The 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
As the July 13 – 16 Democratic National Convention (DNC) nears, Milwaukee has become a focal point for law enforcement funding and resources. As the city awaits a response from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) next month on whether it will be awarded a $50 million federal grant to help with policing and security at the DNC, it is unclear exactly how the grant money would be used.
What’s known is the money can cover such things as overtime expenses and insurance, and can also be used to purchase police equipment and vehicles for the event. Wisconsin Examiner has also learned that any equipment purchased may remain in Milwaukee after the convention leaves town.
“The grant-funded spending for the presidential nominating conventions are related to law enforcement activities,” Kara McCarthy, a spokeswoman for the U.S. DOJ, told Wisconsin Examiner. “New vehicles and surveillance equipment, if used to support law enforcement activities, would be allowable expenses.” Equipment purchased through the grant, “can be retained by the city after the event is over,” McCarthy said. The MPD press office also confirmed the grant would cover costs including “bringing in outside law enforcement agencies and purchasing new equipment.”
Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) says the importance of the convention shouldn’t be lost on anyone. “It’s six days to make a 60-year impact,” he told Wisconsin Examiner. “I think it’s an opportunity to elevate what stays in the neighborhood.”
While Goyke acknowledges Milwaukee’s need to adapt to the unique law enforcement requirements posed by the DNC, he feels the city has a greater need. “What stays in Milwaukee should be an uplifting thing for the community, and not just more equipment or technology.”
Although security for the convention is being hashed out by Secret Service representatives and Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) Chief Alfonso Morales, other city officials say they aren’t so well informed.
“The Secret Service has virtually complete discretion on security matters,” Ald. Robert Bauman told Wisconsin Examiner. “We, the council, are completely out of the loop. We are not consulted nor briefed so even if I did have concerns, there is nothing I could do about it. There will be no public hearings or voting on any of these issues.”
The grant, awarded by the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) grant program, has aided city hosts of both party conventions for approximately 16 years. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said in January that the grant would “provide a safe and secure environment for Milwaukee residents, all DNC participants, delegates, news media, protesters, service providers and the general public.”
Activists watch downpour of police dollars
The DOJ grant joins other potential multi million-dollar grants under consideration or already allocated, both on the federal and state levels.
Milwaukee is already receiving funds from Operation Relentless Pursuit, a federal effort to combat violent crime. The government will initially allocate $71 million to begin the operation across seven U.S. cities. Additional law enforcement funding may come from bills introduced by legislative Republicans’ ‘tougher on crime’ initiative, including $5 million in grants to combat carjackings. Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) said the carjacking grants could also be used for additional manpower and equipment for police.
This accumulation of law enforcement funding raining down on Milwaukee has local activists concerned. “People should be concerned about how much we are already spending on law enforcement in Milwaukee,” says local anti-mass incarceration activist Alan Schultz.
“About 47% of the city budget already goes to police and that’s been against what the community has been asking for.” With MPD currently dealing with the fallout from its stop and frisk practices, Schultz feels adding another $50 million to the machine could eventually backfire for the city and residents — “as well as leave a whole host of militarized toys gifted to the Milwaukee Police Department,” Schultz added.
Community activist Vaun Mayes agrees, “it’s lawsuits and excessive force waiting to happen.” Mayes questions the moves to inflate law enforcement in the city. “All this for the ‘protection’ of the downtown, meanwhile if the rest of the city had that much to invest in the issues in the city seriously, they wouldn’t need it to spend on perceived threats to wealthy visitors,” says Mayes. “I’m absolutely concerned with the department using their new toys to target and intimidate residents and community leadership, mainly because they’ve done it consistently already.”
Barrett and Morales stressed that the ways the grant is used would be transparent. “It can’t be someone’s dream list of what they want to have,” the mayor said, according to an Urban Milwaukee report.
Mike Katz-Lacabe, a California-based privacy expert, is concerned about the lack of a privacy impact assessment for surveillance equipment, and the lack of input from any local elected body to “discuss and implement policies to control and oversee use of the technology.”
Katz-Lacabe has investigated the use of StingRay, or cell-site simulator technology, by police in several cities. The devices access phone data, including location and messages, by mimicking cell towers. They can be used for a variety of investigations, including monitoring large-scale events and protests.
Through a slew of Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) Requests he filed in Milwaukee Katz-Lacabe obtained logs documenting StingRay use by MPD. One of the entries in the log overlapped with a case in which the department wouldn’t reveal to a judge how it had located a suspect until open records showed the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the ACLU of Wisconsin, which filed an amicus brief in the case, proved use of a Stingray. Katz-Lacabe’s requests also recovered a federal non-disclosure agreement which mandated the device remain a department secret.
For the DNC, Katz-Lacabe fears that “we will never know how that surveillance equipment was used, whether it was effective or whether it adequately balanced the right to privacy and the impacts of that surveillance.” He warns that “the surveillance equipment purchased for a one-time event remains in place long after the ‘need’ for it has gone. It will likely be purchased and deployed without any input or public discussion by the people who will be most impacted by it,” he told Wisconsin Examiner. “Or their elected representatives.”
Jarrett English, a local community organizer, stresses the importance of the city closely monitoring how the grant money is spent. “It’s absolutely imperative that the FPC (Fire and Police Commission), Common Council and eventual new city comptroller have detailed, incredibly strict auditing of the financial expenditures, patterns and practices of the police department as these programs are ongoing and do absolutely everything possible to wind down the temporary surveillance state that will be conducted for the event.”
Tracking the DNC grant use
U.S. DOJ’s McCarthy emphasizes that there are safeguards, written within the grant, to track how it’s used. “All grant purchases are reviewed and approved by BJA to ensure they are related to the goals of the grant program,” says McCarthy. “The convention grants receive a high level of oversight from BJA and are monitored by the Office of Justice Programs directly.”
Milwaukee City Budget Director Dennis Yaccarino said in January that a federal audit would have to be done if the city sought to keep anything purchased through the grant.
“My understanding of the audit would be the assurance the item was in the budget, that the purchasing rules were followed in the acquisition and the appropriate inventory controls are in place,” he told Wisconsin Examiner.
Goyke doesn’t necessarily disapprove of grant purchases by police being allowed to remain in the city, but he adds a major caveat. “So long as it makes us a better, more welcoming community,” said Goyke, “And that residents are not further targets of enhanced, saturated policing.”
After President Donald Trump’s Milwaukee visit last month, Morales said police activity at the event “was a good snippet of what will happen this summer.” Officers clad in riot gear monitored the event, along with others on horseback and on foot. Legal observers from the ACLU noted that police appeared to be practicing formations which would be used during the DNC.
Learning from past conventions
The last city to host the DNC was Philadelphia in 2016. “Quite often,” explained Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director of Pennsylvania’s ACLU, “the local police and local authorities, they think they have to do anything the feds tell them to do.”
But, she adds, “it doesn’t have to be that way.” It’s a point of tension between the two levels of law enforcement, especially when participation in federal endeavors end in controversy, damaged community trust or lawsuits for local police, she said.
Schultz, who attended Philadelphia’s convention, was taken aback by the law enforcement presence he witnessed. “There were police up and down Broad Street for the entirety of the convention,” he told Wisconsin Examiner. “As for North Philly down to South Philly and FDR Park outside where the convention was being held there was an ever present militarized police presence. I recall an undercover officer being outed in a Black Lives Matter and Black Revolutionary led ‘March Against the DNC’ and chased from hiding among the protesters.”
Milwaukee and Pennsylvania’s conventions aren’t perfect parallels. For one, the 2020 DNC will be held in Fiserv Forum, in a highly populated area of Milwaukee. The 2016 convention was in a privately operated arena. Roper says the ACLU was prepared for authorities to bring out, “all the toys” encountered during political events of years past. Although it didn’t quite turn out that way, “we know they have those capabilities,” she said.
Roper noted that how police deploy their resources can depend on the temperament of their leadership. Different chiefs or sheriffs may have different ideologies, and encourage officers to operate accordingly. In Pennsylvania, newly elected city officials were less keen on militarizing large events than their predecessors. “If we had a downtown convention, I know that they would’ve worked to have smaller footprint,” said Roper, “and I think they probably would have thought of the technology as the alternative to that.”
Nevertheless, Schultz is concerned about how the police presence at the convention in Milwaukee will manifest itself. “We are headed towards having the same or even a far greater militarized police presence in Milwaukee for this DNC convention, in a geographically constricted region, in an already over-policed environment. We should expect that any discontent of protesters will be crushed with extreme prejudice during the event.”
Roper urges the city of Milwaukee not to view the DNC, and the hundreds of people it will attract, as an invasion. “You could instead view it as an opportunity to model democracy,” she told Wisconsin Examiner. “The folks of Milwaukee should be thinking how they want to experience it, and how the rest of the country is going to view them, after this convention.”
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