Wisconsin Examiner

Inside the Milwaukee Police Fusion Center

Protesters have wondered what center is up to. The history and details of little-known unit.

By , Wisconsin Examiner - Mar 30th, 2021 11:20 am
Police. Photo by Highway Patrol Images / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Police. Photo by Highway Patrol Images / (CC BY)

“The fusion center, they’re sort of the ‘jack-of-all-trades,’ if you will,” explained inspector Paul Formolo, speaking of the heart of the Milwaukee Police Department’s (MPD) hub for intelligence gathering. “They have a multitude of functions.” Fusion may not be the most publicized aspect of MPD, but its operations are on the cutting edge of the department’s activities.

Fusion centers, as a concept, were created after 9/11 to help bridge gaps in intelligence sharing between various agencies. They help facilitate collaboration and sharing of information between local, state, federal, military and private sector entities. Although the Department of Homeland Security oversaw the development of the nation’s network of 79 fusion centers, it offered little direction or guidance. As a result, beyond the general role of gathering and sharing information, fusion centers were left to develop individually.

Wisconsin has two fusion centers, both operated by the state Division of Criminal Investigation. One, located in Madison, is called the Wisconsin Statewide Information Center (WSIC). The other, established in 2006 in Milwaukee, is dubbed the Southeastern Wisconsin Threat Analysis Center (STAC). Formolo noted that the STAC is, “a partnership with the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force, Homeland Security. We’re responsible for the eight counties within southeastern Wisconsin. Obviously we’ll disseminate information to all the other law enforcement agencies. There’s also a community engagement piece with the STAC as well. Especially the Homeland Security — for instance, they’ll go to City Hall and do an assessment of the facility, to see if there’s any vulnerabilities to terrorism.”

In 2008, after former Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn took office, a second half to the STAC was created called the Intelligence Fusion Center (IFC). Flynn came to Milwaukee from Massachusetts, where he’d been involved in the development of a fusion center. One of Flynn’s formative experiences as a police chief was in Arlington, Va. where he was responsible for his department’s response to the 2001 attack on the Pentagon and the Beltway shooter.

Bringing what he’d learned with him, Flynn created the IFC in Milwaukee and began refocusing both halves of fusion on street-level crime. Over the following years, the MPD would increasingly build policing strategies around “real-time crime data.” Much of which would be gathered, analyzed and shared by the fusion center. Today Fusion’s main roles include running the real-time event center, social media analysis, analyzing ballistic information, operating the city’s network of shot spotters, as well as other functions.

Protests, mystery and confidentiality

Over the course of a decade, two chiefs and a unit name change, fusion continued to evolve. Attention to fusion centers heightened, however, after the George Floyd protests of 2020. Particularly after a massive leak of intelligence bulletins and other documents were obtained by anonymous hacktivists and published online.

Dubbed “the Blue Leaks,” the documents showed fusion centers had closely monitored protests and their organizers nationwide. Some fusion center bulletins provided questionable characterizations of protest activity or gathered information which didn’t involve criminal activity or terrorism.

In June of 2020, some protesters in Milwaukee began receiving tickets in the mail from the Virtual Investigations Unit (VIU). The tickets had been received only after protesters posted videos of themselves out past curfew on social media. Then-Chief Alfonso Morales downplayed the concerns, stating he hadn’t seen the tickets and that this isn’t something the department would expend resources on. Wisconsin Examiner confirmed with MPD’s press office that the VIU is part of the Fusion Division, and has been in place since 2018.

Although MPD’s open records office hasn’t completed the Examiner’s requests on the VIU, Inspector Formolo discussed the unit. Formolo stated that VIU conducts investigations using open-source media. “They’re also plugged into the live feeds of our pole cameras,” said Formolo, “which are operated and maintained by the Milwaukee Police Department. We’re not plugged into everyone’s surveillance cameras, or anything like that.”

Through a “shot spotter system” the Milwaukee police can detect gun shots, and then activate cameras which can potentially capture any associated suspicious activity.

“If we get a shot spotter alert, and we get that hit, we’ll automatically get on that pole camera. We’ll swing into that area real quick and see if we get fleeing vehicles or people running on foot,” says Formolo. “It’s almost like having an immediate response before that squad gets there. The nearest squad could be three or four miles away, stuck in traffic. So if we can get eyes on the incident right away, all the better.”

The inspector stressed that the social media information accessed by the VIU is all open-source material. “It’s stuff that you could see,” Formolo told Wisconsin Examiner. “Our guys are just pretty good at knowing how to go about connecting dots and stuff. That’s why we call it ‘social network analysis.’” In such situations, however, social media analysis is done for specific reasons. “We’re not going to do it just to do it,” said Formolo. “If there’s something pointing to that there might be something on social media, we’re going to try and take a look. And if we can’t do it through open-source means, then we’ll apply for search warrants.”

Fusion is also connected to MPD’s technology which tracks and accesses cell phones. One device, a cell site simulator (CSS), can track a phone’s location but, with the right software, can also intercept communications. Another, called GrayKey, is able to break into passcode-protected iPhones which have been physically seized by police.

In 2016a log detailing 579 investigations where MPD used CSS technology was obtained and released through open records laws. Each entry was noted as “completed-located by CS Team.” MPD’s press office told Wisconsin Examiner that this stands for “Confidential Source Team,” and is also part of the fusion center.

Formolo noted that “confidential sources” can apply to both human informants and technology in fusion. “‘Confidential source’ basically means anything that we have to keep confidential,” he explained. “So if we have a person who’s a confidential informant, and if his identity were to be revealed, that person’s life could be in danger — we protect people who are confidential informants.”

He added that, “confidential source as far as technology goes, a lot of times that means the Milwaukee Police Department is either bound usually by some contract that we will not disclose proprietary technology, if you will. Or it could be with the federal agencies that the technology is sensitive to national security, so we’re bound by law not to disclose it.” In order to utilize its cell tracking technology, MPD must show that probable cause exists and then apply for warrants.

“It is technology that we have invested in,” explained Formolo. “And we do use it, primarily to get people wanted for felony crimes. It’s a process we have to go through.”

The process involves investigating officers or detectives applying for a warrant or subpoena that is first reviewed by a supervisor. Warrants have to meet a threshold for probable cause. Prosecutors at the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office review and approve affidavits. Then they are reviewed by a judge. “And then, of course, if the judge finds that there is probable cause then he sends it to the appropriate phone company,” Formolo says, “and my tech guys do their thing.”

During a town hall event on March 20, acting MPD Chief Jeffrey Norman said the vetting process for cell tracking technology has enough oversight. “The process whenever we want to do any kind of tracking mechanism has to go through the courts. This is a requirement in terms of the vetting to make sure that there is proper probable cause.”

Norman noted that, “there are times that things are not allowed in regards to not having enough of the particular evidence to move forward. There are also a lot of rules on the federal level, state level and also local level in regards to our procedures. So I believe that process is vetted properly.”

The inspector also stated that as far as he knows, fusion does not utilize spyware or malware in its cyber investigations. Law enforcement use of malware and hacking has been increasingly discussed in recent years, particularly since a company related to the notorious cyber intelligence company, the NSO Group, began pitching powerful spyware and malware products to American law enforcement, which can access and take over mobile phones.

Such software, or specific capabilities of CSS technology, would explain some of the problems protesters and families have experienced with their phones. However, MPD has said in the past that CSS technology was not utilized during the protests. It’s press office added that, “it is not known to cause interference and it does not have the ability to tap into calls.” Formolo added that, “it’s more of the federal government that would do the wire taps. What you’re describing would be a wire tap and, we would have to apply for a search warrant to listen in.”

When protests come to town

Throughout the summer and fall of Black Lives Matter protests, the issue of surveillance by police became increasingly potent. During the heaviest days of curfew and protest it wasn’t uncommon to see drones, law enforcement personnel in unmarked cars or fully outfitted surveillance vans. Families who’d lost loved ones in officer-involved shootings or other incidents also felt targeted. Many, including the families of Jay Anderson Jr., Alvin Cole, Christopher Davis and Joel Acevedo reported either being followed by local police, or odd things happening to their phones that made them suspect they were targets of surveillance.

Later, it became apparent that some departments like Wauwatosa PD had engaged in politicized targeting. Open records requests revealed that the department had placed its own mayor on a high value target list for responding to the demands of protesters. Another list detailed at least 40 protesters who’d been identified by the department. Then, when the city called a curfew in October, several protesters including the family of 17-year-old Alvin Cole were arrested and their phones confiscated. Although Wauwatosa PD claimed the phones were not accessed or analyzed, they were readied for that process and spent days in what Wauwatosa Special Operations Group (SOG) detectives called their department’s “nerd lab.”

Formolo understands the concerns these tactics raised, even though they weren’t deployed by his own agency. “I really can’t comment on what another police department does operationally or through intelligence,” he said. “Full disclosure, obviously the Milwaukee Police Department worked with Wauwatosa during the ordeals. Primarily we’re just sharing intelligence, that’s all. They’re a neighbor to us, we have a relationship with them. … If we learned that a group of people were coming to Tosa to protest, we would share that information with them. Like, ‘Hey FYI this group is coming with this many people at this time.’”

Sharing information and intelligence is something that fusion would find itself doing in any protest situation. It’s real-time event center would provide support and awareness as the situation develops. “They monitor social media,” said Formolo. “And, oftentimes a lot of these advocacy groups — activists publicly post what they’re going to do. And we’ll put out a message to the department. It’s more of a situational awareness kind of thing.”

He added that, “if we start seeing information coming across social media, or through other confidential sources, or sources of intelligence where, say, there’s a group that’s going to show up that we know in the past to be violent or incite violence, we’ll respond appropriately. But most of the time, 90% of the time, it’s just for situational awareness. And we typically try to stay away. We have, especially since last May.”

While the fusion center’s capabilities are advanced and, sometimes, officiated by a layer of confidentiality, Formolo stresses that it is not simply spying on citizens. “Just let them have their space, do their thing,” he told Wisconsin Examiner, speaking of how MPD regards the still ongoing protests. “Obviously we respect the first amendment and people’s right to assemble, and freedom of speech. So I think we got pretty good with that in Milwaukee.” He added that anyone who feels they’ve been placed under surveillance by police are welcome to contact the police — particularly the numerous families who’ve reported the phenomenon. “We’ll talk to the families,” said Formolo. “We want to talk to the families to clear that up.”

Increasing transparency and auditing fusion

While the Department of Homeland Security conducts annual audits of general fusion center activities, they’re often unspecific to particular states. The Wisconsin Department of Justice provided Wisconsin Examiner with a document detailing how Homeland Security grants were utilized in the 2020 fiscal year. Over $1 million in funding was split between the WSIC in Madison, and the STAC in Milwaukee, according to a PDF document created on Aug. 27, 2020.

WSIC was allocated $850,000 to help fund training and other operations. The STAC received $61,000 for operations and training analysts; $115,000 for infrastructure analysis and general analytical work, $80,000 to fund a Public Health and Medical Intelligence Analyst position, and $60,000 to install the fourth mobile security pole camera and trailer. “This equipment will be used at special events such as Democratic National Convention (DNC), Summerfest, Big Bang, State Fair, and other mass gatherings,” reads the grant document.

Still, questions linger around what exactly goes on within the unit. An attempt to conduct an audit of the fusion center Flynn helped build in Massachusetts found that, essentially, no audit could be done. Oftentimes, the activities and methods employed by that fusion center were noted as too confidential to disclose to the auditors.

During the March 20 town hall Norman responded to a question about conducting an audit of the fusion center. Calling it a “more complicated situation,” Norman noted, “the fusion center is made up of a consortium of different agencies. No one agency is actually in control of all the rules. In fact, there’s federal level, there’s county level. So it’s not within my directive or purview to have complete oversight in regards to their activities. That is something that I am still learning to look into in regards to the particular activities within the fusion center. But it is not just a Milwaukee Police Department control. This is a fusion center that is actually serving the entire southeastern Wisconsin. So there’s a lot of levels of, I would say, bureaucracy, in regards to something like that that has to be explored in regards to what we can and can’t do.”

Norman stated he supports transparency, however, the fusion center is a sensitive issue. “I always believe in transparency,” he told Wisconsin Examiner. “But again I have to understand what is the full scope of what the audit will reveal. I cannot speak ahead of things I don’t have full awareness of what that looks like. But I do believe in transparency, I believe that we should be as vocal and open to the public as possible. But, again, rules and boundaries are something that the police department has to operate under. So I do support it, but at the same time I don’t know the full extent of what I can reveal.”

Both Milwaukee County Supervisor Ryan Clancy and Rep. Jonathan Brostoff (D-Milwaukee) were present during the chief’s comments. Clancy and Brostoff, who’ve attended numerous protests, both have concerns about police surveillance. And the more they dig, the more questions they walk away with.

“The fusion center is weird,” Brostoff told Wisconsin Examiner. “This puts forward a lot more questions than answers. And it’s extremely troubling on its surface — the more questions that come up on it, the more questions I have. And I think that’s been the case for a lot of people.”

Reprinted with permission of Wisconsin Examiner.

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