Brieon Green’s family unsatisfied with video, transparency of Milwaukee sheriff
Activists push for more openness after jail deaths
A Milwaukee County Sheriff vehicle parked below a bridge being crossed by protesters. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Calls for more transparent policies and the release of video after officer-involved deaths grew louder after a group of activists and the family of Brieon Green, who died in the custody at the Milwaukee County jail, met with the Milwaukee County sheriff last week.
Following the death of 21-year-old Brieon Green at the Milwaukee County Jail in June, activists with the Milwaukee Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression began pushing for “24-48,” or a policy of releasing the names of involved officers within 24 hours of a police-involved killing and video within 48 hours. Green was arrested by Milwaukee County Sheriff deputies at Bradford Beach on misdemeanor disorderly conduct charges, resisting arrest, three counts of bail jumping, and carrying a concealed weapon. Green died shortly after arriving at the county jail in what his family has condemned as a preventable suicide. Green’s family members repeatedly objected that they had not been given access to video following the incident.
Last week, video showing Green being taken into custody was released to media and to his family’s attorney. Wisconsin Examiner received the video and investigative reports from the Waukesha County Sheriff, which is investigating Green’s death, through an open records request. While video was released showing Green in the back seat of a sheriff’s vehicle, video from inside the jail was withheld. “The video recordings are part of the investigations and reveal information about the jail’s physical layout, doors, entrances, staffing practices and security features,” a letter from Waukesha County explains. “Inmates are shown in the recordings. The right to inspect or copy a record does not apply to records that, if disclosed, would endanger the security of the jail, including its population or staff.”
The video that was released had numerous glitches, including pixelation and freezing. A running dash camera clock at the top right corner frequently paused in the video and then jumped ahead in time. The glitches disturbed attorney B’iVory LaMarr, who is representing Green’s family. LaMarr also expressed disappointment that the video of Green’s death inside the jail, which the family was able to view privately in December, has not been publicly released. “Here we are seven months later, and we’re requesting for the same footage that this family observed back in December of last year to be released publicly,” said Lamar. Now, even after certain video and investigative reports have been released, Lamar adds “the most material aspect of what transpired” is still being withheld.
That footage shown privately to Green’s family in December reportedly shows Green strangling himself with a phone cord as a correctional officer or deputy walks by. This pass-through is known as a cell check. The procedure has created another source of tension in the case. “We want that footage to be released immediately,” said LaMarr. “His family deserves it, the community deserves it, and for the sake of us all and in protection of all the inmates and citizens, or residents, of this state, you are entitled to that.”
LaMarr noted that in the released reports, deputies stated that Green was seen hitting his head on the window. The attorney points to this as a sign that Green was clearly in a disturbed state. Green also complained to sheriff’s deputies that one of his handcuffs was too tight. It’s unclear if Green, who had been a special needs student, underwent a proper mental health assessment while in booking and intake. The video released to LaMarr had the same pixelation and time skip issues that the Examiner’s copy had.
“We have issues with that video that was released,” said LaMarr during a Thursday press conference. “Particularly there are certain parts of the video that are stopped, and the timestamps are off at particular points,” said LaMarr. “Now we don’t know if that’s a glitch. We don’t really know what to make of that. But there are several points in intervals of seven seconds, 10 seconds, in another part there’s almost a 15-second gap, where this family is not able to see exactly what took place during that patrol ride.”
Lt. Nicholas Wenzel of the Waukesha County Sheriff’s Department told the Examiner that he checked with detectives to find out about the quality of the video they received from the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office. “The open records department confirmed the copy they had did not have any issues. The video does have issues with the color and some distortion/pixelation on the upper left of the screen that appears to be from the camera lens or divider in the back of the squad car, but nothing that is impairing the ability to watch the video.”
On Jan. 19, the alliance and members of Green’s family met with Milwaukee County Sheriff Danita Ball in a private meeting. During the meeting, Ball stated she supports transparency and wants to accommodate the family’s needs. However, Ball stated that certain footage won’t be released because of ongoing investigations. Although Waukesha County has completed its investigation, the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office is conducting its own internal reviews. Ball told the alliance that once the review is done, there will be a “finding” which determines whether any policies were violated. If so, then a subsequent internal investigation will be initiated by the sheriff’s office.
Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm has indicated that criminal charges are unlikely. Procedural violations, however, would only be uncovered through the sheriff’s own review. Ball also appeared reluctant to go into detail about what the cell check policy and procedures exactly are. However, she stated the policy could be obtained through an open records request. Cells are checked by jail staff every 15 minutes, Ball told the alliance. Ball wouldn’t discuss those procedures in depth since they are part of ongoing investigations into Green’s death. Ball noted that health care for jail residents is outsourced to a private company called Wellpath.
Omar Flores, finance chair for the Milwaukee Alliance told Wisconsin Examiner that he felt that the meeting could have been more productive. “It feels like there were a lot of excuses, disproven ones at that, as to why the department cannot be more transparent,” Flores said. “Ball consistently repeated that her office is prioritizing transparency, but with no deadlines and no changes since she’s taken office, I find that hard to believe. With another death in the jail since we met up with her. Ball also refused to answer some of our questions, which we do not feel is in the vein of transparency.”
Language that allowed police chiefs to delay video releases was removed under a proposed policy revision. However, family members or next-of-kin to the person who died are now able to request that video be withheld, redacted, or edited. The policy also states that video must be released within 15 days of the incident. Within 48 hours, the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) must make “reasonable attempts” to notify loved ones and provide an opportunity for them to view video footage. The FPC scheduled a special meeting in February to further discuss and vote on the policy changes.
Activists with the Milwaukee Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression expressed mixed feelings during the commission’s public meeting. “I notice there’s still a lot of exceptions for police to be able to take … in terms of being able to extend the timeline,” said Flores during the meeting’s public comment portion. “I think that these things are very concerning. And I would argue that a lot of these things actually defeat the purpose of having such a policy. What we’re trying to get out of this policy is a guarantee that the footage will be released to the public in a timely manner.” Flores argued that “the police, no matter what, are always going to find some kind of excuse as to why they can’t release the footage. And that section specifically will be abused so they don’t have to release it on time.”
Several other alliance members spoke as well, saying the 15-day deadline is too long. FPC members also questioned whether there were any Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) which would preclude the commission from adopting more open video release policies. Some of those questions will likely be addressed during the February meeting. In the meantime, the current policy draft allowing the family to see video within 48 hours echoes demands the alliance has made since last summer.
During the private meeting with Ball, the sheriff indicated her office would publish its procedures online, and make jail tours more accessible. “Until we hear from her on progress, and a deadline for these things happening, I remain skeptical that these things will be done,” Flores told the Examiner.
“Due to an ongoing internal review, we cannot comment on the circumstances around Brieon Green’s death,” Ball said in a statement to Wisconsin Examiner. “However, as I told Mr. Green’s family when I met with them last week to hear their concerns and share my condolences, the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office is committed to transparency, care for our jail occupants, and improving our relationship with the community we serve.”
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