Inside the Warminster Police station eight years ago, Cpl. Michael Schmalz handcuffed a disruptive prisoner, dragged him out of his cell, and, with help from other officers, pushed him to the ground. He then struck him twice in the head, doused him with pepper spray, and knelt on his neck for 45 seconds, police records show.
Schmalz, 57, was fired after an internal investigation found that he used excessive force. He was also charged with simple assault, harassment, and tampering with public records, but was acquitted by a county judge and later had his criminal record expunged.
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Three years later, he went back to work as a police officer in Rockledge, a tiny borough on Montgomery County’s border with Northeast Philadelphia. In the years since, Schmalz has worked his way up the ranks, and is now second-in-command, in line to become the chief should his current boss retire.
In interviews, Schmalz’s former colleagues said they were stunned that he was able to gain another high-level position as a law enforcement officer. Schmalz, for his part, said the dismissal of the criminal charges proved his behavior wasn’t that egregious.
His case is emblematic of an issue that has gained national attention since the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis: Some officers, when fired for cause, have been able to return to the streets, issued new badges and authority by different departments.
This week, Gov. Tom Wolf signed a law mandating the creation of a statewide police misconduct database, with the intention of preventing problem officers from finding new employment. Law enforcement experts say it’s unclear exactly how pervasive the problem is in Pennsylvania, simply because this is the first time preventative measures have been taken.
The measure is reminiscent of Pennsylvania’s “pass the trash” law, a 2014 act that made the disclosure of sexual-abuse allegations a mandatory part of the application process for school-related jobs.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro was a vocal supporter of the bill creating Pennsylvania’s police misconduct database. The measure — cosigned by police chiefs and union leaders throughout the state — takes the guesswork out of hiring officers, especially for smaller departments with limited resources.
“If you got fired, unless that chief took that time to call your previous chief, there would be no way of knowing,” Shapiro said.
The new database will only be accessible to police departments. But even if a chief knowingly hires an officer who has previously been fired, the database comes with a mandate to make those decisions transparent in a publicly available report.
“Now the burden is on you to explain to the community why you chose to hire him,” Shapiro said. “Before this, you were flying blind. And if something happened, you were left to go and try to put the pieces together working backward.”
Schmalz said he supports the database, so long as it’s applied fairly during the hiring process. He said he didn’t have any disciplinary issues before the firing and hasn’t had any since.
“I’m all for it, and you should be upfront. But one incident shouldn’t make you a problem child, period,” he said. “I have a blemish on my career, and it’s a big one, I’m not trying to minimize it. But I shouldn’t be labeled a problem cop if the investigation is done and I’m not found guilty by a judge.”
He’s not the only law enforcement officer in the Philadelphia region grappling with this issue.
In June, Woodlynne Police Department Officer Ryan Dubiel was charged with two counts of simple assault for pepper-spraying a group of teenagers during a confrontation in the Camden County borough. The case is ongoing.
Woodlynne is Dubiel’s ninth department in less than a decade, according to local prosecutors. The New York Times reported last month that Dubiel left those previous jobs after a trail of complaints and a series of arrests in which suspects were injured.
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal said Dubiel’s actions were “appalling and completely unjustified.” Grewal prominently mentioned Dubiel’s case last month when he announced a new state requirement that police departments publish an annual list of officers who were fired, demoted, or suspended for more than five days due to a disciplinary violation. The inaugural list is slated to be released by the end of the year.
“Just as we license doctors, nurses, and lawyers, we must ensure that all officers meet baseline standards of professionalism, and that officers who fail to meet those standards cannot be passed from one police department to another while posing a threat to the public and other officers,” Grewal said in a statement.
In Schmalz’s case, the information about his firing was made available to his new employers. It didn’t sway their decision.
Joseph E. Bresnan, an attorney for Rockledge, said borough officials were aware of Schmalz’s termination and the reasons behind it when he was hired as a part-time officer in 2015.
“The chief looked into it and found no merit to the allegations,” Bresnan said. “As such, his termination in Warminster did not factor into the decision to hire Michael Schmalz.”
Rockledge Mayor Harold Praediger, Borough Council President Michael Praediger, Borough Manager Grace Metzinger, and borough Police Chief Gerald Miller did not return requests for comment about Schmalz’s hiring.
The arbitration report from the proceeding in Warminster was never made public, but The Inquirer obtained a copy of the 100-page document.
In it, arbitrator John M. Skonier concluded that Schmalz had used excessive force on Shaun Queeney, a handcuffed, “noncombative prisoner, including kneeling on his neck and deploying his [pepper] spray at almost point blank range.”
He then failed to prepare “accurate and truthful” reports about the incident and “improperly directed subordinate officers to change or falsify” their reports, according to the ruling.
One Warminster officer told the arbitrator that Schmalz, his supervisor, “looked over his shoulder” as he filed a report about the incident, and later told him to remove language that he had used “soft-hand” grabs to help restrain the prisoner.
In Schmalz’s report, according to the arbitration documents, he wrote that Queeney was being combative, kicking, spitting, and trying to bite the officers. But surveillance footage from the cellblock showed otherwise, the arbitrator said, and other officers testified to that as well.
Schmalz denied the allegations that his report was inaccurate and that he pressured the other officers into changing their reports.
Had he done anything wrong, he said, “I would’ve pleaded guilty, I would’ve owned it. I could’ve collected unemployment and been on my way. But if I pleaded guilty, I would’ve admitted I did something wrong. And in my heart, I know I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Maria Haberfeld, co-director of the NYPD Police Studies Program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said part of the problem with fired cops being rehired lies with the lack of universal standards for hiring officers. What may trouble one department, she said, might not matter to another.
“In some departments, you can be fired for sleeping on duty, in others you get a reprimand. It’s a matter of perspective on the behavior,” she said. “When it comes to excessive use of force, somebody might look at this example and consider it not excessive.”
How often fired officers shuffle to other departments is difficult to know, she said, because it has never been universally measured. Regional databases are a good start, she said, but a national database is the best solution.
And if even if prior bad behavior is tracked, she said, there’s no guarantee that an officer won’t repeat those mistakes in a new assignment.