Tosa police chief decision raises concerns from community members

By: - July 2, 2021 5:18 pm
auwatosa police squad. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

auwatosa police squad. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Wauwatosa’s Police and Fire Commission (PFC) has chosen Milwaukee PD Captain James MacGillis to become the city’s next police chief. MacGillis, who grew up in Wauwatosa, was among three finalists from the Milwaukee Police Department, including the current acting chief Jeffery Norman. While the PFC nearly unanimously voted for MacGillis, some fear that the decision will not move Wauwatosa PD on from its history of racial profiling, overt racism, and aggressive policing tactics.

Capt. James MacGillis (Photo | City of Wauwatosa)
Capt. James MacGillis (Photo | City of Wauwatosa)

PFC President Dominick Leone, who was the only commission member who didn’t vote for MacGillis, praised the decision. “The Police and Fire Commission is confident that James McGillis will do an outstanding job as police chief, working with police department members, city officials, and community members to find innovative solutions to problems and improving police services for the City of Wauwatosa.” Leone voted for Norman, who was the only Black candidate to make it to the final selection. Another MPD captain, David Salazar, was the third finalist. “I want to thank the other volunteer commission members and members of the community who participated in several steps of the hiring process.”

The PFC issued public surveys to gauge what members of the public wanted to see in a new police chief. Questions were also submitted to the commission to ask the candidates during a public forum, though those questions were vetted and chosen by city administration. Over the last year, attention grew on the Wauwatosa Police Department’s history and reputation. Under former Chief Barry Weber, who held the rank for 31 years, the department gained a reputation for racial profiling and discrimination.

When Weber became chief in 1990, several officers were under investigation for holding Martin Luther King Day parties featuring Black-face, name tags with stereotypical names, and fliers advertising Black people as a replacement animal for hunting. Weber promoted one of the officers who held one of the parties at his own home to lieutenant, and spent the following years dismissing racism within the department, even as reports of profiling during traffic stops and other interactions continued.

In 2020 protests focused on former officer Joseph Mensah, who killed three young Black men over five years at WPD. During the months of protests, the department continued to use heavy handed tactics against marchers. Eventually, it was discovered through open records requests that members of the department had explored ways to target elected officials for their perceived support of Black Lives Matter protests. Again, Weber was dismissive of community complaints against the police.

Because of that history, many expressed disappointment at the PFC’s decision. John Larry, the former chairman of the now dissolved Wauwatosa Government Affairs ad-hoc committee, was dismayed that the all-white commission of a historically segregated town chose the only white candidate among the finalists for the job of police chief. “Wauwatosa has not had the best history of how they engage and treat Black and brown people,” Larry told TMJ4. “What has to change is a total rebuilding, reconstructing of the police department.”

Wauwatosa Mayor Dennis McBride has stated that it is his  goal to put more people of color in positions of power in the city. On social media Larry wrote, “hiring a Black superintendent, a black high school principal, and a couple of Black police officers does not erase the racist history of Tosa, nor does it mean that Black and Brown people will no longer be racially profiled or mistreated by Tosa police officers.”

Members of the PFC pointed to stakeholders and business owners as among the voices they heeded in making the hiring decision. Their comments focused mainly around “enforcing the law” and addressing crime rates, rather than police reform, or moving the department beyond Wauwatosa’s troubled history.

MacGillis said in a statement, “”I am humbled and proud to have been selected to lead the Wauwatosa Police Department. There are several opportunities to build police and community trust while keeping all citizens safe at the forefront of what we do as a profession and agency. I look forward to embracing both challenges and opportunities and working with internal and community stakeholders to keep Wauwatosa a safe and vibrant community for all.”

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, his writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, and other outlets.