Black Lives Matter protesters gather and march to the Milwaukee City Hall during 2020. Many called for the removal of Milwaukee Police Chief Alfonso Morales. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
The demotion of Alfonso Morales from chief of the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) to captain has triggered a shake-up in leadership both in MPD and within the Fire and Police Commission (FPC), which called for his removal. Although some marked the demotion as a victory, others are concerned that his replacement by former assistant chief Michael Brunson, doesn’t represent progress.
“We do not plan to support him or allow him to remain,” activist and co-founder of Milwaukee’s Community Task Force Vaun Mayes told Wisconsin Examiner. “That entire Morales staff will need to go.” Mayes says. “He’s been a puppet for Morales, so his leadership is questionable as well. Not to mention he was involved or [supervised] other problematic officers and groups within the department that have been high profile.”
Brunson has been asked publicly to address police accountability, and whether he’s ever stood up to the “blue wall of silence.” He recalled being a sergeant in District 7, and having to deal with officers he described as “heavy-handed.” One of those officers was later involved in the beating of Frank Jude at an off-duty party, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports.
“I held the line as far as not putting up with that type of conduct,” said Brunson. “I was ostracized as a supervisor because I took a stand and I said excessive force will not be tolerated as long as I’m working here.” More recently, amidst calls to change police culture and demilitarize law enforcement, Brunson described the police as a “quasi-military” type of organization during meetings with city officials regarding the tear gassing of protesters.
After Morales was removed from power, Brunson offered a sympathetic statement. “I want to thank Alfonso Morales for his nearly 27 years of service and dedication to the City of Milwaukee,” he said in a statement on August 6. “I look forward to continuing to serve the residents of this city and have great respect for all of the men and women of the Milwaukee Police Department.”
Morales served as chief for over two years — succeeding former MPD Chief Ed Flynn — until his removal the evening of August 6. Morales’ demotion stemmed partly from one of the directives he was issued by the FPC on July 20. Specifically, it resulted from an investigation into the use of tear gas against protesters in the early days of Milwaukee’s George Floyd-inspired marches.
The FPC decision drew mixed reactions throughout the city. While some residents cheered the demotion as retribution for tear gassing marchers, others in city government weren’t so sure. Mayor Tom Barrett said the board’s action, “was not good government,” and lacked transparency. Barrett also noted that he wrote the FPC asking that the commissioners explore new leadership, and that they review the directives issued to the former chief.
“I think that that is an important part of this equation. And I’m very upset that the commission did not follow through on the process, on the very process that it set out,” said the mayor. “Chief Morales should have had an opportunity to respond. At the same time, I understand some of the frustration because rather than responding to the directives, he spent two weeks on a (public relations) campaign and clearly that angered the commissioners as well.”
Barrett declared that the public needs both a Fire and Police Commission and a police department that it can respect and trust. Minutes after the Morales decision, FPC Chairman Steven DeVougas was removed from his position for unrelated ethical violations.
“He got what he put in,” said Mayes. “I applaud the commission for doing what they did. They returned him where they got him from. Nothing worse than going from owning the store to being put back on the register.”
Other community groups saw the Morales demotion as an opportunity for Milwaukee. A joint press statement issued by Voces de la Frontera, the Hmong American Women’s Association, and Leaders Igniting Transformation (LIT) called it, “a positive step in providing the desperately needed accountability over the Milwaukee Police Department.”
But there is more work to be done, activists say. “The organizations signed on to this letter understand that the demotion of Morales is simply not enough to fix the deep, structural problems with policing that plague our communities.” The three groups issued a list of five demands including a $75 million divestment from MPD to be reinvested in building healthy communities, prioritizing community input in filling the remaining seats on the FPC, immediately firing Officer Michael Mattioli for the death of Joel Acevedo, the release of the video from the incident, and ensuring the recommendations of the Community Collaborative Committee are heeded by the FPC and common council.
A police narrative of violence at protests
On Aug. 4, then-Assistant Chief Brunson and then-Chief Morales appeared in a 21-minute video created by MPD in which the department explained its use of tear gas. “A peaceful civil disturbance does not exist,” said Morales after quoting the FPC directive’s use of the phrase. Morales goes on to point out that “civil disturbances” are defined by MPD’s Standard Operating Procedures for those incidents, “which was approved by the [FPC] on March 5,” he noted.
A civil disturbance is defined by that SOP as “an unlawful assembly that constitutes a breach of the peace or any assembly of persons where there is potential of imminent danger of collective violence, destruction of property, or other unlawful acts.”
Morales said in the video, “over the past several months there have been at least 100 protests that have occurred within the City of Milwaukee. There have been six incidences when members of the Milwaukee Police Department have had to use a chemical agent such as oleoresin capsicum spray [pepper spray] to disperse unruly crowds.” Brunson, who oversaw the patrol bureau, then took over to discuss each incident.
Brunson referenced the clashes with police and looting which occurred the evening of May 29, the first day of the marches. As video of the incidents rolled, Brunson described reckless driving and impeded traffic, as well as bricks, water bottles and fireworks which Brunson said were thrown at officers. “Citizens continued with their riotous behavior,” said Brunson, “multiple shots were fired, businesses were being looted in that immediate area.” The then-assistant chief noted that officers gave people who wanted to leave time to do so before pepper spray and gas were used.
“Citizen injuries reported to police that night was none,” he continued. “We don’t have any citizen, that we know of, that has come forward to report that they were injured as a result of the behaviors from that night. Or of police action from that night. As far as police officers, we have an officer that was shot that night in the foot as he was trying to address the traffic that was clogging up Locust Street. … We also had an officer who was treated for a concussion when he was struck in the head by a piece of concrete.”
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Residents who were there during the May 29 clashes, however, described protesters who were injured by the use of gas and projectiles by MPD.
Brunson went on to describe several other incidents where chemical irritants and other tactics were used by MPD. One incident occurred on June 23, when a crowd of residents gathered around a suspected human trafficking house, which was burned later that day. Citizens had arrived after what Brunson described as “a citizen-initiated investigation” into two missing young girls. The girls were located by police at another residence, and said they’d never been to the house that was burned. Officers were reported injured that day as well.
“The Milwaukee Police Department has absolutely no problem with peaceful protesters,” said Brunson. “And we do not use chemical irritants towards peaceful protesters. We want people to exercise their rights, but we want them to do it within the confines of the law.” Brunson asked that residents, “protest peacefully, follow the law and we encourage you as citizens of this city to be safe.”
Although the demotion was marked as a major victory by many of the marchers, they feel more work needs to be done. Milwaukee’s marches have gone on for over 60 days, with a 200-day goal set by at least one faction of the movement. Morales’ lawyer has also noted that the former chief has the ability to take legal action following the FPC decision. Meanwhile, Brunson will sit in the chief’s chair.
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