March 15 marked the beginning of Sunshine Week in Wisconsin. It’s that special time of year to celebrate the open records law in the Badger State, and its role in protecting government transparency and accountability. The ability to obtain internal records and documents from all facets of state government is crucial for journalists and the public to know what their elected representatives are doing.
Numerous reports by Wisconsin Examiner depend on our ability to request documents under the open records law. In November 2020, the Examiner reported on the private sector’s influence on COVID restrictions. A few days later, the Examiner published internal emails from the president of the Wauwatosa Peace Officers Association, which discussed increasing open records fees to keep documents out of the public eye.
In January records obtained by the Examiner showed the same police department had put its own mayor on a list of “high value targets” for communicating with protesters. That same month, the Examiner published a story using open records, which showed 15 state legislators asked former vice president Mike Pence to not certify the 2020 presidential election.
Anyone can file a records request for information from local and state government officials, from the police to a city purchasers office to the emails of mayors and governors. As strong as the law is, however, it’s no guarantee of public access to important information.
In 2020, Wisconsin Examiner filed numerous requests for police documents across the state, especially relating to the Black Lives Matter protests which sprang up after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. While some of the requests have been returned, either by documents being provided or a request being denied, many more appear locked in limbo. Below are two protest-related requests filed by Wisconsin Examiner which have yet to be fulfilled by their respective departments.
Filed: Sept. 14, 2020
Received: The same day, delayed due to high volume of records requests from various outlets.
Requesting: Documents related to officer Rusten Sheskey, whose shooting of Jacob Blake triggered days of unrest in Kenosha. Wisconsin Examiner also requested records which mention the Kenosha Guard, or any other armed militia group which mobilized against Black Lives Matter protesters. Records pertaining to the arrests and interrogations of specific protesters were also requested.
Last response received: March 11, 2021, apologizing for the delays and advising that searches will cost $85.00 per hour.
Filed: July 10, 2020
Requesting: Documents which would provide basic information about the Milwaukee PD’s Virtual Investigations Unit (VIU), including its structure and activities.
Last response received: Dec. 17, 2020. Open records officer states “we have no official Virtual Investigations Unit.” The officer added that, “we have a Fusion Division, that’s what we have. VIU is like a nick-name, I’m guessing, that those cops up there use.”
A unit by that name sent protesters handwritten tickets in the mail during the summer, and MPD’s press office confirmed that the VIU is part of the Fusion Division and has been in place since June 2018. “I can’t tell you why they put that on the citation, but we have no official VIU,” said the open records officer. “We have a fusion center.”
VIU is not mentioned in any MPD annual reports. However, the VIU was mentioned in local coverage of social media drug dealing during 2018. Individual officers who’ve been promoted are also noted as having served in VIU. Status of request remains at “processing,” since then.
In addition to these outstanding two requests, Wisconsin Examiner has several more requests pending with MPD, the Wauwatosa Police Department, U.S. Marshals Service, and others which are weeks or months old. Wisconsin Examiner continues to wait for these two particular requests to be fulfilled as soon as practical, and without delay, per Wisconsin open records law.