Three members of the Milwaukee Police Department knowingly circumvented the department’s COVID-19 vaccination directives and provided falsely authenticated vaccination statuses to a federal government agency, an investigation carried out by the Milwaukee Inspector General has found.
The now-retired Lt. Branko Stojsavljevic instructed then-Detective Lori Rom and Police Officer Natalie Cruz to respond with “yes” on questions confirming their COVID-19 vaccination statuses to meet the requirements for in-person, federal government law enforcement training in Georgia last year.
The cost for attending the training was covered by the Southeastern Wisconsin Threat Analysis Center with thousands of dollars in grant funds from the Wisconsin Department of Justice.
“I was just outraged that these leaders — because that’s what they are, a lieutenant, a detective and a police officer — would show so little integrity to our city and its people,” Ald. JoCasta Zamarripa said. “I’m just beside myself.”
As a result of the investigation into allegations into false statements about their vaccination statuses, Rom was suspended for 30 days and demoted to the rank of officer, which, according to Milwaukee police chief of staff Nick DeSiato, would entail a corresponding decrease in pay. Cruz was also suspended for 60 days.
They are both on appeal with the Fire and Police Commission, DeSiato told the committee.
While the investigation was open, Stojsavljevic went on leave on Feb. 7, 2022. On April 4, the Milwaukee Police Department’s Executive Command Staff received paperwork related to Stojsavljevic’s pending retirement, which was expected to begin May 14.
He retired before there was any discipline, DeSiato told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Whistleblower sets off investigation
In March 2021, the department’s then-Acting Chief of Police, Jeffrey Norman, issued a directive requiring staff members to show proof of their COVID-19 vaccinations for non-emergency work related to travel and travel training requests.
In May, Stojsavljevic suggested that Rom and Cruz register for the Protective Service Operations Training Program at Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.
In a text message to both Rom and Cruz, Stojsavljevic wrote: “Natalie they said they have your application. Lori, please fill out yours. They just ask if you have been vaccinated. Say yes.”
On each of their travel/training requests, the former lieutenant provided an electronic signature confirming that the two members were in compliance with the chief’s directive.
Rom and Cruz then attended the training in Glynco, Georgia, between June 6 and June 19, 2021.
During the investigation, Cruz said she felt compelled and forced to answer “yes” to the COVID-19 vaccination question, fearing retaliation for not having followed the command staff’s directive.
George Breed, who instructed the training in Georgia, noted prior to the interview that he had received a text message from Stojsavljevic asking: “Did someone from my department bother you regarding the PSOTP training and COVID?” Breed said no and asked whether he should have.
“No, just some bs. No worries. Thanks,” Stojsavljevic replied.
A formal investigation into a complaint submitted by a whistleblower began on Nov. 11, 2021.
The complaint alleged that Stojsavljevic downloaded a COVID-19 vaccination record card template and created two COVID-19 records for two members of the Milwaukee Police Department’s Intelligence Fusion Center so that they could meet the vaccination requirements needed to attend the training carried out by FLETC.
Following the investigation, City Inspector General Ronda Kohlheim recommended that management should consider disciplinary action for the three employees, up to and including being discharged from the Fusion Center, where they were positioned, and the department entirely.
She also suggested that management examine whether three individuals could face criminal charges, as well as possible legal action for the misuse of state grant funds.
“Sometimes I think people don’t necessarily see the importance of policies and procedures and having those controls in place,” Kohlheim told the committee. “When you don’t, that’s how you miss key steps and this was clearly a key step that was missed.”
“We just want to make sure that because we are public — we’re government — we want to make sure that we have that trust and that we’re not damaging the police department’s image,” she said.
Ald. Khalif J. Rainey recalled the recent case of a Milwaukee police officer accused of tuition reimbursement fraud, whose resignation ended the internal police investigation before it had reached its conclusion.
Rainey suggested that the actions of Stojsavljevic, Rom and Cruz were similarly serious.
“What’s the difference between these two incidents?” Rainey asked DeSiato.
“While I appreciate the comment and the comparison,” DeSiato told Rainey. “I think it’d be inappropriate to publicly discuss that since it’s still open and that would impact the whole phase of the discipline process before the Fire and Police Commission.”
The findings of the investigation are set to go before the Fire and Police Commission Sept. 21 and 22.
Contact Vanessa Swales at 414-308-5881 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Vanessa_Swales.