Wauwatosa protester list testimony wraps up

Police shed more light on process for tracking residents

By: - May 5, 2023 11:51 am
Protesters with The People's Revolution stand outside Wauwatosa City Hall. The words "long live the revolution" was chalked on the ground. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Protesters with The People’s Revolution stand outside Wauwatosa City Hall. The words “long live the revolution” was chalked on the ground. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Update:  A federal jury in the Eastern District of Wisconsin cleared Wauwatosa police officers after two hours of deliberation Friday in a lawsuit concerning the “protester list” they created in what plaintiffs’ attorneys called “an extraordinarily important case.”

The list compiled personal information including names, addresses, dates of birth, height, weight, eye color, social media accounts, vehicle information, and more on about 200 people. WPD states that the people were considered witnesses, victims, and suspects of potential criminal activity involving protests. 

The Wauwatosa Police Department (WPD) began tracking protesters during the summer of 2020, as people took to the streets to march against police brutality. The jury found that WPD crime analyst, Dominick Ratkowski, had not violated the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (DPPA) when he utilized Department of Transportation information to create the list. 

Ratkowski had also created Facebook and dating app profiles to monitor people on the list, which was shared with at least 34 people from other law enforcement agencies. The list was shared with law enforcement throughout southeastern Wisconsin as well as federal agencies including  the FBI. 

The jury also decided that WPD Lt. Joseph Roy had also not violated the DPPA when he released citations and other documents through an open records request. The release occurred in early January 2021, and included hundreds of pages of documents and hours of video from the department’s interactions with protesters in 2020. 

Ratkowski created the department’s “protester list” in early June of 2020, he testified on Thursday. On the stand in a federal trial brought by people on the list who say the department  violated their privacy rights, Ratkowski said he was told by high-ranking department staff to start identifying people who were regularly involved in Wauwatosa’s Black Lives Matter  protests after George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis, sparking demonstrations across the country. Ratkowski testified that he was not specifically told to make a list of protest participants, just to identify people. 

The list Ratkowski created documented detailed personal  information on about 200 people. They included many people who had protested, but also a Wisconsin Examiner journalist, elected officials, and attorneys. Kimberley Motley, one of the attorneys representing plaintiffs in this case, was placed on the list. Because the trial narrowly focuses on 40 specific plaintiffs, Motley has been barred from mentioning to the jury that she was also on the list.

Ratkowski and other WPD staff have testified that the list was a living document, which changed as time went on. On July 7, 2020, protesters who were holding a demonstration at a Cheesecake Factory restaurant near the scene of an officer-involved shooting at the Mayfair Mall were removed and  detained.

The role of the police in our society has been under a microscope since the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department in May 2020. Local Policing is an ongoing series analyzing the culture, tactics and actions of departments big and small across Wisconsin. If you have a story to share about your local police, reach out to reporters Isiah Holmes and Henry Redman at [email protected] and [email protected].

On Thursday, Ratkowski testified that the list, which he has  called both a “protester list” and a “target list,” grew longer after the Cheesecake Factory  protest. It added more names after  an Aug. 8 incident outside the home of former Wauwatosa police officer Joseph Mensah in which a protester fired a gun. No one was injured by the shot, and the crowd dispersed. In the following days, several protesters were arrested and questioned about the incident and three were charged. Ratkowski and other WPD staff in testimony have referred to the incident as an attempted homicide, although there have been  no homicide-related charges.

Three men were charged with battery to a law enforcement officer, harboring a felon, party to a crime, and second degree reckless endangering safety. One of the men had his charges later reduced to disorderly conduct, according to court records. Ratkowski testified that WPD did not have good quality video of this incident. Earlier in the trial, the judge advised the jury that the Aug. 8 incident did not involve any of the plaintiffs.

Ratkowski said the list grew longer after officers confronted protesters days after the Aug. 8 incident. There was also a protest outside the home of Wauwatosa Mayor Dennis McBride, where people were again added to the list. Neither of these incidents involved property destruction or violence. 

Ratkowski shared the list both with WPD detectives and to other law enforcement agencies. . He stated he only developed the list for identification purposes, and had  no way of knowing how law enforcement actually used the list. Ratkowski mentioned a protest in Greenfield in which a homeowner threatened protesters with a firearm. In that sense, the defense team argued, police using the list were acting out of  concern for the safety of the protesters themselves.

Throughout his testimony, Ratkowski referred to  the list as an “intelligence document,. In gathering information, Ratkowski accessed Department of Transportation (DOT) and motor vehicle records and added that information  to the list, including names, dates of birth, eye color, hair color, weight, driver’s license pictures, driver’s licenses card numbers, and more. By doing so, plaintiffs argue that Ratkwoski violated the Driver’s License Protection Act (DPPA), which protects the privacy of DOT records. The lawsuit also includes WPD Lt. Joseph Roy, who oversaw open records releases. Roy is accused of violating the DPPA by releasing hundreds of documents and hours of video, unredacted, to the public in early 2021.

Ratkowski stated  that mere association with the protests was enough to get on the list. Violence or criminal conduct was not a requirement to be added. At times, he identified people and added them to the list because they were tagged in social media posts about protests. He also testified earlier in the trial that he created fake Facebook and dating app profiles to further monitor people. During cross examination, the plaintiffs’ attorneys  asked Ratkowski whether he understood what a crime is. Crime analysts are not sworn law enforcement officers.

Ratkowski said, “I don’t know the exact legal definition but my understanding is an incident which violates the law.” Many protesters were given municipal, non-criminal citations for their involvement in the marches. These do not fit the definition of a crime under Wisconsin statute. “It was my understanding that if a citation was issued then they violated some law,” Ratkowski testified. He added that during his training, the DPPA was only mentioned on a single “slide,” and the training focused mainly on how to navigate police databases.

Targeting political activity

Part of Ratkowski’s Thursday testimony revolved around John Larry, who was formerly part of an ad hoc committee created to address race and equity issues in Wauwatosa. Several members of the committee were placed on the list, including Larry. On July 30, 2020, Ratkowski sent an email to former Chief Barry Weber the police  captains directly under him with more  information about Larry and other people involved in the committee. The judge only allowed Larry’s part of the email to be shown, as the other people  were not plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

“Just in case anyone needs proof that they are in The People’s Revolution,” Ratkowski said in the email, referencing a group of protesters that was active in 2020 and 2021. Ratkowski had gathered detailed information about Larry including pictures, his educational background, his social media and quotes from local news articles and other people’s social media posts.  He also specified who Larry’s wife was. “A detective asked me to identify people who were on that committee,” Ratkwoski testified. None of the staff who Ratkwoski sent this information to asked for the information, he testified. A  lengthy sidebar between attorneys for both sides in the lawsuit and the judge followed this testimony and carried over into the lunch break.

In her questioning, Motley attempted to break down how Ratkowski used and developed the protester list. After accessing police databases connected to the DOT, Ratkowski would copy and paste driver’s license pictures onto the document. He worked on the list two to three hours per day, for six months, he testified. “Juneish to November, about Novemberish,” he said. Ratkwoski frequently said he could not recall when he took certain actions. He said he “potentially” worked on the list every day.

Ratkowski also said he was asked to identify about 80 people who  signed a letter to the  Wauwatosa common council. The letter described grievances related to officer conduct at the Cheesecake Factory protests. 

The list itself does not contain any headers, except for one page labeled “Cole family +,” which included the names of  Tracy Cole — the mother of Alvin Cole, who’s killing by Mensah triggered the protests — as well as Tracy Cole’s daughters. Ratkowski said he never explained this notation to officers he shared the list with from other departments since it was his understanding that law enforcement understood who the Cole family was. Ratkwoski said during testimony that he believed that one of the Cole family members participated in a highway protest. However, when pressed, he said, “I can’t say with 100% certainty — 50/50.” 

Ratkowski stated that several law enforcement offices he shared the list with had not requested it specifically. He did say, however, that the FBI had requested the list. “I sent it to them on their request,” he testified. This directly contradicts a statement the FBI gave the Wisconsin Examiner. FBI public affairs officer Leonard Peace told the Examiner, “This information was shared with the FBI by WPD, not requested by the FBI, and any names checked by the FBI were checked for an authorized investigative purpose.” 

The defense team argued that the list was not a “target list,” despite an email Ratkowski sent in October 2020 using that term to describe the list. The defense also argued that the list was part of a planning process for Wauwatosa, so the city could prepare for protests. “I don’t use information,” said Ratkwoski, “I provide information.” Earlier in the trial Ratkowski described himself as a “funnel” for intelligence to detectives and other law enforcement. He said he intended to identify people in case an event became violent. He stated that he used DOT information to confirm data he’d seen through open sources, including Facebook.

Capt. Sean Wrucke, who was a lieutenant in the investigative division during the protests, said information sharing between local police departments is not uncommon, especially when department jurisdictions border one another, as do  Milwaukee and Wauwatosa. Wrucke said the list was used as a “reference guide” by detectives. On cross-examination, Wrucke said being on the list doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re under investigation. He said he never used the list himself and wasn’t involved in those investigations.

In his deposition, Wrucke said people on the list were associated with any form of protest. Right-wing protests attended by former Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke and others were not included on the list. Although WPD says the list included “witnesses, victims and suspects” of potential criminal activity involving protests, Wrucke said the same logic isn’t applied for other investigations. The WPD does not make lists of everyone in a neighborhood where there was a robbery, for example. Nor are there lists of people involved in clubs where criminal activity might, at some point, occur in the future. Wrucke said the summer of 2020 was an unusual time, involving upheaval that  Wauwatosa had never before experienced, and therefore they city had  never needed to make such a list in the past.

The jury was released early on Thursday. On Friday, both sides are set to deliver closing arguments and the jury will receive instructions before beginning its deliberations. 


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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets.