La Crosse’s police chief argues a La Crosse County judge jeopardized courtroom safety when she disarmed officers called to testify in a police battery case.
La Crosse County Circuit Judge Ramona Gonzalez at the start on Mark Topness’ trial on Tuesday for 10 crimes told three uniformed La Crosse police officers that they could not wear their firearms or duty belts in the courtroom.
“It was the first time I’ve ever been asked to disarm,” officer Ethan Purkapile said. “I was definitely concerned because it compromised my ability to protect the DA’s office staff, the jurors, the circuit court staff, Judge Gonzalez and myself.”
The judge argues that her policy, enforced only during jury trials, allows jurors to view police as “witnesses without distraction.”
“And sometimes guns can be a distraction,” she said.
Gonzalez also contends the policy protects jurors who suffered a traumatic experience with a firearm. A gun visible to jurors, she said, could be grounds for an appeal.
“How many court cases have been appealed due to an officer wearing a duty belt with a weapon exposed?” Police Chief Ron Tischer said. “I’ve never heard of one.”
At least one juror agreed with her policy, which does allow police to wear a firearm during trials if it’s concealed by clothing, Gonzalez said.
State Supreme Court rules allow each circuit judge or court commissioner to decide whether officers can carry weapons inside a courtroom on a case-by-case basis.
“This happens every time I have a jury,” said Gonzalez, who pointed out officers cannot carry firearms in federal courtrooms.
“We’re not in federal court,” Tischer said.
Circuit Judge Gloria Doyle did not disarm three uniformed officers who testified during a misdemeanor jury trial in her courtroom on Wednesday.
“I will evaluate on a case-by-case basis,” Doyle said.
The local bench in 2012 adopted a policy addressing officer firearms in courtrooms, although police would not discuss terms of the confidential agreement that requires judicial order to release. The police department maintains its followed policy and that a judge never before has disarmed a uniformed officer called to testify since the agreement.
“I believe there is general agreement that officers are permitted to carry firearms, the exception being in front of a jury,” Circuit Judge Scott Horne said. “The concern has been expressed regarding an intimidating atmosphere and that may be the most common circumstance in which weapons may not be permitted. For many years, they had been denied entirely.”
But emotionally charged courtrooms can be prone to violence and stripping an officer of a firearm presents serious safety issues, Tischer said. In 2015, La Crosse County Courthouse security confiscated more than 1,400 knives and more than 300 box cutters or razor blades.
“Purkapile had nothing to protect himself from a man who threatened to kill him,” Tischer said. “To take away their ability to protect themselves and others is a frightening thought.”
Topness, who has a criminal history, punched his roommate in the head before he fled from Purkapile on foot on Nov. 4, according to the complaint. He resisted arrest, spit on Purkapile before threatening the officer’s life and trying to kick him. The jury on Tuesday convicted him of nine charges, including attempted battery of a police officer.
Gonzalez ordered extra courtroom security for the trial, Tischer said. The sheriff’s department does not discuss security procedures but deputies regularly carry firearms during court hearings.
“You can never have just one person armed,” Tischer said. “When you take away all an officer’s tools, it puts everyone at a significant risk and you’re forcing them to potentially use a higher level of force than they would otherwise be able to use had they had all their equipment available to them.”
After Gonzalez’s order before the start of the trial, Purkapile said he left the courtroom to relay the information to the two officers waiting outside and notified his supervisor because removing his firearm while on duty is against department policy. Topness told the officer during a break in the trial that he would “burn in hell as a result of the testimony,” Purkapile said.
Police maintain they’re not looking for a fight with Gonzalez, but that they hope to work with her to develop a courtroom firearm policy that protects everyone’s safety and interests.
“The public is accustomed to seeing officers with duty belts and weapons,” police Capt. Troy Nedegaard said. “It’s abnormal to see us missing equipment.”
Arden Ross served on the jury for Tuesday and Wednesday’s trials in front of Gonzalez and Doyle. He said Gonzalez addressed potential jurors in Doyle’s trial, some of whom served during the Topness trial, to ask how they felt about unarmed officers testifying.
“I was much more comfortable during the (Topness) trial,” he said. “I thought they were more imposing (Wednesday). They had a gun.”
Topness faces a host of new charges after police arrested him about five hours after his trial for trying to break into an RV and car parked on South Fifth Avenue. He fled from officers into the basement of a house on South Sixth Street before threatening to kill police, according to reports.
Topness, 30, is jailed on a $2,500 cash bond, which he repeatedly called “excessive” during his court appearance Wednesday.