Is the Wauwatosa Police Department working with ICE?

By: - September 24, 2019 7:00 am
ICE agent with back to camera

Immigration agent

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Wisconsin recently discovered a partnership between the Waukesha County Sheriff’s Office and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). But is Waukesha truly the only department cooperating with the federal immigration agency? The Wauwatosa Police Department (WPD) may also have formed an alliance with the deportation force.

Authorized for just 95 sworn personnel, WPD is responsible for policing Wauwatosa (Tosa), a mostly white, suburban community of Milwaukee County. In recent years, Chief Barry Weber has repeatedly highlighted shortages in personnel and high demand for quick response times from the department. Since 2013, the department has seen it’s annual calls for service gradually increase, according to the city’s website.

“Over the last several years,” Weber wrote in a letter to the city of Wauwatosa included in the department’s 2018 annual report, “we have observed and experienced the trend of struggling to fill our vacancies with quality people.” Although personnel hired by the department are described as “professional, caring and passionate about the service our department provides,” Weber cited the “real challenges in competing with other cities and the private sector to hire and retain the best employees.”

In 2017, Weber also wrote, “Law enforcement has been under so much pressure over the last few years that the ability to attract numerous outstanding candidates has become very competitive within the profession.” In light of these hurdles, Weber wrote in the 2015 annual report, “now, more than ever before, the partnerships between police and the community are mandatory for everyone working together to make the entire city a safe and welcoming place for law-abiding citizens.”

It’s 2019 now, and many Milwaukee-area residents, activists and civil rights defenders point to cooperation with ICE by local law enforcement as a major source of harm to community trust in the police. The Milwaukee Police Department and Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office have both expressed a reluctance to perform immigration operations. On September 11, 2018, however, Chief Weber shared a very different stance at a public meeting on immigrant protections in Wauwatosa.

The meeting focused on a resolution proposed by Wauwautosa Ald. Heather Kuhl to ensure that a majority vote by the common council would be required if the department intended to cooperate with ICE. Some inaccurately described the resolution as making Wauwatosa a “sanctuary city,” and feared it would invite criminals to the area. An hour and 41 minutes into the meeting, Weber took the public podium to lay down his views on working with ICE.

“In all my years of law enforcement, we have never ever asked someone what their immigration status is when we make a traffic stop,” he said before Wauwatosa residents and the common council in 2018. “But I gotta tell you, if we stop somebody and, maybe it’s a possible serious felony charge or something of that nature, and we discover that they are in the country illegally, I assure you that if need be, we’ll contact Immigrant and Customs Enforcement (ICE). And if we have to I’ll contact them myself, because we are not a jurisdiction that is going to allow people of a criminal element to stay in our city.”

Weber said certain parts of the resolution seemed to imply that the Wauwatosa Police Department doesn’t treat people with a common degree of respect, and that “it sounds like we’re not doing our jobs.” WPD, in fact, has been accused of racial profiling, harassment, and infringing on citizens’ rights to privacy during police searches since the late 1990s. The department was also criticized for a lack of transparency in the 2016 shooting of 25-year-old Jay Anderson Jr., by a Wauwautosa officer.

Looking directly at the alders, Weber declared, “We cooperate with the federal government.” Citing the department’s involvement in federal task forces for gang violence, the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program and others, he called the idea of limiting federal cooperation “ridiculous.” He warned, “You can pass a resolution, you can pass an ordinance, if I get someone who I think is guilty of a serious crime and they’re undocumented, I’m not following the ordinance. Which means that if I’m doing something illegally, somebody is going to have to file charges with the Police and Fire Commission and have me removed.”

That was the last time Weber updated the public on the issue of cooperation between his department and ICE. Wisconsin Examiner reached out to both the Wauwatosa Police Department and Mayor Kathleen Ehley. Both parties pointed  to the chief’s comments in 2018, and refused to comment further. A Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) request filed for WPD’s standard operating procedure on immigration activities and documents indicating an ICE partnership, similar to the Waukesha Sheriff’s Office, was denied. “The Wauwatosa Police Department does not have any records that are responsive to your request,” emailed Sergeant Katie Gierach.

Ald. Kuhl recalled Weber’s comments as “shocking.” “I think that a lot of people were shocked by that. It was disappointing in terms of the relationship between the residents of Wauwatosa, the common council, and WPD,” she told Wisconsin Examiner.

“He really does a disservice when he talks so cavalierly about transferring people to immigration,” said Christine Neumann-Ortiz, founding executive director of the immigrant-rights group Voces de la Frontera, “The reality is that the policies that many police and sheriff departments have passed, which limit cooperation with ICE, actually promote public safety.”

Local police depend on public trust, especially when it comes to sharing information about crimes. Chief Weber, in the years leading up to the 2018 meeting, echoed that point. Neumann-Ortiz says this is particularly true for immigrants, who might be more vulnerable to being taken advantage of by someone, “because they think that they’ll be too afraid to reach out to law enforcement.”

Voces de la Frontera has received reports of ICE agents knocking on doors, pretending to be local police officers. Neumann-Ortiz gave an example of a person who’d been detained by ICE during a mass raid across Wisconsin in September 2018.

“They lived in a neighborhood where they had contact with the police, and did trust the police to report activity in the neighborhood. The mother opened the door and it wasn’t the police, it was ICE. They took the father away in front of the kids, it was a very traumatic experience.”

“When ICE comes into the community, and creates all that trauma, and they leave, you have the police who are left there,” Neumann-Ortiz adds. “And now there’s tremendous fear of them.”

The immigrant rights advocate also objects to Weber’s comments that, “they’re not illegal immigrants, they’re illegal aliens. An immigrant is someone who has entered the country legally.”

“I don’t think the chief of police sets a good example by calling people illegal aliens,” Neumann-Ortiz said. “It’s very offensive. It’s a legal term, but it’s considered racist and derogatory and it’s obvious why. People are human beings, they’re not aliens. That’s an attempt to dehumanize them.”

Regardless of what policies Weber wishes to implement, as a Milwaukee County department, WPD must take arrested people to the Milwaukee County Jail. This creates a logistical challenge if the chief wants to turn people over to ICE, as the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) has implemented non-cooperation policies with ICE.

Chief of staff for MCSO Theodore Chisholm emailed Wisconsin Examiner that the jail, “does not hold anyone in custody solely due to an ICE detainer. We do not have information indicating that a municipal police department has attempted to transfer someone into our custody solely on an ICE detainer in the past year. If such an attempt were, hypothetically, to be made, our policy prevents the jail from holding an individual solely to the ICE detainer.”

Nevertheless, the Wauwatosa police chief’s comments, and lack of public follow-up, leaves the door open for possible ICE cooperation. “I think we need more transparency, generally speaking, not just in Tosa,” Kuhl told Wisconsin Examiner, “when it comes to police activities like that.” Neumann-Oritz praised Kuhl’s efforts, despite the controversy and split in opinion among Wauwautosa residents, some of whom felt her resolution would invite more crime. “This is a time when we need more of these resolutions,” Neumann-Ortiz said, “to reject racism, build community and promote safety.”

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets.