With superhero films more popular than ever, and movies like 'Kick-Ass' demonstrating that people don't need super powers to don a cape and fight crime (see our post from yesterday about a real-life Kick-Ass), we've seen a rise in real-life stories about wannabe heroes in costumes duking it out with criminals. The tales tend to be good for a chuckle (and maybe a twinge of fear for the safety of these wannabe crime fighters) but little else. We write them off as another case of life imitating art. What happens, though, when someone takes a comic book character and emulates them in a negative way? We haven't had our first case of a person imitating a super-villain, but if Bleeding Cool's recent story about a group of Milwaukee police officers emulating the tactics of Marvel Comics' 'The Punisher' is any indication, that could be right around the corner.
Details of the alleged secret organization within the Milwaukee PD have emerged with the release of new documents in Frank Jude Jr.'s federal civil rights lawsuit against the city. Jude claims he was severely beaten, stripped, called racial slurs and threatened with a knife and a gun by members of the group after an officer's badge went missing at an off-duty gathering.
Shortly after that event (three officers were tried and acquitted on criminal charges. Four others were added to the civil case and lost) Milwaukee PD Captain James Galezewski started an investigation that found evidence of what he classified as a "gang" of officers operating inside the larger force who called themselves "The Punishers" and donned black caps and gloves with skull symbols on them as they went about their business.
As anyone who follows comics knows, the officers are basically emulating The Punisher -- the popular Marvel Comics anti-hero who works as a vigilante dealing out his own brand of justice to criminals because he feels the law doesn't work in the way it's supposed to. In the comics, Frank Castle is a former soldier who goes on a mission of vengeance after his family is murdered in retaliation for witnessing a mob hit. He dons an all black uniform with a giant skull on the chest, rechristens himself 'The Punisher' and exacts his revenge against the underworld in incredibly violent fashion. Marvel has spun the character off into films (Dolph Lundgren, Thomas Jane and Ray Stevenson have all played the character) and videogames – increasing his popularity.
Gazlewski writes in his 2007 report that "this is a group of rogue officers within our agency who I would characterize as brutal and abusive. At least some of the officers involved in the Jude case were associated with this group, although there is reason to believe the membership extended beyond those who were convicted in the case." The officer goes on to add that several of the officers involved had 'Punisher' skull stickers on their cars, lockers and memo books. One alleged member, Andrew Spengler, had a skull sticker and the number seven on his pick up truck. Another had a Punisher skull tattoo and had tried to purchase an assault rifle similar to the one used by the comic character. Both of these men were convicted in the civil trial.
A second investigation, by a different commander, was undertaken in 2008. That officer couldn't prove that the group actually existed. It's a sentiment backed up by Police Chief Edward Flynn in a statement released yesterday. "I directed the Professional Performance Division in 2008 to conduct a thorough investigation. PPD interviewed a number of officers, they reviewed the complaint file and could find no evidence that such an organized group ever existed nor is there any record of citizen complaints to any local or federal authority regarding the activities alleged."
The newly unsealed court documents reveal details about Gazlewski's investigation into an officer (whose name is blacked out in the documents) who has a 'Punisher' tattoo. The Captain's recommendation is that that officer be fired because of his attitude toward police work – yet the officer is still employed by the city.
Is this all a sensationalistic tale concocted by a man who was beaten by the police and forwarded by an officer who'd read too many comics and seen a few 'Punisher' movies or is it yet another example of the thin blue line working overtime to protect their own? Whatever the case, the idea of a rogue group of police officers emulating Frank Castle's tactics is terrifying. Violent retribution against criminals may be entertaining and cathartic on the printed page and silver screen, but it's an entirely different beast in real life – where mistakes can, and often are, made.