Thursday, April 17, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 46.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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CITIZEN

Wisconsin Assembly Republicans abandon families of fallen police officers

Craig Birkholz was, by every account, an extraordinary young man, a fact that makes the pain of this loss even more pronounced.
Craig Birkholz was, by every account, an extraordinary young man, a fact that makes the pain of this loss even more pronounced.
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There is a contract you enter into with society when you become a police officer.

You sign up for the job with the full understanding that you will never be wealthy. You accept the fact that you will work nights, weekends, and holidays. You will work in the blistering heat of the summer and the Arctic chill of the winter. You understand that there will be family events cancelled at the last minute due to a chaotic work schedule. Little League games and piano recitals will be missed. You will consistently see the worst that human existence has to offer. You know that, statistically, you will die younger due to heart disease and stress-related illnesses than the average person.

Finally, you understand fully that your spouse or partner may at some point receive a visit from very somber people in the middle of the night, a visit that starts with the words "we have some bad news."

The deal with a contract, though, is that obligations extend to both parties. In return for the sacrifices listed above, police officers have a right to expect certain things. A wage that allows you to raise a family in modest surroundings. Patrol cars that don't explode when rear-ended. Body armor that stops bullets most of the time. The ability to take your child to the doctor when she is sick.

And if fate determines that we don't return home one evening, we expect a big funeral. Really big, with scores of squad cars, officers in dress uniforms, and citizens lining the streets. This may sound shallow or trite, but trust me, it isn't. I didn't understand the importance of this ritual before I became a cop, and even then I didn't truly understand it until I became a father. It simply boils down to this: if I am killed in the line of duty, I want my wife and children to see that my community appreciates the sacrifice they had to make.

However, the contract does not end after the funeral. It used to be that we could count on society to take care of our families to some degree: a ceremony every year. A name etched into a memorial. A politician praising the sacrifice of a profession undervalued by society. Special death benefits for the families of officers killed in the line of duty. Not enough to make our families wealthy, but enough to keep them out of poverty. Maybe reduced or free state college tuition for our kids.

The contract.

I had the sad honor of attending the memorial service for one of my fallen brothers last year. Police officer Craig Birkholz, age 28, was shot to death on March 20, 2011, in Fond du Lac. Craig was responding to a domestic violence incident gone bad, and officers on the scene were calling for help. Craig was gunned down as he approached the residence to help his coworkers. Another responding officer, Ryan Williams, and his canine partner were also shot and seriously injured.

There were several unbearably bitter ironies to this incident. The first was that Craig was a decorated veteran of the United States Army who had survived combat deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan. He survived in a war zone only to be killed on the soil of his own nation. This is almost too heartbreaking to think about. The other bitter irony is that Craig was murdered by another combat veteran.

This incident devastated those of us in Wisconsin's law enforcement community. It is remarkable how much you can grieve for a man you never met. I and my coworkers cried freely at Craig's memorial service. He was, by every account, an extraordinary young man, a fact that makes the pain of this loss even more pronounced. A wonderful, happy, committed, compassionate and principled young man cut down in the prime of his life.

The other tragedy is that Craig left behind the love of his life, Ashley. I can't begin to fathom the depth of her loss. A young couple with hopes, plans and dreams, all cut short on March 20, 2011.

Nothing can take that pain away. Nothing can soothe that ache. There are, however, things society can do to try to hold up its end of the contract.

In the Wisconsin Legislative session of 2009-2010, a bill passed both the Senate and Assembly providing health insurance to the families of firefighters killed in the line of duty. For reasons unknown to me, police officers were not included in this legislation.

However, in May 2011, a bipartisan effort led by Republican Sen. Van Wanggaard and Democratic Senator Bob Jauch sought to remedy this. Senate Bill 18 added the health insurance protection to the surviving spouses and children of Wisconsin's fallen law enforcement officers, retroactively. The bill passed the Senate on May 17, 2011, by unanimous vote.

In August 2011, Ashley Birkholz attended a hearing in front of the Wisconsin Assembly to discuss SB 18. She wrote a letter to the legislators, read by Fond du Lac officer Jeff Harbridge on her behalf. She told them about what the legislation meant to her and the families of other fallen officers. She was joined by Charlette Nennig, whose husband, LeRoy, was killed in the line of duty with the Sheboygan County Sheriff's Office in 2004. Also testifying that day was Jenny Van Handel, whose husband, Heath, a DNR pilot, was killed in 2009 in a plane crash while assisting in fighting a forest fire near Marshfield.

On multiple occasions, Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, explained to the Wisconsin Legislature how much this bill meant to the brave men and women of Wisconsin law enforcement. Nobody can claim that the Assembly members didn't know the importance of this legislation, because they heard about it firsthand from the very people who need the assistance this bill would provide.

On November 1, 2011, the Wisconsin Assembly was supposed to take up this measure, and passage would have certainly resulted in Gov. Scott Walker signing the legislation. On that same day, the Assembly was scheduled to pass a resolution honoring the sacrifice of Craig Birkholz. The Birkholz family was supposed to go from the ceremony honoring Craig to watching the health insurance bill pass. It would have been a positive day among many filled with sorrow for this family.

Few could have predicted what happened next.

At the last minute, the Republican legislators in control of the Assembly blocked the bill from being brought to a vote. Blocked the bill that unanimously passed the Senate. From what I have discovered, the Birkholz family was given the choice of coming to the Capitol for the resolution only, but understandably opted not to attend. In a horrendous display of partisan politics in what should have been a unifying issue, John Jagler, spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, called SB 18 an "unfunded mandate" on local governments that "isn't ready to become law." "We're looking at a more fiscally responsible way of funding it," he added.

These officers, and their families, have given everything in service to the people of the state of Wisconsin. Lives are lost, and countless others are shattered. The least we could do for them, on behalf of a grateful public, is to give the survivors the peace of mind of health care. It doesn't seem like a lot to ask, but the Assembly Republicans apparently believe it wouldn't be "fiscally responsible." Since that unconscionable decision last year, there has been no progress made in convincing the Assembly Republicans to bring the bill to the floor for a vote.

The contract broken.

To the people who blocked this bill: It isn't enough to attend the funerals of fallen officers in your districts, or memorial services during Police Week. It isn't enough to get teary-eyed when the bagpipes play, and to talk about how grateful the citizens of Wisconsin are for this ultimate sacrifice. Your words are hollow, because your actions have broken the contract. These families are trying to put their shattered lives back together, yet all you can talk about is fiscal responsibility. For the sake of decency, please do not attend another officer's funeral, or another police memorial service, until you make this right. You are not welcome to share in our grief until that happens.

It is National Police Week, a solemn week when we honor our fallen and remind the survivors that their sacrifice is not forgotten. On Friday, May 18, citizens and officers alike will gather at noon for the Wisconsin Law Enforcement Memorial ceremony on the Capitol Square. On that date, Craig Birkholz's name will be unveiled on the memorial, etched in stone among Wisconsin's other fallen heroes. Please consider taking the time on that day, or any other, to send an email to your representative in the Wisconsin Assembly. Spend five minutes of your time serving those who sacrificed their lives serving us. Demand of your legislator that SB18 be brought to a vote in the next legislative session.

Tell them it's part of the contract.


Brian Austin is a Dane County resident and police officer. He previously served as an Assistant District Attorney in Milwaukee and Kenosha counties, received his degree from UW Law School, and is a political and labor activist. He publishes Badger Blue, Times Two, and the original version of this commentary was published here. "Citizen" is an opinion series that presents the views of the author. If you would like to reply, please comment or consider submitting an op-ed in response.

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