Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Council Calls For ‘I Can’t Breathe’ Policy

Measure would require interventions when anyone in custody says they're having trouble breathing.

By - Jun 16th, 2020 04:47 pm
Protesters express frustration with the killing of George Floyd and other police-related deaths. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Protesters express frustration with the killing of George Floyd and other police-related deaths. File photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The Common Council is calling on the Milwaukee Police Department to adopt a policy that would require interventions for individuals in custody having trouble breathing.

The council voted unanimously to request the department adopt an “I can’t breathe” policy under which any individuals who state they are having trouble breathing must be offered medical assistance.

The move comes after George Floyd spent almost nine minutes with the knee of a Minneapolis police officer on his neck while three offers looked on. Floyd’s death sparked an international protest movement for police reform.

But Floyd was not the first individual to make the plea while being choked. In 2014, Eric Garner called out “I can’t breathe” while being choked by a New York City police officer.

Garner’s death drew national attention to the issue and phrase. Council members Khalif Rainey was on the county board in 2014 when its five male African American members then serving led by now-state representative David Bowen, gave floor speeches in recognition of the issue and donned “I can’t breathe” t-shirts.

Alderman Russell W. Stamper, II, who had left the county board for the council just before the incident, introduced the council resolution.

“I believe at this point it is clear that excessive force resulting in death is part of a systemic issue that disproportionately impacts people of color, and this requires policy changes in the name of protecting our citizens,” said Stamper in introducing his proposal.

His resolution notes that Milwaukee has had its own “I can’t breathe” incident that resulted in the death of an African American male in police custody.

In 2011, Derek Williams, 22, died in the back of a Milwaukee Police Department squad car after an officer had previously put his knee into Williams back. He called out “I can’t breathe” while in custody, as captured on video. The Williams family, including his three children, settled the case for $2 million in 2019. The funds will go to support his three children.

“I think this is the appropriate approach to dealing with what happened, and we’re hoping that changes are made so that these incidents don’t happen again,” said Ald. Ashanti Hamilton at the time.

Alderwoman Chantia Lewis said Tuesday she was appalled to see a MPD officer put his knee on the neck of a protester during the 6th and McKinley incident two weeks ago.

But the nature of the council’s actions Tuesday shows the limits of its power. While the council controls the budget for the city’s public safety departments, it cannot issue discipline, set policies or hire or fire the chiefs. That power, by state law, is vested with the Fire & Police Commission, whose citizen members are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council.

The resolution calls for the Fire & Police Commission to work with the police department to develop a new standard operating procedure.

The move comes as part of a broader package of files introduced by council members to respond to the protest movement. The budget office has been instructed to model cutting $30 million from the police department’s budget and reallocating it to other needs, council members are calling for a change in state law that requires suspended officers to continue to be paid, and all department heads must now develop plans to improve equity for Milwaukee residents.

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More about the 2020 Racial Justice Protests

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