Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Who Has Power Over Chief Morales?

Given the shambles at the Fire & Police Commission the answer may be nobody.

By - Jul 15th, 2020 03:51 pm
Police Chief Alfonso Morales. File photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Police Chief Alfonso Morales. File photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Two years ago I wrote a column predicting there may ultimately be no one who has power over Police Chief Alfonso Morales. I fear we may be arriving at that point. 

The stage was set, I noted, when the Fire & Police Commission “declared it would do a national search for a permanent police chief and then decided, without any public notice or any public discussion, to promote the acting chief Alfonso Morales to this position. This was in violation of state law to give public notice, the city attorney ruled, and “certainly looks pretty rammed through, pretty arbitrary,” as Ald. Bob Bauman complained at a council committee meeting. This was a key reason Barrett decided to fire FPC executive director MaryNell Regan.” 

Morales was clearly Regan’s choice. But with her gone, “Who now has the power over the chief?” I wrote. “It won’t be the Common Council, which merely approves FPC appointees by the mayor and whose members have long complained they have no power over the police department budget and decision making. It won’t be the mayor, who did not choose Morales and was never consulted about his promotion to permanent chief.” By contrast, Barrett had a close relationship with former Police Chief Ed Flynn

True, the mayor still has the power to appoint the FPC director (which the council sought unsuccessfully to take away from him in 2018), and will have to make that decision again, as Griselda Aldrete has decided to step down and will not seek reappointement. But the Common Council has meanwhile moved to assert some power over the FPC: it’s become more aggressive and finicky about Barrett’s appointments to the board and for director in the last two years, even as community activists have added voices of opposition. That might help explain what otherwise seems bewildering: why the mayor hasn’t moved to fill two vacant seats on the FPC board. Perhaps he hasn’t been able to find anyone he both trusts and believes will pass muster with the council. 

Of course the battle for power over the police between mayor and council leaves something of a stalemate, with Morales freer to do what he wants. 

Aldrete, meanwhile, seemed to be a very ineffective administrator, who at one point had left 14 of 28 staff positions vacant and failed to act on some key reforms.

She leaves a mess behind that will make it very difficult for the next director to right the ship. 

The turnover in the position of FPC director — three have served in the last three years — has clearly hurt the Commission. And a newly aggressive council may make it harder to recruit and retain a good director. Aldrete condemned a “climate at City Hall” that “puts a premium on political point-scoring and conflict,” and confirmation hearings “based on spectacle, not merit.” Yes, there’s a lot of sour grapes in that comment, but anyone walking into this job will be left wary about what they might face. 

All of which leaves a mess. On paper the FPC is supposed to be one of the most powerful citizen review boards in the nation, but in the real world that’s no longer the case, and Morales seems unconstrained in his power.  

This is a chief whose department leaked a video of a sensitive police investigation that was meant to embarrass the board chair of the FPC, Steven M. DeVougas, and that pushed the FPC to award the chief a four-year contract as permanent director.

This is a chief who seems unconcerned that the leaked video not only revealed the identity of a person suspected of a crime who has yet to be charged, Kalan Haywood, Sr., but revealed the identity of the alleged victim of sexual assault. That’s a disaster for a police department, raising questions whether it can be trusted to handle sensitive investigations, yet Morales has dropped an internal investigation of who leaked the video. He also used the leaked video as a chance to criticize DeVougas for a conflict of interest in representing Haywood. 

This is a chief who, when faced with the results of a recent FPC investigation that raised many questions about how the department handed Haywood, aggressively dismissed any criticism.

Perhaps most shocking was his response to the fact that Haywood was interviewed not at a police station but at the Sojourner center, which provides housing and protection for victims of domestic and sexual assault, and also has an agreement whereby Sensitive Crimes Division police can interview victims there. This was a gross violation of the Sojurner Memorandum of Understanding with the MPD, which states that police may not interview or detain suspects at Sojourner. Carmen Pitre, executive director of Sojourner, emphasized the importance of this, the FPC report noted, that “Victims and their children cannot be afraid to come to Sojourner for fear that they might run into suspects, perhaps in their own assaults.” 

Yet, rather than saying a mistake was made, or he didn’t know about the MOU, Morales told the Journal Sentinel he had no problem with the decision to hold the interview there. “It did not violate any internal Milwaukee Police Department rules… Do I have any concerns with how that was conducted? Absolutely not.”

I’m sure this statement, leaving the door open to more violations of the MOU, horrified officials at both the Sojourner center and District Attorney’s office, who must work together with police on these cases.

Morales also dismissed criticism about the speeded up investigation of Haywood. The FPC report found that Morales was concerned about Haywood potentially serving on the Police Foundation Board and asked for the investigation to be speeded up. 

This was opposed by the police investigator,  Zachary Thoms, by the assistant district attorney handling the case and by the victim. It resulted in Haywood being interviewed before investigators had completed their work on the case. Moreover the interview was done without the presence of Thoms, who was most knowledgeable about the case. In the report, he was summarized saying there was favorable treatment of Haywood and “Thoms thinks Haywood is a dangerous person” and  “now has a chance to discredit the victim in MPD’s case. Thoms also has concerns for the victim’s safety.”

But Morales dismissed this problem, too, defending how the case was handled. But while rejecting any criticism of him, he welcomed the report’s conclusions about DeVougas, which accused the FPC chair of lying. Morales noted that “police officers can be fired for lying” and said DeVougas should be treated the same way. 

DeVougas clearly looks terrible, as Urban Milwaukee’s summary of the report noted. And Barrett, who appointed DeVougas, has called for him to step down. That, however, is up to the Common Council, which can vote to remove an FPC member.

Meanwhile, we have a police chief who has twice publicly criticized DeVougas, his boss at FPC, who has rejected any criticism of him in a report by the FPC, which is supposed to be his immediate supervisor, not to mention the nation’s most powerful such body. And Morales has blithely rejected the concerns of two key partners of the police department, the Sojourner center and the District Attorney. 

Is there anyone the chief is answerable to or any criticism he must take to heart? So far the answer seems to be no. That would be cause for concern at any time but all the more when so many in the city are calling for major reforms of the police department. How will they get Morales to agree?  

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Categories: Politics, Public Safety

2 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Who Has Power Over Chief Morales?”

  1. says:

    If anyone has suggestions about how we can mobilize around this, please speak up.
    This is a disaster and Milwaukee deserves better.
    K. Coy-Romano, MS
    Founder, Task Force on criminal Justice Reform

  2. brthompson says:

    It is hard to pick out a good guy in this mess. The Chief’s comments on the violations of the mou is certainly disturbing.
    Responsibility for straightening this out lies with Tom Barrett. Does he have anyone whose integrity he trusts who he can use to help him figure out what should be done?

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