Gretchen Schuldt

City Leadership Weak on Police Reforms?

Serious reform of race-based stops by Milwaukee police not happening, report on federal court settlement finds.

By , Wisconsin Justice Initiative - Oct 5th, 2020 10:50 am
Milwaukee Police Department. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee Police Department. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Complying with a federal court settlement to end race-based stops by Milwaukee police “seems an afterthought” to many city officials, including those at the top,  according to the settlement monitor.

“It is not integrated into the daily work, strategic planning, and service to the community for all of government,” the monitor, the Crime and Justice Institute (CJI) said in its second annual report on the settlement.

“Dedicated professionals” are seeking to implement the settlement, “and yet, they seem to toil without a citywide mandate or the highest-level leadership confirming that this work matters,” the report said.

“Up to this point, we have not seen any leader organize all relevant agencies in a conversation that drives the Defendants toward compliance. Each agency seems left to its own to set a plan without oversight, coordination, or direction,” the CJI found.

Neither Mayor Tom Barrett nor Common Council President Cavalier Johnson responded to requests for comment on the consultant’s findings.

“Unfortunately, too few seem focused on the path of hard work towards compliance,” the CJI said.. “Or even on the important, long-term reforms that compliance permits.”

Police traffic and pedestrian stops still show evidence of bias, the CJI found, and the city remains out of compliance with many terms of the 2018 settlement.

The settlement followed a federal court lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Wisconsin, the national ACLU and the law firm of Covington and Burling. The Police Department, the Fire and Police Commission, and the city agreed to undertake a number of reforms, including an end to race-based pedestrian and traffic stops.

“Many reforms embedded in the agreement require substantial government involvement, following the notion that creating and living in a safe community should not just concern the public and police,” the report said. “Effective oversight is a responsibility of and should be a concern for all aspects of government.” ​

The city’s financial concerns may lead it to underfund compliance efforts.

“Achieving the reforms set forth by the settlement agreement, to which the defendants agreed, comes with some costs,” the report said. Sufficient staffing, for example, is necessary, it said.

Barrett has proposed a $300,000 budget for settlement implementation in 2021, the same amount as this year.

The report said bluntly that Barrett and the Common Council should appoint new Fire and Police Commission members to fill two vacancies and the seat held by a commissioner whose term has expired. Commission members are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council.

“The vacancies limit the roles for interested community members, and consequently also limit points of access for the community,” the report said. “There are likely many qualified individuals in the city who would be interested in serving, so it is unclear why the vacancies remain….The settlement agreement envisions a more robust and effective FPC and the demands on the FPC will only expand with the work toward compliance.”

“It is imperative that the Mayor and Common Council act to fill these vacant positions,” the report said.

Gretchen Schuldt writes a blog for Wisconsin Justice Initiative, whose mission is “To improve the quality of justice in Wisconsin by educating the public about legal issues and encouraging civic engagement in and debate about the judicial system and its operation.”

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