The Mystery of Immigration Controversy
Why the change in police policy, why the lack of “transparency,” why all the furor?
The recent revamping of a heavily criticized and scrutinized Milwaukee Police Department immigration policy demonstrates the heft of the Fire & Police Commission, the citizen oversight panel, which is considered one of the most powerful in the country.
But it also raised many questions. Just how big was the change in policy, why was it being changed, and why was Police Chief Ed Flynn so secretive, as some critics charged, in how he changed the policy?
The problem that was being addressed, two high-placed city insiders tell Urban Milwaukee, is that federal funding to the city could be in jeopardy because the current policy was too strong in its restrictions on when police could communicate with U.S. Immigration and Customs and Enforcement (ICE) authorities about immigrants in Milwaukee.
The City Attorney had concluded the policy must be changed, and so some time around the July 4th holiday the MPD, under Flynn’s directive, amended its standard operating procedure for foreign nationals.
“The U.S. Department of State requires the assistance of state and local law enforcement authorities in carrying out the treaty obligations of the United States concerning the detention or arrest of foreign nationals and contacts with foreign diplomats in this country,” MPD Assistant Chief Carianne Yerkes wrote in a memo.
The old policy had said the police shall not share information on immigrants except in cases where the person is a felon, possesses a firearm or meets four other criteria showing he or she was dangerous. The new policy instead was affirmative, saying “the police shall” share information in all such cases.
“We view it as a technical change,” Barrett later told FOX6 News.
But nobody had counted on the reaction that would come from immigration activist Christine Neumann-Ortiz, the Executive Director of Voces De La Frontera. She was alarmed by the change and “did an all hands on deck call,” a city official says.
Voces and the League of United Latin American Citizens vocalized concerns that the change in police policy could lead to racial profiling.
At the July 13 PFC meeting of the Fire & Police Commission, board member Marisabel Cabrera criticized Flynn and Assistant Police Chief James Harpole for the process leading up to the change in policy.
“It unnecessarily circumvented our usual practice in modifying or refining SOPs,” Cabrera said. “This board was specifically created to provide the community the opportunity and authority to oversee the Milwaukee police and fire departments, and it’s made up of a diverse cross-section of the community to be a voice of the community.”
A number of elected officials also went on record to charge that the commission needs to be consulted on changes before they are implemented.
“The MPD announced an about face last night,” Lewis declared, with Harpole “telling the Commission that it would immediately alter or strip away the change and allow for officers to use discretion where needed.”
Yet all the critics of Flynn and the police were apparently unaware that Regan, the commission’s director, was well aware of the proposed change, and that the police chief had consulted with her. Apparently neither the Barrett administration nor Regan had expected the reaction of Neumann-Ortiz nor the storm that would erupt.
And so the language of the policy was tweaked once again, with the “shall” modified to say that “police, shall, in their discretion” inform federal authorities when those six criteria are met. These changes were so subtle that readers of news stories were left wondering how exactly the policy was changed and what all the fuss was about.
And it still remains to be seen whether federal authorities will decide that Milwaukee, under the current language, is in compliance with the Trump administration’s new policies. If not, the neighborhoods where immigrants in Milwaukee now live could be in jeopardy in a different way, as needed funding is denied. As one city official puts it, “it could affect federal grants to Milwaukee that affect poor people and their constituencies.”