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Milwaukee police fired him for shooting the wrong man. Now he’s back working in law enforcement

<i>WISN</i><br/>An out-of-state police chief who hired an officer that the Milwaukee police chief fired for shooting an innocent bystander said he has no problem with the officer being back on the street working in law enforcement.
Willingham, James
An out-of-state police chief who hired an officer that the Milwaukee police chief fired for shooting an innocent bystander said he has no problem with the officer being back on the street working in law enforcement.

By Derrick Rose

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    EASTLAKE, Ohio (WISN) — An out-of-state police chief who hired an officer that the Milwaukee police chief fired for shooting an innocent bystander said he has no problem with the officer being back on the street working in law enforcement.

The firing and rehiring journey for Nikolas Zens started during a vehicle pursuit Sept. 8, 2019.

“He’s over here! Stop! Stop! Stop,” Zens shouts as the pursuit becomes a foot chase, the officer’s body camera video showed.

“Let me see your (expletive) hands!” Zens yells at the man just before the officer fires a single gunshot from his service weapon.

The video shows the man Zens was chasing give himself up as fellow officers closed in. But there’s another point of focus in the video: the innocent man whom the officer’s bullet hit.

“Who shot?” an officer asks.

“He’s hit. He’s hit,” Zens is heard saying, referencing a man on the steps inside a doorway writhing in pain.

“Me. That was me,” Zens responds to a question about who fired the shot.

Behind the man Zens was chasing was an open door where Tari Davis was standing. He happened to also be in the officer’s line of fire.

Davis is heard screaming in pain; his cries echo through the neighborhood.

The bullet tore through his stomach and left through his hip; physical injuries he would survive. The emotional wounds were just as piercing five days later.

“I shouldn’t have to worry about going to my back door, opening my back door and being shot by a stray bullet by an officer who had no regard for no one in my home,” Davis said Sept. 12, 2019 from his front porch.

“For that, I want this officer fired. I want him fired. Simple and plain,” Davis said.

The body camera video shows Zens trying to explain why he fired.

“He turned around and went like this,” Zens is heard saying, performing a motion of someone holding a gun.

“Oh, Jesus,” he sighed.

Following an internal investigation, the police chief at the time, Alfonso Morales, found Zens guilty of violating two department rules.

Disciplinary records obtained by 12 News Investigates show Zens “failed to stop and look for a suspect after losing sight.” The violation cost him 20 days without pay. He also failed to meet “the deadly force requirement of target isolation”: making sure no one other than your intended target is in an officer’s line of fire when they decide to use deadly force with their service gun.

For those reasons, Morales terminated Zens’ employment with the department.

“I cannot express enough my apologies to Mr. Davis. I hope he can forgive me,” Zens said during a hearing appealing his termination. “The city deserves the best officers and ones that genuinely want to help. Please let me help again.”

The appeal failed.

Nikolas Zens career in law enforcement was over.

At least in Milwaukee.

12 News Investigates discovered a series of photographs on the Facebook page for the Eastlake Police Department in Ohio.

In one photo, a man is seen raising his hand. In another photo, the Eastlake Chief Larry Reik is handing the man a badge. That man is Nikolas Zens.

“As a citizen, I am appalled. As a lawyer, I would expect it. I hate to say that, but I do. I expect it because, unfortunately, we don’t do anything to prevent it,” attorney Verona Swanigan said.

Swanigan is a lawyer who represented Davis in a federal lawsuit against Zens and the City of Milwaukee.

A review of city records shows Milwaukee settled the lawsuit for $450,000.

His was one of 29 excessive force lawsuits the City of Milwaukee settled from 2013-2023, City Attorney’s Office records show. In that 10-year span, taxpayers foot the bill for $13,286,251 in settlements over the actions of Milwaukee police officers.

With the Davis settlement in civil court, the Milwaukee County District Attorney declined to pursue the case in criminal court.

“There is no evidence to refute Zens’ perceptions of the threat level the time Zens fired one shot,” Chief Deputy District Attorney Kent Lovern wrote to Morales in a Feb. 18, 2020, letter.

Neither the lawsuit nor Zens’ firing prevent him from working in law enforcement in Wisconsin or elsewhere.

“Those things should disqualify you from becoming a police officer and we have to have a standard in this society,” Swanigan said.

“What I know for doctors and for lawyers is, if we get terminated, or especially for cause, that gets pushed up to our licensing board; it doesn’t just stay within the house,” she added. “That part of the process is missing for some reason with police officers that this next step happens that says, ‘You are no longer allowed to be a police officer.'”

While Zens is not prevented from working in policing, his name is included in a special database at the Wisconsin Department of Justice.

The database includes more than 1,700 names of current and former members of law enforcement in Wisconsin who were either fired for cause, quit instead of being fired, or quit their jobs while they were the subject of an internal investigation.

Access to the database is mainly limited to police agencies in Wisconsin to help department leadership make hiring decisions.

12 News Investigates accessed the database through a public records request.

“Those types of databases should be public open information that I can just go online and say, ‘I want to look up where the officer was terminated.’ Let me type in a name and it pops up [the] same way it does for lawyers. You can type my name in and it’ll tell you if my license is valid,” Swanigan added.

12 News Investigates obtained copies of records showing Eastlake Police completed a background check on Zens while he was still in the police academy in Ohio and appealing his firing in Milwaukee.

In the Background Investigation Summary, an investigator wrote, “I do realize that termination for policy violations from a police agency is serious. After learning Nikolas was cleared by the District Attorney’s Office and no criminal charges were brought, I can comfortably recommend Nikolas to continue in the Eastlake Police Department hiring process.”

“We would have preferred it did not happen of course but we are comfortable with our decision to hire Mr. Zens,” Reik wrote to 12 News Investigates when asked whether there was any concern regarding the Davis shooting in Milwaukee.

During the process of reporting for this story, 12 News Investigates discovered Eastlake Police removed the photos of Zens’ interaction with Reik from its Facebook page.

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