Bauman Blasts Mayor on Water Street Chaos
Alderman wants stronger actions. "The mayor is basically whistling past the graveyard."
Alderman Robert Bauman said he knew there was a problem with unruly crowds in the Water Street entertainment district when Milwaukee Police Department captain James Campbell called him on a Sunday morning.
“I usually call them,” he said during a Public Works Committee meeting on Wednesday morning.
“The citizens have more guns than the cops at this point,” said Bauman, paraphrasing another concerned caller. Many in the crowd are believed to be under the legal drinking age and not going into the bars themselves. But they’re drinking in the street and fights have repeatedly broken out.
“Next week, homicide. Last week, shootings,” said Bauman, summarizing a rapidly escalating issue that started Memorial Day weekend.
The police department has relied on a strategy of swarming the area with officers on foot and horseback, but videos circulating via social media show officers taking a non-aggressive approach and minutes of a strategic meeting of downtown stakeholders obtained by Urban Milwaukee also suggests that’s the approach being used.
“For all the citizens watching out there, when there are 200 cops in downtown Milwaukee, that means there are 150 not in neighborhoods,” said Bauman. “If you call for service on a Saturday night, good luck getting a response because they’re Downtown policing teenagers.”
But Bauman, who has repeatedly expressed frustration that Mayor Tom Barrett isn’t involving the council in a response to the issue, has a different strategy to address the problem.
“I do not want to send police in with a zero-tolerance policy and try to arrest 1,000 people,” said Bauman. “I would rather disrupt transportation patterns.”
He said he wants it to be inconvenient to get to the area late at night, deterring the crowd from forming.
“It seems to me one approach is to deal with how people are getting there,” said the alderman. He said they didn’t think they were walking or taking the bus. “That car has got to be parked somewhere.”
Bauman said he would like to see towing of more than 200 vehicles parked per night, including those without license plates. That would involve more DPW staff issuing citations to make vehicles tow-eligible and more tow trucks on standby.
But Woznick said there are limits to that strategy, including that people start moving vehicles when they see the tow trucks in action. DPW would have trouble assigning more parking checkers to the effort without causing staffing shortages at other times, but the department is already handing off the citation effort to police after 10 p.m. because of threats to employees.
He said the department is already looking for any violation, including unregistered vehicles or missing plates, and tow trucks closely follow the checkers to speed up the effort.
The vehicles being towed are being taken to side streets instead of a tow lot, reducing turnaround time. But there is a cost to calling in more trucks. Woznick said the city’s agreement with contractors requires a $100-per-hour payment if the truck driver doesn’t get a tow when on city-initiated standby.
Polenske said he believes progress is being made. “This last week was really the first weekend we started that operation at eight o’clock, previously it was after 10,” said the commissioner. “It was more effective this past weekend.” But he said it would take multiple weekends to have an impact.
“There is no indication it’s going to get any better any time soon,” said Ald. Mark Borkowski.
“That’s my concern,” said Bauman. “I think the mayor is basically whistling past the graveyard here.”
Bauman said he thought Barrett’s plan amounted to hoping the issue goes away on its own.
“Somebody’s got to lead and that’s the mayor,” he said.
“Officers will ask people who are carrying open intoxicants and/or using illegal drugs to stop doing that. They will not be using a heavy hand to enforce,” read Bauman.
He said it equated to telling the police to stand down. “I have a funny suspicion that is very frustrating to [them],” he said.
“Bouncers/security from bars should have prominent clothing that identifies them as such and are asked to also politely inform people that they are breaking the laws if they see open intoxicants, etc,” reads Williams-Smith’s notes from a meeting that, according to Bauman, included 50 stakeholders.
The alderman noted that Milwaukee Downtown has posted signs listing what behaviors are illegal. Polenske declined to defend the effectiveness of the signs.
“That conveys a sense that we just hope this blows over,” said Bauman.
But the alderman has another idea: fence the area off like the Milwaukee Bucks do with the Deer District during games. Checkpoints could then be used for crowd control, and to remove weapons and carry-ins. Bridges could also be raised to limit traffic flows.
He asked Polenske if the city had possession of the elaborate fencing used to protect the Wisconsin Center during the Democratic National Convention.
The commissioner said no, it was rented from a contractor. And even if the city could get it again, it would take time. An effort by DPW to lease barricades for placement between the sidewalk and a large surface parking lot at the northeast corner of N. Water St. and E. Juneau Ave. took at least five days to be installed by a contractor. Too late for this weekend.
“You made some great suggestions Alderman Bauman, but you have to be prepared for the consequences of that,” said DPW director of operations Danielle Rodriguez. “You are now trapping people.”
“This conversation is probably long overdue,” said Ald. Jose G. Perez, but he said he wanted it to be clear that the message wasn’t don’t come Downtown. It was don’t come Downtown if you are going to stand in the street and break the law.
Perez said more discussion was needed because Water Street wouldn’t be the end of the problem. He said a smaller, but similar, issue occurred in his district near W. Historic Mitchell St. last year.
Earlier this year the city also shut down “Club Midtown,” an unpermitted, open-air party that was taking place in surface parking lots at the Midtown shopping center. One night saw more than 300 shots fired.
“There needs to be a sense of urgency here,” said Bauman.
The committee meeting was the first where council members have publicly discussed the issue with administration officials. A Public Safety & Health Committee scheduled for Thursday morning includes no mention of the issue on its agenda.
Want to read more on the topic? Barrett answered questions on the topic during a media briefing Tuesday.
If you think stories like this are important, become a member of Urban Milwaukee and help support real, independent journalism. Plus you get some cool added benefits, all detailed here.