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Opposition Grows to City’s Public Safety Action Plan

Narrow law enforcement proposal faces blowback and calls for public hearings

Sep. 6, 2016
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Milwaukee Ald. Bob Donovan’s plan to hire 280 additional police officers and take a get-tougher-on-crime approach to public safety is being met with steady opposition.

The draft of Donovan’s Public Safety Action Plan, released two weeks after a Milwaukee police officer fatally shot Sylville Smith, has not yet had a public hearing and at least one influential Milwaukee Common Council member—Finance and Personnel Committee Chair Ald. Milele Coggs—says she does not support it. 

“Whatever public safety so-called plan was released has never been voted on, is not something that the council legally or [in] any legislative way has ever endorsed to this point,” Coggs said during Thursday’s Common Council meeting. “And I, Alderwoman Coggs, will state to you clearly here today on the record, I don’t support it.”

Coggs said the public should be able to weigh in on the plan “and let it extend far beyond that” to issues outside of the plan.

Coggs formally opposed Donovan’s plan in a highly unusual meeting of the full council on Sept. 1 in which one member representing protesters in the chambers was allowed to address council members.

Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton said it was the “purview of the chair” to allow the council to hear public testimony during a meeting of the full council. Just two members opposed the public testimony.   

Markasa Tucker of Uplifting Black Liberation and Community (UBLAC) told the council members that when she read the plan she was disgusted by the recommendations. 

“We just wonder, when was the community going to be given a chance to weigh in on those things?” Tucker said. “Not after it was drafted and written.”

She said the public would continue to speak out until they are given a chance to be heard by the council.

“The people who are going to be affected need to be at the table,” Tucker said.

Following Tucker’s testimony, a Black Panther yelled out his opposition to the plan.

“Either you listen to us or we will force you to listen to us,” he said.

Donovan Opposes Public Testimony 

Tucker’s testimony is the first time the public has been allowed to weigh in on Donovan’s plan, the result of a few months of information-gathering in the Public Safety Committee, which Donovan chairs. The stated goal of those hearings, at which Donovan invited only government officials to speak, was “to present a more effective and cost-efficient model to address crime, fear and disorder in the City of Milwaukee.”

Just two members of the council opposed allowing Tucker to speak on Thursday: Donovan and fellow tea party Ald. Mark Borkowski.

“It’s out of order,” Donovan said. “I agree with this council in the importance of community input in this plan and this effort to move forward. But this is not the vehicle to do it. I also—I also am concerned because of this and this supposed protest here that good officers in this community were not honored for their heroism. That concerns me as well.”

Donovan didn’t acknowledge that he did not allow any public testimony in his committee on the plan.

“What I’m hearing is that it is unprecedented and that may be so,” Ald. Chantia Lewis said in support of public testimony. “But I also agree that what we’ve seen as of late in the city is unprecedented.”

The plan hasn’t been assigned to a committee yet, confirmed City Clerk Jim Owczarski, and no public hearings on the plan have been scheduled. The Public Safety Committee’s next meeting is Thursday, Sept. 8. 

On Friday, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett told the Journal Sentinel he will add more officers to his proposed 2017 budget. His budget will be sent to the council’s finance committee, headed by Coggs, which will sort through and amend the mayor’s budget before sending it to the full council for passage. 

Brostoff and English Arrested 

Thursday’s Common Council meeting capped a week full of opposition to the plan and the MPD’s handling of the fallout from the Aug. 13 Sylville Smith shooting in the Sherman Park neighborhood. The MPD’s video footage of the shooting has not been released and community members continue to gather at Smith’s memorial. 

On Tuesday night, state Rep. Jonathan Brostoff (D-Milwaukee) and ACLU of Wisconsin organizer Jarrett English were arrested by police in riot gear while at the site of Smith’s memorial. Both men were peaceful and were walking away from the scene when they were forced to the ground, involuntarily searched and placed in a police van. MPD released Brostoff after they discovered he is a state legislator and English was released quickly as well.

“I think the command staff of MPD typically does a very good job with public relations and all those kinds of things,” English told the Shepherd. “I don’t think the rank and file do so well at that. A lot of times, it’s the opposite.”

He said the public should be more outspoken about the MPD’s treatment of young black men.

“I don’t worry about me,” English said. “I worry about the 12 year old, the 14 year old, the 17 year old, typically people of color, typically young black men, who get harassed, who get thrown in vans all the time and detained for reasons unknown and there’s nobody calling to find out if they’re OK. We have lots and lots and lots of traumatized youth who deal with this kind of situation every day and they have no recourse at all.”

English spoke to the Shepherd after the Thursday meeting of the Fire and Police Commission, which oversees the MPD. The public is allowed to testify at the beginning of each meeting, but only about issues on the agenda. Smith’s shooting, the public safety plan and police-community relations were not on the agenda. 

Just three members of the public spoke: English, Wisconsin executive director of the ACLU, Chris Ahmuty and Cynthia Greenwood, who held up a sign saying “Release the video right now” and warned of more unrest if the video isn’t made public soon.

“What’s the best way to contain a riot?” ACLU’s Ahmuty testified before the FPC. “Do you delay or stonewall the release of information that may harm the department’s reputation and let speculation build until winter? Do you take steps to assure the public that justice will be done, despite our history and the law? Responsible officials are in a quandary. Irresponsible officials are another matter. Where does the oversight body, the board of the FPC, come down? What side are you on?”

The ACLU has called for the MPD and state Department of Justice to release the dashboard camera and body camera video showing the shooting of Smith. Last week, the ACLU and 19 other organizations sent a letter to Common Council members opposing the public safety plan and asking for a commitment to the two listening sessions as well as more support for the Office of Violence Prevention.     

“We believe that the draft plan’s nearly exclusive focus on law enforcement solutions to public safety issues is painfully one dimensional,” the Aug. 31 letter states. “Law enforcement can’t solve all the social issues facing society.”

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