January 25, 2013

On Thursday, January 24, 2013, the City of Milwaukee Common Council’s Public Safety Committee held an open public hearing. The subject of the hearing was Mayor Tom Barrett’s appointment of Ms. Ann Wilson to the Milwaukee Board of Fire and Police Commissioners.   Dozens of Milwaukeeans came to the City Hall Council Chamber that afternoon, including ACLU members and our community allies. 

Given the controversy over the last year regarding police misconduct by members of Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) and the role of the Fire and Police Commission (FPC), the public has had great interest in seeing justice done and restoring public confidence in the MPD and FPC.

The Mayor took several months to nominate Ms. Wilson to fill a vacancy on the Board.  One of the themes expressed at the hearing was the desire for more public participation in the appointment process.  While the Mayor did have Ms. Wilson meet some community leaders during the vetting process, many people at the hearing, including some Council members in attendance (e.g. Alderwoman Coggs), believe that his administration could do more in the future. 
Ms. Wilson is a fine candidate and is well known for great work in the community.  While there was a little opposition to her candidacy, most of it was based on what people saw as process.  Thanks to the leadership of Chairman Terry Witkowski and Council President Willie L. Hines, Jr., this public hearing was a first.  They responded to calls from council members Coggs, Hamilton, Kovac and Perez and from the public for a hearing open to all.  The ACLU of Wisconsin and 19 other organizations and community leaders sent a letter demanding an open process.   Whereas, confirmation hearings for FPC commissioners were held in the past without an opportunity for public input, Chairman Witkowski exhibited trust in democracy this time.

Alderman Witkowski’s leadership was praised for holding an exemplary hearing.  The written questions from the public for Ms. Wilson were all relevant and elicited new information.  For instance, more than one citizen asked about her experience interacting with the MPD as manager of the Hillside Family Resource Center.   Another asked if any Hillside resident or guest had ever been treated discourteously by a member of MPD.  Ms. Wilson said young people have reasonable concerns.
Approximately 16 citizens testified.   While not everyone agreed on priorities, or even Ms. Wilson, all of the testimony was relevant and respectful.   Perhaps the impressive Common Council Chamber contributed to the tone of the hearing.  However, despite the appropriate level of decorum, the seriousness of police-community relations and the passion the public has for justice came through loud and clear.  Veteran activists like Harriet McKinney, George Martin, and Brian Verdin were joined by younger people like Sylvia Sellenheim and Jeff Cannady.   Two ACLU representatives spoke, without endorsing or opposing the nomination per ACLU policy on government appointments.  They were ACLU of Wisconsin's Youth and Program Director Emilio de Torre, and  Executive Director Chris Ahmuty (see PDF of their remarks below).
At the beginning of the hearing, the Legislative Reference Bureau made a presentation on the history of the Fire and Police Commission, including its evolving structure, functions, current membership, and a 2006 consultant’s study.  [links to Presentation and to PARC] The presentation was meant to be basic.  The Committee left open the opportunity to add to this communications file, including the possibility of adding files proposing changes to the FPC.  
The hearing was a positive step, but there is much more that needs to be done to address problems at the MPD and FPC.   The ACLU of Wisconsin, the NAACP—Milwaukee branch, Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope, and other community groups and leaders continue to call upon the Criminal Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice to conduct a “pattern and practices” investigation into civil rights violations by the Milwaukee Police Department.
The ACLU of Wisconsin believes that the following principles will help move Milwaukee forward:

  1. Residents in all neighborhoods deserve effective and unbiased police service.  Don’t scapegoat the Bill of Rights in communities of color.
  2. Residents would be more willing to work with police in their neighborhoods if police treat all residents (even those with records) with respect.
  3. The Fire & Police Commission needs to exercise its existing authority to monitor, and correct when necessary, police department policies and practices.  They must support professional law enforcement practices and stand behind police managers and sworn officers who are doing the right things.
  4. In these times, our city needs commissioners who are committed to transparency and listening to all residents, both old and young.   
  5. The Board of FPC needs the human resources (commissioners and staff) to carry out the several functions assigned to it.   
  6. The Board of FPC needs commissioners who have the knowledge and skills to assess the legal advice they receive from staff, their hearing examiners, and the office of the City Attorney.

The Mayor nominated Ms. Wilson to fill one vacancy on the seven member Board.  He has another vacancy to fill, which he says will not be done until after the Common Council votes on Ms. Wilson’s nomination on February 5th.  There is another vacancy on the FPC the Mayor needs to fill to bring the current Board up to full strength at seven members.  In July 2013 the terms of three incumbent commissioners will expire.  It is highly unlikely that all three commissioners will want to be re-appointed for another five year term.  Finally, the Mayor may wish to exercise the authority he has under state statute to expand the number of commissioners to nine.   All this means that in 2013 there is the possibility of between one and four more nominations without expanding the size of the FPC.  And, perhaps towards the end of the year or in early 2014 we could see two additional commissioners.  Between the number of new commissioners and possible changes to its structure and function, Milwaukee is bound to see dramatic change at the FPC.  The public has a unique opportunity to let its voices be heard on policing matters.


How you can help if you live or work in the City of Milwaukee?

Write/email: the Mayor or your Council Member
Asking that future appointments follow an inclusive vetting process and that future confirmation hearing continue to take public input, including testimony.

Tell us your story about your contact with law enforcement.

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