The Death of Jermaine Claybrooks
Police killed suspected drug dealer, but his family and lawyer say slaying unjustified.
Last March, Jermaine Claybrooks was shot and killed in the 4900 block of N. 19th Pl. during an encounter with West Allis and Milwaukee police and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The ensuing investigation’s numerous unanswered questions has cloaked it in mystery to this day.
Under state law, all killings by police officers must be investigated by an outside agency, typically by the Wisconsin Department of Justice‘s Division of Criminal Investigation. However, the Claybrooks killing was the first to be handled by a group called the Milwaukee County Suburban Investigative Team. Precisely how the group functions is unclear, and officials with the Wauwatosa Police Department, who led the team, denied any public information requests regarding its work.
The details regarding Claybrooks’ killing have been disputed. The, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Claybrooks was a suspected drug dealer and that two West Allis detectives and a DEA agent fired shots at Claybrooks in his car, and three Milwaukee Police officers also fired their guns. The story reported that “several witnesses said they heard officers telling Claybrooks to turn off the engine and show his hands,” but that another witness, Nate Beverly… said Claybrooks never had a chance to surrender before officers began shooting.” Claybrooks was shot ten times.
Police reported 148 grams of heroin, 70 grams of marijuana and 50 oxycodone pills were recovered from the car, along with $30,000.
“Storm made a formal request on March 24 for the report from Claybrooks’ autopsy but said MPD instructed the medical examiner not to release the records,” NNS reported. “It is the only autopsy, over his long career, he has not been able to obtain.”
The idea behind the state law requiring investigations of all slayings by police is to have an independent outsider review the case; thus the state Department of Justice has handled these cases. But Claybrooks’ is the first fatality to instead be handled by the Milwaukee County Suburban Investigations Team. The team was created in the fall of 2016, as Fox 6 reported, under the leadership of the West Milwaukee Police Department.
However, early reports of the case noted the Wauwatosa Police Department spearheaded the team and investigation. Weeks ago, I filed an open records request for any documents on the suburban investigation team, including what other department’s police were included in it. The request was denied. I then sent a request for comment simply to provide a public explanation for the team. This was also denied. An email to Mayor Tom Barrett‘s office was similarly fruitless, and redirected me back to the Wauwatosa police.
“The Milwaukee County Suburban Investigations Team was lead by the Wauwatosa Police Department and did not include any Milwaukee Police Department employees,” Barrett’s office said. “Their office would have all of the information about the investigation team, as the Milwaukee Police Department and the Mayor’s Office has no jurisdiction over this matter.”
Barrett did, however, shed light on the team and why it exists in a FOX 6 piece. “This is the first case in which we are relying on suburban police departments to do the investigation,” he told FOX. Barrett stated he and Milwaukee police officials felt it took too long for DOJ to come to the city. “That’s not a criticism,” he stressed, “it’s a reality in terms of geography.”
For more context, I contacted former police officer Randy Shrewsberry, with 13 years of experience. Shrewsberry has worked for multiple departments, federal agencies, and in the private sector as an investigator. He currently heads the Institute For Justice Training Reform.
“While we applaud any agency that recognizes the need for independent review for police actions, we’re concerned that a conjoint ‘task force’ comprised of neighboring police departments, offers only the appearance of autonomy,” Shrewsberry said. “In this instance, we are even more troubled that it appears the task force is shrouded in secrecy and resists transparency.”
The former cop also addressed Barrett’s explanation that the team exists because Wisconsin’s DOJ couldn’t respond to cases in a timely manner. “It seems a bit difficult to believe,” he said. “With federal agents assigned in every metropolitan city, that the reasoning for such a task force is to provide independence because the [DOJ] isn’t available or their response would be too slow. In my experience there’s not an unwillingness of any federal law enforcement agency to assist local police nor is their response time an impediment to an investigation, especially when it’s relative to a police action.”
In September, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm announced that his office, after reviewing the work of the Milwaukee County Suburban Investigations Team, concluded there was no wrong doing by the three officers who shot and killed Claybrooks, as the Journal Sentinel reported. However, the three Milwaukee police officers who also fired their guns during the encounter had refused to give a formal statement to investigators. “Those officers remain on administrative duty pending a decision by the district attorney and the conclusion of an internal investigation, said Sgt. Tim Gauerke, department spokesman,” the paper reported.
But Storm told Fox 6 the evidence does not tell the whole story:
“We asked, ‘did you test the weapon to see if it had been fired,’ they said ‘no.’ ‘Did you test any of the drugs or anything that you say you found in the car later for fingerprints?’ They said ‘no.’ Why not?” Storm said.
Storm said this plus no statements from the remaining three officers is frustrating to the Claybrooks family. The family is now planning to take further legal action.
Meanwhile, the names of the investigators who handled the Claybrooks case have yet to be revealed. The first outing by the Milwaukee County Suburban Investigations Team has left as many questions as it has answered.