Policing Wauwatosa after Chief Barry Weber
Wauwatosa Police Chief Barry Weber. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Some people were surprised when Barry Weber announced on Feb. 1 that he is retiring as chief of the Wauwatosa Police Department (WPD) in June. After holding the post for more than 30 years, Weber’s departure confronts residents with the prospect of envisioning life in the post-Weber era, particularly as the police department and community work to recover from a troubled history of discrimination.
Several significant developments occurred in the weeks preceding Weber’s announcement. Documents Wisconsin Examiner obtained via an open records requests revealed that units within the WPD had compiled a list of protesters they were tracking during the early days of Black Lives Matter protests in the community, and put Mayor Dennis McBride on a list of high value targets related to police accountability protests in the area.
The same day Weber announced his retirement, Wisconsin Examiner published another piece concerning internal police documents. In the days prior, Weber had also written a letter of recommendation to the Waukesha County Sheriff’s office, helping land former officer Joseph Mensah — who shot and killed three people of color while on duty — a new gig.
McBride, however, does not believe that those controversies led Weber to retire. Rather, he says, conversations about Weber’s retirement had been in the works already. “We had been discussing Chief Weber’s desire for retirement for many months,” McBride tells Wisconsin Examiner. “He is 66 years old and has been working for 48 years. He decided it was a good time to retire.”
Search for a new police chief
Wauwatosa’s Police and Fire Commission (PFC) is taking the lead in selecting a new chief. McBride explained that the PFC, “has hired an executive search firm to conduct a national search for candidates of all races, genders and points of view. It will obtain public input in a variety of ways.”
He expressed confidence that the PFC will, “select a chief of vision and talent who is a good communicator, works well with elected officials, is conversant with the latest policing standards and initiatives and understands that the WPD serves both Wauwatosa and the broader Milwaukee community, which are becoming ever more diverse.”
For decades, Wauwatosa’s relationship with communities in the city of Milwaukee has been strained. Through the 1950s, Wauwatosa enforced restrictive zoning policies and housing covenants barring Black people from owning homes and walling off the suburb. In 1990, Weber arrived from Fort Dodge, Iowa, to assume the chief’s seat at WPD.
When Weber arrived, the department was in the middle of investigations into racist Martin Luther King Day parties held by WPD officers in the late-1980s. Under Weber, one of the officers being investigated, John Bozicevich, was promoted to acting-lieutenant. The supervisor he was replacing had also participated in the parties, which were hosted at Bozicevich’s house. Despite these reports, Weber discounted notions that Wauwatosa officers harbored racist ideas.
Kimberley Motley, an attorney who represented the families of people killed by Mensah, has also been digging into the Martin Luther King Day parties. She says Weber’s retirement announcement came the same day she finally received information regarding the parties.
“I find it remarkable that the chief retired the same day that we finally received information regarding the Martin Luther King Day parties, based on our open records request and after we sued them in court,” Motley says. “We now know that Chief Weber promoted Lieutenant Bozicevich while he was still under investigation for the Martin Luther King parties, immediately after he became chief in May 1990.”
Separate from the parties, the department has had a reputation for profiling minority residents. Recent years, however, have also seen WPD hire more diverse officers. This trend continued with their most recent hires, which earned a mention during one of the city’s recent Equity and Inclusion Commission meetings. WPD took on four new officers, two of them are people of color. The department, and other city employees, have also undergone recent implicit bias training, according to McBride.
Motley argues that a federal civil rights probe is required to truly get to the bottom of what was happening under Weber. “There’s a lot that needs to be unlearned in the Wauwatosa Police Department after Weber,” says Motley.
In an appearance on Wisconsin Public Radio, McBride confessed that, “the Wauwatosa I grew up in was a racist, almost totally white community.” But McBride argues that today’s Wauwatosa has changed. “[It] is not a racist community. Wauwatosa is a welcoming community.”
Ald. Mike Morgan echoed the mayor’s perception. “Wauwatosa is an excellent city for anyone, including minorities, to live and work,” he said. “We’ve worked hard to move ahead from a negatively racialized history, much like the rest of our country. We have more minority residents than most Milwaukee suburbs and formed a citizens Equity and Inclusion Committee with input from Tosa Together and others. The city is in the process of making many positive changes, including the hiring of more minority employees, contractors and vendors, which I strongly support.” Morgan expressed disappointment at, “the way Wauwatosa is often negatively misrepresented regarding these issues.”
But Wauwatosa’s experiences of heightened racial tension over the past year call into question these officials rosy description. Residents made racialized comments during a public listening session last summer, and racist letters were distributed in the community during those same months stating, “we must keep Wauwatosa free from Blacks and their lack of morals.”
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The Wauwatosa Police Department told Wisconsin Examiner it was not going to investigate the letters because they didn’t rise to a criminal level. Meanwhile, Black Lives Matter protesters in the area were regularly subjected to surveillance and aggressive tactics by WPD. McBride’s designation as a ‘higher value target,’ according to WPD’s own documents, stemmed from his willingness to communicate with the protesters.
Cheryl Juech, a member of the PerSisters, found these actions under Weber’s reign deeply disturbing. Juech says she felt “relief” when she first heard of Weber’s retirement. “We need new leadership in the Wauwatosa Police Department is an understatement,” she tells Wisconsin Examiner. “Coupled with the relief was concern about what the process will be to elect a new chief. And how much of the community concern, and recent and past history, will be taken into consideration as that process commences.”
Juech added that she is concerned about the list of protesters created by WPD investigators last summer. “Since many of us were part of many protests this summer. I speak for myself primarily, and for PerSisters in general, in saying that I am really very eager to know if I am on that list.”
Recognize what is
Juech feels that moving forward after Weber means being honest about the issues facing Wauwatosa. “There are various forces and influences operating events to define where we are right now,” she says. “Yes, there’s both a historical context and recent experiences between citizens and the police. Yet no clear, ‘well this is where we’re at.’”
McBride highlights the many changes since 2020 that have occurred in the city. Mensah resigned, and the city implemented body camera program for officers. The city formed an Equity and Inclusion Commission, and took other measures to diversify Wauwatosa city staff and government. Currently, there are no people of color among the Common Council members.
John Larry, who served as chair of Wauwatosa’s ad hoc committee on racial and systemic issues, wonders if anything will change after Weber. “Where does Tosa go from here?” Larry asks. “I think the 6% of the Black taxpayers, homeowners and residents of Tosa can probably speak better to that more than the 87% of white taxpayers, homeowners and residents. We just need to have a true community take place.”
It all goes back to the vision of creating a department that will protect and serve all residents equally. Larry wonders whether the city government, dominated by white voices, will drown out the perspectives of people of color.
On Jan. 26, the ad hoc committee was dissolved following a Government Affairs Committee meeting. Larry was informed by one of the alders after the decision had been made. However, Larry believes members of the ad hoc committee will be folded into the Equity and Inclusion Commission.
Both groups trying to address equity in policing found themselves at the other end of attacks by Weber and police union officials in past months. Equity and Inclusion Commission Chair Sean Lowe and Larry were both singled out at different points in statements by Weber and others.
A new Tosa chief
Motley says that it would be wise for Wauwatosa to hire a chief with specific qualities to move the police department away from the Weber era.
“There has been a lot of corruption that, frankly, has been uncovered through open records requests. So, I think until that information is evaluated and taken seriously by the elected officials of Wauwatosa, they will be in a better position, and a more informed position, to decide on what type of chief they need to clean up Chief Weber’s disastrous mess that he’s made of the Wauwatosa Police Department.”
Tosa Together, one of several local groups that has advocated for equity-based reforms for the community released a statement defining several qualities it would seek in a new chief: “Police Chief Weber has overseen a department that has been involved in a culture of policing that is unacceptable for the city of Wauwatosa. The WPD is long overdue for leadership that exemplifies the type of department that serves and protects ALL people.”
The group believes a new chief should work to build relationships among the ever more diverse community, limit use of force and allow for community oversight of the department. A new leader would also provide adequate third-party training to elevate WPD’s practices and hold officers accountable for misconduct. Finally, watchdog groups hope for a chief who will not harass and surveil peaceful protesters.
The PerSisters support the recommendations put out by Tosa Together, adding that that WPD’s mission statement needs to change to focus less on criminality and more on community. Furthermore, the organization is calling for term limits on police chiefs, to prevent another decades-long reign, like Weber’s 30 years.
“All city departments are working on justice and equity issues,” said McBride. “Change takes time: Proposals must be brought forward, reviewed by staff, discussed in committee and voted on by the full Council. Patience will be required to achieve our goals. In these difficult times, patience is understandably in short supply, but the work continues.”
Motley stresses that the city doesn’t have to wait for Weber to officially leave on June 1. “You can have an interim chief,” she says. “What you [the city] should do is use this as an opportunity to really do a deep dive into the Wauwatosa Police Department and the failures that Chief Weber has perpetuated over the years. Clean it up, and get the right leader in there.”
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