Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Police Department Tweets Lied To Public

Comptroller audit finds 2020 tweets misled public. Acting Chief Norman calls them "unacceptable."

By - Oct 27th, 2021 04:01 pm
MPD's "Molotov cocktail" and an unlit Molotov cocktail. Photos by MPD, Kundl.

MPD’s “Molotov cocktail” and an unlit Molotov cocktail. Photos by MPD, Kundl.

The fallout from the Milwaukee Police Department‘s response to June 2020 protests following the killing of George Floyd continues to plague the department.

A new citywide social media audit by the City Comptroller found that MPD misled and misinformed the public via social media on multiple occasions.

In multiple posts on Twitter, the department claimed multiple Molotov cocktails (an improvised explosive device) were thrown at officers blocking protesters at the intersection of N. 6th St. and W. McKinley Ave. on June 2, 2020. But that’s not what happened.

Only months later did the department admit the plastic water bottle it shared a photo of was not a Molotov cocktail. It also admitted it never sent the device to a lab for testing, as then-Assistant Chief Michael Brunson later claimed.

“Those were maintained for several weeks, even after they had determined there wasn’t a Molotov cocktail used,” said auditor Charles Roedel on Wednesday to members of the Finance & Personnel Committee.

In fact, the two Molotov cocktail tweets are still available on Twitter. The service does not have an edit function, but MPD could have sent a follow-up tweet to address the “misinformation” and never did.

The audit, which studied 50 tweets from departments and elected officials, also found another MPD tweet with an issue.

“MPD tweeted statistics that falsely implied causation in violation of the Social Media Policy,” wrote Roedel and Comptroller Aycha Sawa.

What was the tweet?

MPD is committed to serving our community with the resources we are afforded. However, the Mayor and Common Council reduced our budget by 60 police officers this year. The homicide rate has more than doubled & non-fatal shootings have increased by over 35% since 2019. #DidYouKnow,” tweeted the department on June 11, 2020.

Council President Cavalier Johnson quickly issued a press release condemning the statement last June, but the department doubled down and said it was only explaining how “defunding police” would work.

But the evidence doesn’t add up, nor does correlation equal causation.

The homicide total went up from 88 to 145 from 2014 to 2015, as the police budget went from $244 million to $248.5 million. In 2016, the budget jumped by over $28 million to $277 million while the number of homicides fell by four to 141.

Alfonso Morales, who became police chief in early 2018, saw the number of homicides drop notably in his first two years. Following a drop to 119 in 2017, the total fell to 101 in 2018 and 97 in 2019.

What happened financially over that period as the homicide rate fell? The budget was cut. It went from $309 million in 2018 to $298.9 million in 2019.

The department’s communication in June 2020 was included in the list of Fire & Police Commission directives that ultimately led to Morales being demoted.

Now more than a year later, other city officials are still taking issue with it. The Comptroller asked MPD for a response as part of the audit.

“As the Acting Chief of the Milwaukee Police Department, I do not condone either communication,” wrote Jeffrey Norman on Aug. 30. “I agree that they are misleading, irresponsible and poorly reflect on not only the Milwaukee Police Department but also the entire City of Milwaukee. Those social media communications were issued under the direction of Chief Alfonso Morales. Put simply, those Tweets are unacceptable.”

Norman noted that since the tweets were issued Morales and Brunson have left the department and two of the three individuals in the public information office have turned over. He said his strategy is to use social media for positive communication. Chief of staff Nick DeSiato, who served under Morales, remains in charge of the office.

“In response to this inequity, every member of the Public Information Office was re-sent the Social Media Policy and instructed to strictly comply to its terms,” wrote Norman, who has a pending appointment to a four-year term as chief.

The impact of MPD’s past conduct? “Loss of trust and potential for misinformation or outdated information misleading Milwaukee residents. Risk rating: high,” concludes the report.

Other Social Media Issues

MPD was the only department with social media posts labeled as misinformation or misleading in the audit, but it found other problems with the city’s use of social media.

“The audit concluded that the City’s social media governance is at an early stage of maturity,” wrote Roedel and Sawa in their conclusion.

The policy was last updated in 2011 and departments and elected officials have haphazardly launched social media accounts since then. The report recommends updating the policy to explicitly prohibit misinformation or misleading information, defining the owners and differentiating between elected officials campaign accounts, official accounts and personal accounts.

“What constitutes a city account?” asked Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs, an active user of social media to share information related to her district and actions.

Chief Information Officer David Henke said there is no standard. “Today there are no city resources dedicated specifically for social media,” he said.

But that will change. His department has an open request for proposals for a management tool that will allow standardization across all city department accounts.

But as Coggs, Ald. Scott Spiker and committee chair Michael Murphy noted, that leaves open the question of how elected officials should appropriately use and delineate their accounts.

“Who makes that decision?” asked Murphy.

Henke said the city’s IT department doesn’t have the resources or expertise to monitor activity on the accounts of elected officials. Roedel said questions should be referred to the Milwaukee Election Commission.


Categories: City Hall, Weekly

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