Record of accused Superior officer portrays 'average' career, trainer says
In his 15-year career there have been 46 documented incidents where Superior Police Officer George Gothner has used force on an individual. The stack of use of force reports averaging five pages each -- more than 200 total -- is nearly an inch thick and helps give a more detailed history of the officer now facing allegations of police brutality after the Jan. 5 arrest of Natasha Lancour, 28, of Superior outside Keyport Liquor and Lounge.
Gothner has received letters of commendation, meritorious and distinguished service ribbons, including a citation for protecting a fellow officer. But he also was reprimanded once.
However, Superior Police Chief Charles LaGesse said there is nothing unusual about that number of incidents over that length of time.
"That many use of force reports over 15 years, in my mind, doesn't raise a red flag at all," said Eric Anderson, law enforcement director and associate dean at Chippewa Valley Technical College, a longtime trainer in police defense and arrest tactics, and former Madison
police officer. "That's a pretty average career."
Force comes into play anytime an officer handcuffs someone or escorts a person using hands on the upper arm and wrist -- a very low level of force, Anderson said. He said when he worked in Madison, anytime force rose above an escort hold, reporting was required.
In Superior, officers are required to report use of force if a suspect is injured, any weapon is used or if a striking technique is used, LaGesse said. Then, the incident is reviewed to determine if force was appropriate and followed department policy.
The revised policies aren't very different from those the officers had been trained on, LaGesse said. He said when the policies were revised, they were sent out to officers with a quiz to determine whether officers understood the revised policies.
Gothner acted appropriately in 40 instances, according to available records. Reports reviewed did not include the Jan. 5 incident, which remains under investigation as Bayfield County District Attorney Fred Bourg reviews the case.
Of the 46 incidents in which Gothner used force, three 1999 reports were unavailable; records were not retained, said Deputy Chief Matthew Markon.
Five reports were redacted; however, two provided sufficient information to conclude Gothner's use of force was reasonable and consistent with training. Only one redacted report in which reviewers' comments were withheld involved Gothner alone.
The reports were redacted, not because the officer did anything wrong, but because they contained "coaching" from a supervisor, such as a critique of the way a report was written," LaGesse said.
State law allows supervisory opinions and recommendations to be withheld "because supervisors might be less than candid if they know that the documents are subject to public disclosure," City Attorney Frog Prell said.
Prell was consulted because documents requested by the Superior Telegram are subject to special consideration under Wisconsin open record law, which provides the subject of the request time to seek a court injunction to block release of personnel records. Gothner waived that right.
According to records in Gothner's personnel file, he has been recognized for service with two letters of commendation, and meritorious and distinguished service ribbons issued by the Superior Police Department. He also was among Superior police officers recognized by Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent in Charge Deborah Strebel Pierce for their roles in arresting Carlo Antonio Magliano, who was convicted of a 2002 robbery at Western National Bank in Duluth.
Gothner also was reprimanded once for using force to move a subject to a more private location using a wrist hold before arrest and using profanity directed at the subject. While reprimanded, it is among the 40 incidents in which the level of force used -- a Taser used at the time of arrest -- was determined reasonable and consistent with department training and policy.
According to the use of force reports:
"Whatever the level of threat that the suspect is displaying, that's the level of force that an officer is going to go to," Anderson said. "And they're trained on that; they're well-trained on that."
For example, Anderson said, if he was being charged by a violent suspect, he would meet that aggression with a level of force that would allow him to maintain control.
Only once in Gothner's career did that level of force involve using a firearm. In 2004, Gothner shot Corey Isaacson in the arm and leg. Officers were trying to locate Isaacson after he destroyed his father's home and threatened citizens. In the rampage, Isaacson charged toward officers wielding wooden clubs held in a striking position over his head.
Gothner received a distinguished service ribbon for his actions in the nonfatal shooting, which prevented an attack on former Superior Police Officer Brian Caron. A firearms review panel, which included a Duluth police sergeant and several Superior police supervisors, determined Gothner had less than 10 seconds to act.
"If we can talk a suspect into a pair of handcuffs or talk them into the back seat of a squad car without going hands on with them, that's always the best option," Anderson said. "It prevents us from having to use any level of physical force and it prevents injuries with the officer and it prevents injury with the suspect."
The reports show suspects were injured -- self-inflicted in one case, and likely during a fight before arrest in another -- in eight incidents in which Gothner used force. Seven incidents resulted in a Superior police officer injury.
"We don't go out with the intent of wanting to get into a fight with somebody," Anderson said. "The liability is too high. The potential for injury to the officer or the suspect is too high."
Unfortunately, not every suspect is going to comply with verbal commands, Anderson said.
"We prefer to have arrests where subjects are compliant with our commands on arrest, where force is not necessary, and that's what happens in the vast majority of arrests," LaGesse said. Superior police data show officers used force in less than 1 percent of all arrests between 2005 and 2013.
"Any time an officer is forced to use force to any degree, it shows that they don't have a compliant subject," LaGesse said.