Republican National Convention stage on Sept. 2, 2008. (photo by Nico Pitney, Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Activist groups in Milwaukee are decrying a decision by the city’s Fire and Police Commission (FPC) to suspend a newly adopted video release policy during the Republican National Convention (RNC) next year. The policy, which was passed in April, requires that video of critical incidents such as officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths to be released to the public within 15 days of the incident. It also requires the police department to give the family of any victims of those incidents access to the video within 48 hours.
For community organizers, the policy change was a victory years in the making. Milwaukee Police Chief Jeffery Norman, however, carved out an exception for the RNC. Norman expressed concerns that the policy would conflict with the numerous out-of-state jurisdictions expected to arrive for the two-week event. Plans are currently underway to house upwards of 4,500 police officers during the RNC which, like its Democratic counterpart, is considered a national security event.
On Thursday, the commission voted 6-3 to suspend the policy during the RNC. The quickly organized vote was held without public comment or input. The three commissioners who voted in opposition noted, among other things, that they had not had enough time to properly evaluate the request.
Ed Fallone, chair of the FPC, said that the vote “does not indicate any lack of support for [the video release policy] from either the commission or our Chief of Police Jeffrey Norman.” Fallone added: “The commission still fully embraces the wisdom and necessity of [the policy]. We’re simply reacting to a request from our police chief that will assist him in preparing for security and a successful Republican National Convention.”
In a statement to the Wisconsin Examiner, the MPD praised the commission’s decision. The statement said the department “has been planning for the RNC with many state and federal law enforcement agencies. Recognizing the multi-jurisdictional implications the RNC could impose, the Milwaukee Police Department is grateful for the Fire and Police Commission’s decision to temporarily suspend SOP 575 during the RNC to ensure our policy does not conflict with any practice or policy of our multi-state and federal partners.” When asked whether more policy suspensions are being considered, a spokesperson for the MPD said that “at this time, it is undetermined.”
Two years ago, over 100 police agencies that were originally committed to supporting MPD during the Democratic National Convention backed out. The withdrawals began to mount after city officials restricted the use of tear gas by police, following incidents in which gas and rubber bullets were used on protesters.
“It’s clear through this decision that the police plan on suppressing dissent during the week of the RNC,” said Aurelia Ceja, a co-chair of the Milwaukee Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, in a press statement. “What is it that MPD and the 4,000 law enforcement officers have planned for protesters?”
Ceja is also a co-chair of the Coalition To March On The RNC, made up of several local activist groups, including the Milwaukee Alliance. “The police don’t like being forced to show video of their repressive behavior and crimes,” Ceja stated. “From the uprisings in Kenosha and Wauwatosa, many organizers in the coalition have seen first hand the viciousness that police are capable of when there aren’t public eyes on them.”
Omar Flores, finance chair for the Alliance and co-chair of the Coalition, criticized the way the vote was carried out. “This resolution was drafted during closed door meetings with MPD, and without input from the public,” Flores said in a statement. “When it came time for public input, the FPC rearranged public comment on the agenda so it came after the vote.” Flores said the commission “promotes itself as a body that holds police accountable. Letting the police draft resolutions behind closed doors with no public input is not in line with their purpose.”
Other community organizers echoed the outrage. Vaun Mayes, a Milwaukee activist involved with several groups, questioned Norman’s motivations. “It concerns me both that he made that request, but even more it concerns me that the FPC would grant it without scrutinizing it and allowing adequate community input and transparency about why it’s even necessary,” Mayes told Wisconsin Examiner.
Other groups in the Coalition to March on the RNC joined in the criticism. “Civil liberties shouldn’t be suspended during the RNC,” said Tom Burke, a national spokesperson for the Coalition. “Why do the Republicans and their police foot soldiers get special treatment?” Calling on the commission to reverse its decision, Burke added, “We will lead a march on the first day of the convention within sight and sound of the RNC at the Wisconsin Center. We will not back down; we will be seen and we will be heard.”
The campaign to change the MPD video release policy has been gaining momentum since 2020. Community activists working closely with the families of people who’ve died in police custody or in officer-involved shootings often reported difficulty accessing video of the incidents, even with legal assistance. Meanwhile, police have released edited versions of videos in some instances and withheld them entirely in others.
After the death of 21-year-old Brieon Green at the Milwaukee County Jail in June 2022, Green’s family marched with the Milwaukee Alliance to campaign for the release of a complete video of the incident. The county released an edited version but has not released an unedited copy. The Milwaukee Alliance has also worked with similar families in the city.
Although Norman was reluctant to endorse commission’s new policy when it was under consideration, he stated the department would follow whatever policy the FPC decided to create. Its passage spurred ire and criticism from law enforcement around Milwaukee. Milwaukee Police Association President Andrew Wagner impugned reform activists’ motives.
“Instead of waiting for an investigation to be completed, their goal appears to be setting their own narrative,” he stated. “We have all seen where false narratives have been put out into the public to incite riots. These false narratives have destroyed cities and when the truth finally comes out the damage has been done.”
In a statement to the Wisconsin Examiner, the group Black Leaders Organizing Communities (BLOC) blasted the police association’s actions since the policy passed. “Every step of the way the Milwaukee Police Association has fought [the video release policy’s] implementation by suing soon after the vote passed the Fire and Police Commission,” the statement read. “It is important to note the police chief’s comments that he accepts the policy. At a time when politics are more polarized and in some cases violent, the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee has drawn legitimate concerns around safety. We must remember that body camera footage goes both ways. It allows for the community to get answers in a transparent way, and the officers that have nothing to hide and are not corrupting their position are protected by tangible evidence.” BLOC added that the influx of people the RNC will bring is further reason for the policy to remain intact.
Police officials also argued that the new policy would interfere with the Milwaukee Area Investigative Team’s activities. The team is a network of local law enforcement from different departments which investigate officer-involved deaths. Investigations conducted by the team have been criticized in the past for not being objective or transparent.
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