Special to the NNPA News Wire from Media Milwaukee
The forum titled “The Relationship between Communities of Color and the Police Department” was summed up perfectly by panelist Angela Walker when she said that the problem in Milwaukee is that there isn’t a relationship.
Many nods, snaps and murmurs of affirmation followed this comment as well as other points made throughout the event. The meeting created a space for members of Milwaukee’s community of color where they shared and discussed their struggles against what they described as discrimination and oppression by law enforcement in Milwaukee.
The panel discussion was held Oct. 22, 2015 at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Union and hosted by the Wisconsin chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Panel included local social justice advocates Emiliano Corbett-Soza, George Martin, Angela Walker, Mary Watkins and Reverend Steve Jerbi and was moderated by UWM history professor Robert Smith. A wide range of organizations was represented at the meeting.
The UWM Social Justice LLC, UWM Cultures and Communities, YWCA of Southeastern Wisconsin, Rid Racism Milwaukee, ACLU of Wisconsin and the ACLU Student Alliance at UWM were all present. These organizations of people of color and their allies all gathered to address what they see as the three main issues in Milwaukee that involve community and law enforcement relations.
They were militarization, the school-to-prison pipeline and use of excessive force by police.
Out of the discussion of these issues, the speakers unanimously called for key changes to be made in the city.
They said that solving these problems would begin with decriminalizing drug offenses, policing with a firehouse model and holding police accountable with real consequences for misconduct or excessive use of force.
They favored that these would be substantive positive changes to improve relations between communities of color and the police in Milwaukee over the implementation of body cameras, which they discussed as a weak recent attempt at a solution in the city.
Capt. Mark Stanmeyer, PR manager for Milwaukee police, declined to comment to the claims when given the chance by Media Milwaukee.
He said that the department would not respond to “misinformed, shallow premises.”
Opening the conversation about the city’s police and its communities of color, Watkins echoed Walker in saying that there isn’t a relationship between them.
“It’s more of a dictatorship,” Watkins said. Militarization of Milwaukee’s urban landscape was the first issue dissected.
Watkins defined this as the pouring of federal funds into police departments in the poorest areas.
She said that a look around some parts of the city at night resembles an occupation.
Walker said that when looking at some scenes of Milwaukee, Palestine or Syria come to mind before our city. She said it’s the military-grade armory that police have and the fact that there is an entire industry for weaponry made for urban policing that make it look like a war zone.
Walker also described how police use armored vehicles to patrol certain communities and not others like Mequon, Brookfield, or Whitefish Bay, for example.
The school-to-prison pipeline is the criminalization of students of color from a young age, being introduced to the justice system early and then not escaping it, according to Watkins.
She said that students of color are more likely to be suspended and referred to law enforcement than their White peers and the panelists discussed this as a big problem in Milwaukee Public Schools.
Walker said when a child acts up, instead of schools using intervention to find the reasons behind their disruptions such as possible trauma or poverty they may be dealing with, they are simply referred for detentions, suspensions or even to police.
She said that this is a cycle that takes students out of their classrooms and makes it more likely for them to repeat their behaviors, leading to lives of being disciplined and detained without help. Martin noted that actual crime rates are going down, but tough on crime policies are increasing.
In the discussion of police use of excessive force, body cameras have been commonly talked about nationally to be a solution to keep them accountable.
The panel discussed the recent hearing on September 29 about the implementation of body cameras for the Milwaukee Police Department.
Watkins detailed the flaws of the MPD body camera policy.
She said their plan gave officers the right to delete footage and turn their cameras on and off at their will.
She also said it lacked any consistent and meaningful consequence for officers if they chose not to comply with wearing the cameras.
“We’ve also watched people die on camera and it didn’t matter,” Walker added, referring to the death of Eric Garner last year.
Audience members asked panelists their opinions on other solutions to the discussed issues. They did offer specific changes that they feel need to be make in MPD’s practices.
“We need to take a look at what we’re calling crime,” Walker said.
She says that drugs are a public health issue, not a crime issue.
Martin added that there are more people incarcerated for drug offenses than violent crimes. They would like to call for the decriminalization of drug offenses.
Watkins feels that MPD over patrols the city and actively looks for trouble, rather than waiting to respond to reports. She described a firehouse model as a suggestion where officers and squad cars could instead wait at the station and be deployed as necessary. It would save gas for one thing, she said.
Watkins added that there need to be enforced consequences for officers who kill unarmed people. She points out that after the deaths of Dontre Hamilton, Michael Brown, Tony Robinson, etc. the officers that killed them are still free without much consequence.
She feels that nothing will improve until officers are held accountable for their actions.
“It also must start with the psychology of accepting the notion that [our police] have done something wrong,” said Martin.