Last year was a difficult one from which few were spared. It’s hard to find any person, place or thing, however, with a worse showing in 2020 than the MILWAUKEE POLICE AND FIRE COMMISSION. The city’s oversight body for its police and fire departments endured a string of dysfunction rarely seen in its 136-year history.
Often referred to as the country’s most powerful police oversight board, the FPC stands apart from its peers by wielding substantial power with near total independence. Yes, the mayor chooses its commissioners and executive director. And yes, the Common Council confirms or rejects those selections. But, once confirmed, commissioners have a free hand to do whatever they want, provided it’s legal.
Their list of duties isn’t quite total control over the police and fire departments but comes close. They don’t set the budgets for either department. They do set policy and procedures for both. The FPC also dictates the hiring and training process, and is the final say on discipline and promotions.
So when there is trouble at the FPC, it’s fair to say the police and fire departments lack fully attentive watchdogs. There’s nothing essentially novel about crisis in municipal bureaucracy. But the collapse of leadership at a police oversight board which might have been held up as a nationwide model is a uniquely Milwaukeean dysfunction.
It was unlikely to be a great 2020 for the FPC in any event. The commission limped into 2020 hamstrung by a skeleton crew. A controversial reorganization in 2019 by then Executive Director Griselda Aldrete sparked a messy exodus of staff. “I cannot in good conscience continue to work under this leadership,” wrote former investigator Cheryl Patane in just one of the public resignation letters circulating at the time. “To do so would be in conflict with my convictions, my values and my ethics regarding the true job duties of a dedicated public safety oversight professional.”
But the turning point from bad to worse came in late summer, when the FPC entered a period of sustained crisis from which it has yet to emerge. At a tense commission meeting on Aug. 6, Police Chief Alfonso Morales was unceremoniously demoted. The move came weeks after the FPC ordered Morales to implement 11 directives amid the continuing Black Lives Matter protests. In the interim between the two events, a beleaguered Aldrete announced she would not seek reappointment as executive director. Morales’ MPD, meanwhile, prepared a document questioning the purpose and legality of the directives.
Morales wasted little time suing the city over the demotion. In November, City Attorney Tearman Spencer was forced to admit in a court filing that the FPC violated Morales’ rights, leading Circuit Judge Christopher Foley to conclude the FPC badly botched its job. “It is clear this entire process was flawed,” he wrote in his decision siding with Morales.
Understand this: It’s not that the FPC lacks the power to discipline Milwaukee police officers, including the chief. Such actions are among its core functions. Many at the time believed Morales’ placement on the hot seat to be entirely justified. Rather, the way the FPC handled its demotion of Morales was so bad it amounted to an abuse of power. A final settlement has yet to be reached as of March, but the cost of the blunder will almost certainly fall to Milwaukee taxpayers, who have forked over more than $31 million in MPD-related lawsuit payouts since 2015.
The repudiation in court also suspended efforts to turn the page on the Morales era – not that those were going much better. A nationwide search for a new police chief produced two finalists: Dallas Police Department Major Malik Aziz and Hoyt Mahaley, an FBI agent with hometown roots. The six commissioners could not decide between the two, deadlocking at three votes apiece for each candidate. By the time a tiebreaking seventh commissioner arrived to bulldoze the impasse, the FPC had suspended the search to let settlement talks play out with Morales, who at press time technically remained the chief of Milwaukee police. Meanwhile, the MPD is on its second acting chief since Morales’ departure. (The first, Michael Brunson, retired in December, and several aldermen are currently lobbying for the current occupant, Jeffrey Norman, to be reconsidered for the permanent job.)
This year has been no kinder to the FPC. A February report from the city’s inspector general reaffirmed Judge Foley’s conclusions, finding that the FPC violated state law when demoting Morales. Crucially, the inspector general also determined that the FPC acted counter to legal advice provided by the city attorney’s office, settling a round of finger-pointing between the two offices. The 2021 report comes less than a year after a previous inspector general audit found several operational flaws at the FPC.
Then, on Feb. 15, the FPC’s longest-serving commissioner, Steven DeVougas, resigned in the face of a strengthening Milwaukee Ethics Board investigation. DeVougas runs a law firm outside the FPC, and it was in his capacity as the personal lawyer for a wealthy developer accused of rape that raised questions. A separate inquiry from a third-party investigator hired by the FPC concluded DeVougas likely violated city ethics rules and lied about his links to the developer. At the time of his resignation, DeVougas was accused of dodging subpoenas. He left the FPC about a week before the Journal Sentinel published a bombshell story placing DeVougas at the center of a web of power and influence encompassing MPD, the Milwaukee Police Foundation, development loans and the mayor’s office.
DeVougas’ resignation closed the investigation into his activities, but a separate legal matter remains open concerning another former executive director, Mary-Nell Regan, who led the commission from 2015 to 2018. During that time, Regan fired longtime FPC investigator Susan Bodden-Eichsteadt, who claims to have told others days before her dismissal that Regan was suffering from alcohol withdrawal at work. Bodden-Eichsteadt sued for wrongful termination, and the case is proceeding in federal court.
The situation at the FPC is made more desperate coming at a time when strong leadership is needed to respond to surging crime stats and a national debate over the role of policing. Milwaukee set a grisly record of 189 homicides last year. Car thefts are up 152%. Overdose deaths climbed 13% in 2020 and are nearing 500 every year. “We find ourselves almost just shrugging our shoulders at the next [overdose], and the one that comes after that, and the one that comes after that,” Acting Fire Chief Aaron Lipski said at a recent community meeting. “We’re breaking the wrong records here.”
In the best of times, the FPC is mostly invisible, despite its unusual abilities, which can be masked by dry titles and Byzantine bureaucratic processes. “Milwaukee is unique in that it does have a level of authority that many would like to have,” says Liana Perez, director of operations at the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.
A ceremonial report published 11 years ago to mark the FPC’s 125th anniversary included praise from Mayor Tom Barrett: “The commission has quietly and effectively served the people of this city for 125 years. The efforts of the commission have not gone unnoticed; instead, your work directly affects all aspects of public safety in our community. … The commission has always met its challenges head-on, with sound judgment and knowledgeable leadership.”
If the current FPC can be said to reflect any one person’s vision, that person is Barrett. He selected all the current commissioners and many past ones over his 17 years in office. Whatever his desires are for the city’s police and fire departments, they must be achieved through the FPC.
In the best of times, the FPC is mostly invisible, despite its unusual abilities, which can be masked by dry titles and Byzantine bureaucratic processes.
“The Fire and Police Commission has actually changed significantly over the last eight to 10 years,” Barrett says. “When I began, a lot of its focus was on dealing with matters that were wholly internal with the police department, and more specifically with disciplinary actions. I was looking for people who did not always assume that the police were right, and did not always assume that the police were wrong.”
That narrow focus broadened after years of police controversies, both nationwide and here in Milwaukee. “Clearly, over the last six or seven years, police-community relations have become a much, much, much more serious part,” Barrett says.
Commissioners themselves only serve part-time. The $6,600 they receive yearly for their work all but guarantees commissioners must have outside sources of income. Following DeVougas’s resignation, there are once again only six commissioners serving on the nine-member panel: Ann Wilson, a community center manager; Nelson Soler, a marketing executive; Angela McKenzie, a lawyer; Everett Cocroft, a retired firefighter; Fred Crouther, a pastor; and Amanda Avalos, a community organizer.
Barrett says it was never his desire to appoint retired police and fire officers to the commission. He did so to appease a state legislature that was looking at requiring active police and firefighters to serve on the body. He points to former commissioner Richard Cox as an ideal example of what he looks for when making appointments.
“[Cox] worked for the county and was involved with the county corrections system,” Barrett says. “He was a really good person to have on there because he understood the community and he understood law enforcement. At the same time, he did not have any what I would call significant personal or work-related history with people who are with either department.”
Commissioners’ terms are supposedly limited to five years, although in practice members remain in place until they resign or their replacements are confirmed. Wilson is still serving a term that expired in 2018; Barrett didn’t bother to formally renominate her until November 2020. Two other mayoral appointments in recent years were rejected by the Common Council. Another commissioner, Raymond Robakowski, resigned in 2020 less than a year after his confirmation, blasting the whole commission as dysfunctional on his way out the door.
Police oversight boards will always be hotbeds of controversy. That comes with the territory. In 2012, for instance, public outcry led the FPC to reverse its decision not to fire an officer caught on video beating a handcuffed woman. But that episode also illustrates the value of the FPC: an oversight board that can be more responsive to community protests than to city hall or the MPD top brass.
It is clear the current FPC fails to qualify for even the mayor’s tepid boilerplate thrown out a decade ago. Shortly after Judge Foley overturned Morales’ demotion, Barrett said the commission made serious mistakes and Milwaukeeans should expect changes. Following DeVougas’s resignation, Barrett announced he was pleased DeVougas was stepping down. Asked if he has faith in the remaining commissioners, Barrett says, “What I’m going to do is – as decisions are being made, I will be announcing who I will be nominating.”
As the person with the biggest imprint on the FPC, Barrett understands that some of its troubles can be placed at his feet. “Clearly, I’m the mayor of the city of Milwaukee,” he says.
But he notes that he cannot prevent commissioners from exercising their independence in ill-advised ways, citing the Morales affair as an example. He suggests the episode could have been prevented had the FPC consulted with him.
“You’ve got a commission there that did not come to me and seek my advice. Were they my appointees? Yes, but this is where it gets interesting. Clearly, I have not packed it with people who are going to necessarily do my bidding.”
The FPC now has the feel of a hot potato for council members who were once happy to speak at length or blast out press releases. Common Council President Cavalier Johnson declined to comment for this story, as did Ald. Marina Dimitrijevic, who chairs the public safety committee. Ald. Russell Stamper II, another critic, emailed a statement saying, “Only comment I have at this point is that I’m looking forward to a successful 2021 for FPC, MPD, MFD and our community. We have a lot of work to do, but we accept the responsibility.”
Pending any further changes led by Barrett in the wake of the Journal Sentinel’s reporting, the most visible markers of evolution at the FPC are DeVougas’s resignation and the arrival of two new faces. Avalos’ confirmation in January added a then-tie-breaking seventh member to the FPC board. Her vote was to be crucial when the police chief hiring process restarts, positioning her as kingmaker months after she helped lead an unsuccessful push to strip 25% out of the MPD budget.
Joining Avalos is Lee Todd, whom Barrett selected in November as the fourth executive director in three years. The Common Council confirmed Todd unanimously the following month, an unusually easy approval from a body that has grown increasingly frustrated with the FPC’s decisions.
Todd, 42, comes from a politically active Sherman Park family; his father and namesake, Leon Todd, has served on the Milwaukee Public School Board. Todd himself is a former appellate-level public defender and current board member for Wisconsin Justice Initiative and Legal Action of Wisconsin. He brings to the post a background unusually robust in police watchdog functions.
“I’m someone who’s dedicated my career to working for justice and to helping people who haven’t had the same privileges and opportunities that I’ve had,” Todd says.
While his immediate predecessors all hold law degrees, none had resumes that came close to the hands-on role Todd took in the justice system, often as an adversary of police. “I saw lineups where the target was of a different race than the fillers,” he says. “That gives me a lens through which to look at areas that can potentially be problematic.”
Todd stresses that as executive director he wears a different hat and is now more concerned about an effective police department than effective criminal defense. But he also views the director role as natural progression in a career guided by the search for fairness and truth, which experience has shown him is not always the outcome of police actions.
FPC Executive directors don’t even get to formally propose department changes or vote on any FPC business. Strictly speaking, functions are limited to acting as secretary during FPC meetings and managing FPC staff.
“I think that there are some bad police officers on the police force that shouldn’t be there,” he says, adding, “By and large, however, the vast, vast majority of police officers want to help people, promote public safety and do the right thing.”
Todd hopes to implement implicit bias training at the police force as a tool to curb discrimination. But he cannot unilaterally act on that reform or any others. FPC executive directors don’t even get to formally propose department changes or vote on any FPC business. Strictly speaking, his functions are limited to acting as secretary during FPC meetings and managing FPC staff. In fact, the executive director position was controlled by the FPC commissioners themselves until 1988, when then Mayor John Norquist lobbied the state Legislature to give his office the authority to hire and fire executive directors.
This separation of authority has at times invited questions of who exactly is running the show, and it was a key driver of recent conflict. Todd comes to the post needing to perform behind-the-scenes leadership without alienating the commissioners or his political patron, Barrett.
“I was hired by the mayor and I serve at his pleasure, but it is my goal to work collaboratively with [commissioners],” Todd says. “I also want to be more than just a manager. That’s obviously a very important function. But I would like to serve as an adviser to the board.”
Barrett, for his part, attests to complete confidence in Todd, whom he selected over 17 other applicants. “I think Lee’s off to a very solid start,” Barrett says. “It’s obviously a critical time. We’ve got an acting fire chief and an acting police chief. That’s pretty unusual.”
Todd is not in a position to comment on the messes created before his arrival, but before he and the FPC can go to work refashioning the police department, it needs to get its own house in order, starting with staffing up. Todd inherited an office with a 40% vacancy rate on positions less visible than the commissioners but nevertheless crucial to the FPC mission. They include investigators who pursue complaints against the police and fire departments, and data analysts charged with mapping policing effectiveness – not only so the FPC can make informed decisions but so it complies with the law, as well. Nine additional staffers will bring the office back to full capacity; he also needs four hires to run the new office of emergency communications. He aims to do this by June 1.
As the commission is slowly restaffed, a stiffer challenge awaits. The FPC is required to live up to the terms of a 2018 legal settlement between the ACLU and the city of Milwaukee. The agreement is the result of a lawsuit against the city that alleged the MPD’s aggressive stop-and-frisk policies targeted minorities. City officials denied any wrongdoing, but they did agree to changes. “This was never a case for money damages for any of the individual plaintiffs,” says Karyn Rotker, senior staff attorney with ACLU Wisconsin. “This was a case that was brought in order to try to change the behavior, culture and actions of policing in the city of Milwaukee, and move it past a lot of historic, significant discrimination.”
Now halfway through the agreement, there remains much work to be done. The Boston-based Crime and Justice Institute, which monitors the city’s compliance, found in a recent report that Black drivers were still eight times more likely to be pulled over by police than white drivers.
Todd, who is a member of the Wisconsin Association of African American Lawyers, calls fixing the racial disparities in policing a moral responsibility. “It’s a huge problem that we need to seriously address,” he says. “Police officers need to respect the rights of residents. They need to properly document their interactions with the public. They need to abide by constitutional rules and limitations with respect to arrests and police stops. And they need to work to reduce racial disparities in police stops. Those are all goals that the [ACLU] settlement agreement seeks to achieve, and we should be striving to meet those responsibilities and challenges even if the settlement agreement didn’t exist.”
Under the terms of the settlement, the type of analysis performed by the Crime and Justice Institute will eventually be performed by the FPC directly. The FPC is also charged with auditing recordings from dashboard and body cameras every six months. If the commission is unable to live up to those terms, the settlement could be extended indefinitely, something Rotker makes clear the ACLU does not want to see happen. She is encouraged by Todd’s selection as executive director.
“His background suggests that he will be approaching [the settlement] from a perspective of not just getting into compliance because they have to, but wanting to get into compliance because it’s the right thing to do.”
A new captain can do much to right a flagging ship, particularly if he sticks around, which Todd hopes to do. “I plan to be here long term and hopefully make some important changes and progress,” he says.
But he cannot do it alone. And some of the biggest changes are entirely out of his hands. At the end of February, the FPC commission was back to six members, and the threat of more paralysis stemming from tied votes loomed large. To combat it, Todd says he wants to see a fully staffed nine-member FPC. “There are a lot of talented and experienced people in the Milwaukee community that could be assets to the board,” Todd says.
Barrett, whose job it is to appoint new commissioners, says he is fine with nine but is in no hurry to get there, noting that for most of its history, the FPC has only had five members. The expansion came when Barrett asked the Legislature for more commissioners to process a backlog in police disciplinary appeals. The Legislature approved an increase of up to nine members, but Barrett says seven were sufficient. “We’ve got to get to seven first,” Barrett says. “It has never been nine.”
If Todd can restore order to the FPC, he says, the best way Milwaukeeans will be able to tell is through absence. Absence of headlines about disgruntled resignations and a Common Council demanding accountability. Absence of questions about who is in charge of the police, and when Milwaukeeans can expect policing without bias.
“Some of the things that have been previously in the news, like vacancies and complaints by former staff members of the leadership of the FPC – I’m specifically talking about my predecessor – you won’t see those things.”
Todd knows the city is ready for change, and he believes his office finally is, too. “I think the mood has shifted and everyone is over the drama,” he says.
If he fails, the FPC’s shortcomings will not only continue to play out in the news, they will disrupt the lives of residents – something the community knows all too well. “The level of frustration and distrust of police among Milwaukee residents is really greater than I’ve ever seen it,” Todd says. “That distrust undermines public safety, and it makes the job of the police more difficult and less effective.”