WISN 12 News would like you to know that fallen Milwaukee Police officer Matthew Rittner was not the hero he was made out to be. At least, that is the distinct impression one gets after reading a now-deleted report featured prominently on the station's Facebook page:
A Milwaukee police officer who died after being shot Wednesday morning was among several officers named last month in a federal civil rights lawsuit that was filed by a man who suffered epileptic seizures in the back of a squad car following his arrest.
Rittner and several other officers, the lawsuit alleges, "lied in their paperwork to cover up what happened during the takedown of Rafael Rosales and celebrated his arrest" for carjacking following a high-speed chase in August of 2017. The story notes that Rittner himself "was not disciplined by the department," but another officer on the scene, Michael Gasser pleaded guilty to battery and disorderly conduct for kicking a handcuffed Rosales in the head while Rosales was handcuffed.
Once the Milwaukee Police Department learned of this story, it took the extraordinary step of publicly condemning it in a press release issued late Thursday night, saying it found "this article to be tasteless, classless and insulting to the family of Officer Rittner, the entire MPD and all those who mourn his loss.
"Out of respect to Officer Rittner’s family members and loved ones, the Milwaukee Police Department requested to have this article removed from WISN 12’s website as soon as it was brought to our attention," Milwaukee Police Sergeant Sheronda Grant wrote in the release.
Channel 12 News Director Ben Hart complied, and removed the article before posting an apology on the station's Facebook page:
WISN 12 News would like to apologize for the insensitivity of the timing of a post on this Facebook Page earlier today. Officer Matthew Rittner has had a decorated and exemplary record as a public servant in Milwaukee with MPD and abroad in the military. That particular story in question has been taken down. We are reviewing our internal systems to ensure more care is taken in the future so nothing like this happens again.
Not only was the story insensitive, its implication (that Rittner engaged in improper or even criminal conduct by falsifying paperwork) was completely false.
As Sergeant Grant noted in her press release:
While it is factually correct that Officer Rittner responded to the August 2017 vehicle pursuit with several MPD officers and other law enforcement agencies, his role was thoroughly investigated by the Internal Affairs Division and he was cleared of any wrong doing. Furthermore, several hours of body-worn camera video along with squad video were reviewed pertaining to that incident and the officer responsible for the violent attack was criminally charged and is no longer a member of our agency. In fact, after the vehicle pursuit Officer Rittner was one of the first officers to assist the defendant who was suffering from a medical crisis.
In other words, Rittner was actually something of a hero in an admittedly rather villainous arrest. Yet Channel 12 didn't bother to report--or possibly didn't bother to even seek--a side of the story other than that provided by the convicted carjacker now suing the Milwaukee Police Department.
Not surprisingly, Rittner's friends are beside themselves that a news organization would go out of its way to tarnish his name just hours after his tragic death.
"As a close friend of Matt Rittner, I felt it necessary to speak on his behalf today as i heard about this outrageous attempt by Channel 12 News to portray him as anything other than the hero that he was both for his community and his country," said Adam, a caller to News/Talk 1130's Jay Weber Show who did not wish to reveal his last name. "I do not see the value in a story like this, especially so soon. We are still in the grieving process. We need time to let this man go out as a hero and we haven't even gotten to the point where we are able to show our respects and bury this man."
Adam further chided Channel 12 for running the "type of story that pulls us apart, as a community and a people" by using Rittner's inclusion in the lawsuit to further what he sees as an anti-police narrative.
And, really, what else could explain the editorial decision to run a story like this? As Officer Rittner's family, friends, and brothers and sisters in blue mourn him along with most of Milwaukee, what else would possess one of Milwaukee's leading news organizations to run a story that implies that Rittner is somehow not quite as worthy of our mourning and respect?
What other objective did Channel 12 have in running that story? Had Rittner been disciplined in connection with the incident, then it could have been argued that reporting on it would have painted a fuller picture of Rittner's career, but he was never disciplined at all. Channel 12 instead ran with an unproven allegation against him that flies in the face of all available evidence showing that Rittner acted as professionally as possible during the Rosales arrest.
This was journalism (a term here used very loosely) at its very worst; an attempt at sullying the reputation of someone who can no longer defend himself through the use of nothing more than accusations and innuendo.
In so doing, Channel 12 proved only that it, not Officer Rittner, is not worthy of Milwaukee's admiration and respect.